There has been much debate about which sector of the economy has been worst hit by COVID-19. Grant Thornton’s new Global Business Pulse index provides an answer: travel, tourism and leisure (TTL), which placed 12th out of 12 key sectors in terms of health in H1 2020 and saw the sharpest deterioration since H2 2019.

The better news is that the worst hit sector is also one of the best at dealing with change and adversity. We examine the index results on the overall TTL sector and take a close look at how one sub-sector, hotels, is rising to these challenges.

Hotels are facing real challenges, but…

Hotels may have escaped many of the negative headlines associated with aviation and tourism, but they still face real challenges. In common with other TTL sectors, hotels have significant fixed costs and depend on high levels of occupancy. With international tourist numbers projected to decline by between 58% and 78% from 2019 to 2020 and the tourism sector as a whole facing a $1 trillion loss,[i]

Tracey Sullivan.PNGTracey Sullivan, Grant Thornton Ireland partner and leader for hospitality and tourism, explains why this will cause particular issues for hotels.

“Around 60% - or even more in some countries - of hotel revenue comes from the international market. While there is a push in all countries towards staycations, hoteliers will tell you it is expensive to stay in a hotel in your own country – it’s generally cheaper to go abroad. The domestic market, therefore, can’t increase enough to make hotels sustainable if they continue with their current business models and pricing.”

Hotels are also acutely exposed to changes in other areas of government policy towards COVID-19 – at home and abroad. Venues around the world that cater for weddings, conferences and meetings have been particularly impacted by restrictions on gatherings of large numbers of people. According to Tracey Sullivan: “Some wedding and conference venues have decided not to reopen this year. Having missed that key wedding season, they’d actually lose more money if they opened.”

Hotels must also deal with the need for physical distancing among their clients and staff, more staff time for administration and cleaning duties, not to mention the additional equipment. This is inevitably putting pressure on wage bills and operating costs.

Despite this intimidating list of challenges, Tracey praises the resilience of hoteliers during this period, and their ability to maintain standards while adapting their business models. “This crisis has given hoteliers the opportunity to look at different aspects of their business and think about what would work better.” Our research confirms this, with 61% of TTL companies saying they’ve adjusted or plan to adjust their strategy due to COVID-19, the highest of any sector in the mid-market.

Five-star resilience, despite the hit

Driven by sharp falls in economic optimism and growth expectations, the outlook for TTL deteriorated most. The average TTL mid-market company expects revenue to fall by over a fifth (22%) in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Hotels are seeing declines, with July occupancy rates in harder-hit places like China running at 60%, the US at 48%, and Italy at 32%.[ii] Interestingly, as a rule, five-star hotels have proved more resilient, with customers around the world willing to pay a little more for the higher quality and attention, driving a surprising shortage of luxury accommodation. As Tracey comments: “You actually can’t get a five-star hotel in Ireland at the moment - there are no rooms,”.

But Tracey praises the way that sales and marketing teams within the hotel industry have adapted to the challenges, constantly looking at different ways to sell their rooms and offer specific deals. As lockdowns have eased, hotels have stepped up publicity of all their procedures and the fact they are safe spaces through advertising and social media. Many are encouraging their guests to share positive experiences and this is starting to make an impact.

Hotels buck employment trends

Across the TTL sector, employment expectations are particularly weak, with nearly half (47%) of businesses looking to decrease the number of people they employ over the next 12 months. In contrast, the employment situation is generally more robust for hotels. During the worst periods of the lockdown, staffing levels were propped up by government schemes, and as venues re-open, the additional workload is supporting staff numbers. While existing staffing levels may have been sufficient within five-star hotels, other hotels have had to increase their wage bills.

Of course, any additional costs need to be carefully managed given the weak pricing environment and fluctuating demand. Many hoteliers are now compiling staff rosters on a daily rather than weekly basis and considering closing for parts of the week when demand is low.

One area of the outlook that is proving fairly resilient for the wider TTL sector is investment intentions, with an ongoing commitment to investments in staff skills and technology. In the hotel industry, an important part of this spend involves using technology to allow customers to do more online – like check-in, book breakfasts, secure pool slots – and avoid unnecessary physical contact. Tracey notes that a lot of this new investment is being led by smaller hotels, with many branded hotels already prioritizing these areas.

Reservations over finance, but banks are supportive

When it comes to barriers to growth, the drop-off in demand predictably towers over other factors for the TTL sector. Supply constraints – including labour constraints, shortage of finance, and regulation and infrastructure – fell more modestly.

There was, however, a spike in concern about shortage of finance, with 56% of the sector identifying this as a constraint, the highest of any sector. Encouragingly for hotels, Tracey reports there is much more willingness from banks and financiers to support them than during previous recessions. She comments: “The key for hoteliers is communication with bankers. It is so important to have conversations early and keep a constant dialogue. It’s very hard to forecast financials right now, but showing cash flow and monthly trading results, and keeping them updated, is fundamental to retaining support.”

Tracey encourages hoteliers to take full advantage of tax breaks in place in their country either directly or through their professional services firm. Grant Thornton is working closely with hoteliers to provide this type of intelligence and support, and aid cash flow during this difficult period. Additionally, hoteliers can tap into their industry federations to understand what others are doing to adapt during this period.

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