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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | Hospitality will get decentralized too as covid reshapes the world

Holidayers will opt for reclusive destinations and hotels will offer well-dispersed accommodation

I will go on the record to say that travel will never, ever go back to the way it was pre-covid; it just won’t," says Brian Chesky. “There are sometimes months when decades of transformation happen."

Chesky should know exactly what he is talking about. He is co-founder and chief executive officer of Airbnb. A bit ironically, he was saying this on Zoom from his San Francisco home. Perhaps no industry has been hit harder by the pandemic than travel and hospitality; hotels have closed their always-open doors, while restaurants shuttered and airlines and trains have virtually stopped in their tracks. The effect on the industry in India has been particularly devastating. According to the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality, around 70% of the total estimated workforce of 55 million could end up unemployed.

So, what is the future of hospitality, what “decades of transformation" will these ill-starred months bring? I have been writing a series of columns in Mint on how the pandemic and its lockdowns have spurred “a great decentralization" in many industries. The same will happen in hospitality.

Human beings have an innate need to travel, so that will not change. However, their destinations might. Rather than going to large hotels where there are hundreds of people, we might want to go to smaller cottages and bed-and-breakfast inns, where we can be alone with our families, away from others. The smaller homestays, lodges and inns will gain at the expense of large multi-room hotels. We will also go to smaller places: farms, villages, and hill stations with open areas, rather than large, jam-packed cities. Travel will spread out from the centres and thus decentralize.

However, decentralization is one of the five “antibodies" that the hospitality industry will need to build, both to survive and build resilience for the next big crisis. (I explain these antibodies in my new book The Immune Organisation).

Hospitality will have to adapt to a new post-pandemic customer journey. A customer journey is the sum of experiences that one goes through while interacting with a company or brand. In travel, the journey literally changes. People used to travel for experience, the touch and feel of it. The latter bit will drastically change. People will want travel to be as contactless as possible, and as self-contained and controlled as possible. The first thing that you see when you go to Airbnb’s site are these words: “You don’t need to go far to find what matters." People would prefer to go nearby. Chesky continues, “They’re getting in cars. They’re traveling to communities that are 200 miles away or less. These are usually very small communities. They’re staying in homes and they’re staying longer."

This will mean a hard relook at business models. Restaurants will need to be a hybrid of socially-distanced dining and an active food-delivery model. Large hotel chains might need to go beyond large properties and form chains of small socially-distanced lodges. An opportunity for hospitality could be drawn from the disruption of another domain—work. With work itself getting decentralized and “Work from Anywhere" taking hold, people will take “workations", where they stay longer in multiple places and work from there, rather than from their homes in crowded cities. Chesky agrees. “I think this will be a huge part of Airbnb," he says, referring to multi-month or “indefinite stays" with some people opting to avoid rental leases. Stays of 30 days or more were already 15% of Airbnb’s business before the pandemic, Chesky says, and currently make up nearly half its bookings. Does this mean the hospitality business will bump into the real estate business model?

Finally, hospitality will have to aggressively embrace technology and automation. Online bookings will only increase; online check-ins will become almost mandatory. Apps on phones will become the new receptionists and doormen as they guide us into the hotel, manage the check-in process, and open the doors of our rooms, all contactlessly. Paper menus will disappear, QR codes will take their place. Custom built robots might take our luggage to the rooms. There will be people, and they will still smile behind their masks, but they will be farther away.

Human beings were meant to travel, almost genetically programmed to do so. We will, of course, but like Robert Frost, who found that “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled", we will change how we do it. And so must the hospitality industry. It must find the road less travelled.

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and co-founder of Unqbe

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