We got into the mind of Lindiwe Sangweni-Siddo, Chief Operating Officer at City Lodge Hotel Group. Is remote work here to stay as digital nomads, bleisure and virtual events become more commonplace? Here’s what we learnt from City Lodge Hotel Group.
The pandemic served as a temporary kill shot to the business travel industry. How will the corporate travel landscape evolve in a world of digital nomads, bleisure, virtual events and remote work?
For as long as lockdown restrictions are in place, with the majority of corporates working from home, we are not likely to see an immediate comeback of corporate guests to our hotels. The rollout of the vaccine is an important milestone, as it will begin to address the required population (or herd) immunity, and therefore determine the relaxation on restrictions that make travel and trading a challenge.
Once the economy recovers, probably in the third quarter of the year, we anticipate the return of the corporate traveller. We must bear in mind that many corporates and businesses have had to downscale, undergo retrenchments, and cut down on costs such as travel and accommodation. Local and domestic leisure has shown to be promising, given that cabin fever had led to mum and dad packing the gang and taking a sho’t left to a nearby local or inter-provincial destination. Working parents can continue to work virtually for as long as there is WiFi available. Weekend leisure business has also been on the rise.
There is no doubt that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is firmly upon us, and therefore the evolution of events is already taking place with hybrid events and conferences taking place. With limitations on the number of people gathering, IT platforms that enable the participants to log on for webinars, events, meetings and so on become all the more important, and therefore connectivity must be stable and reliable.
Compared to February 2019, what has the last 12 months been like for CLHG?
There is no doubt the pandemic turned the hospitality industry upside down. We saw occupancies and revenues decline sharply. We had to close hotels and only reopened a handful where we initially accommodated repatriated South African guests who had returned from other countries, guests waiting for international flights to return to their home countries abroad, as well as guests who travelled for essential business. We implemented Covid-19 rates, which are lower compared to rates in 2019. Our business model relied heavily on business travel. The latter part of 2020 saw us making inroads in attracting more leisure travel. With leisure travel increasing, we offer WKND special rates as well as other leisure-related activities, such as Valentine’s Day specials.
Are you confident business travel will return to its pre-pandemic levels? How long do you think it will take?
It will take some time before we return to pre-pandemic levels given that the entire world is focused on the vaccine rollout in order for international travel to reopen. Our forecasts are for improved occupancy levels in the third quarter of 2021, for as long as we have no further curveballs brought about by the unpredictability of COVID-19. It would probably take a good 18 to 24 months to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Do you see a value in digital nomads, bleisure travel and remote work for business travel clients?
Absolutely. This also ensures we are constantly seeking products and needing to evolve our offering to suit the ever-changing needs of our guests. CLHG’s #YourPrivateOffice was introduced to create an office away from the office, or a getaway from the domestic scene given that many business people and corporates who are currently working from home. With #YourPrivateOffice you can book a room to work in for several hours a day at a special rate that is inclusive of tea and coffee making facilities, secure parking, fast and reliable WiFi, air conditioning, and peace and quiet. Desks in the rooms are set up as professional work stations, available from 8am to 3pm, for R495.00 per day.
Hospitality players like ourselves have been forced into being far much more agile and innovative to meet the ever-changing environment brought about by the pandemic. Our new online check-in offers guests contactless online check-in accessed via our website www.clhg.com and soon on mobile app too. Guests can check themselves into their hotel and avoid having to touch too many shared items at the reception desk, keeping both guests and staff safe.
Food and beverage offerings all under one roof will be highly sought after by guests, so as to avoid foraging for meals outside of the “safe” environment our hotels provide. We are fully aware of this, and therefore have developed offerings that are affordable, diverse, delicious and enjoyable, like our pizza offering on the go, light meals and snacks at our bars, delicious a la carte offerings at our City Lodges and Courtyard hotels and refreshed menus across the board that offer a range of dishes. Our Valentine’s Day special showcases a range of dishes that will wow guests.
Do you think trends like flexible cancellation policies, providing contactless amenities and in-app messaging will become a norm in a post-covid world?
CLHG was immediately responsive to the pandemic and introduced flexible cancellation policies. Big events like the Comrades Marathon (recognised as an international event) which is booked a year in advance required us to apply great flexibility in our cancellation policy, with the understanding, that once travel and events return, we would have good relationships in place with all the bookers.
As previously mentioned, we have been challenging ourselves to becoming far much more innovative, with has included introduction of QR codes for on-line check in, food and beverage menus and other guest services. With QR codes prominently displayed for guests to scan with their mobile phones, communal menus can be avoided.
Parting Shot – Any comment you’d like to add.
It is going to be a slow recovery; however, I am optimistic given that our government has begun the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, with a plan for 67% population immunity by year end. This will make South Africa attractive again in the eyes of the rest of the world, particularly our source markets internationally. Similarly, we too will be looking to receive travellers from countries that are serious about the rollout of the vaccine. Our economic recovery will come about as a result of good patriotism and adherence to the protocols. Big brands like CLHG have been the forerunners of the COVID-19 protocols, earning us international recognition from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). This gives assurance to our guests to select us as their preferred place of accommodation when travelling.