Most agree the global hospitality landscape will forever change in the post-Covid era, and Lao hotels are no different. Even while the country remains in lockdown until 4 May, hoteliers are looking beyond today’s woes to when guests return.
Hygiene and sanitation top the list of most hotel and restaurant’s operational changes. Pullman Luang Prabang General Manager Denis Dupart said Accor, the property’s parent company, has partnered with inspection and certification specialist, Bureau Veritas, to launch a label certifying its sanitary standards.
“Accor’s certification scheme will help reassure customers and employees that appropriate standards and cleaning protocols have been met, as coronavirus restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen,” he said.
Crowne Plaza Vientiane General Manager Patria Puyat also sees sanitation and hygiene at the forefront of the operational changes that properties are undergoing.
“Guests will want to see more procedures in place to ensure safety through temperature readings, hand-sanitizer stations, and lines drawn to practice social distancing. Masks will be part of our life,” she said.
“Starting 4 May, 2020, the layout of our restaurants and meeting and event facilities will be altered to provide proper social distancing…while still providing a seamless guest journey,” Ms Puyat said.
Managing Director of the Inthira Group of Hotels & Restaurants Stanislas Fradelizi agrees that sanitation is key. “I think professional hygiene equipment and sanitizer will be big, both for people and things. We’ll need a formula that begins at the entrance and includes hand sprays, soap dispensers, masks, checking temperatures…whatever it takes. We have to adapt.”
Mr Fradelizi pointed out that people want to come together to drink and laugh. “This is unsafe. We’ll probably have to limit the number of restaurant patrons. We have to weigh our ideas versus facts,” and concluded, “It will take a year or two to get back to normal.”
John Morris Williams, General Manager Luang Prabang View Hotel notes the importance of sanitation and physical distancing, while taking a broader view of reopening his property.
“It won’t be like it was before by a long shot,” Mr Williams said. “We have to look at proper action plans and new strategies. We must work on a critical path to rearrange our previous operations, evaluate what did not work last time, and reduce or remove a section.”
He leaves the door open to downsizing in the name of profitability. “Before opening the doors, we need to reevaluate the manpower to see if we can adjust to create a more robust team. A leaner and hungrier team is more preferable than being overstaffed.”
Mr Williams added, “Menus and function dining options will be readjusted and reduced to be cost effective. We also aim to use all local produce to support the local economy.”
Mr Williams and the hotel owner agree that tourism may not start rebounding for six to nine months. “We may not bounce back quickly, as people may not want to travel,” he said. “This could be a slow opening for most hotels and guesthouses, and even restaurants.”
Opening requires guest demand, and Luang Prabang View plans to work with online travel agents (OTAs). “They will be our main feeder for our markets like Italy, China, Korea, UK and Europe in general.”
Crowne Plaza Vientiane relies on OTAs and booking engines to a lesser degree. “As a global brand, we need all avenues in order for the wheels of our business to turn,” said Ms Puyat. “However, booking direct via our website guarantees the best rate and benefits, such as IHG Rewards Club points.”
Mr Fradelizi said the two Inthira hotels remain open, with bookings coming from the domestic and expat markets. “Foreign tourists are last on our list,” he said. “Our closed restaurants mostly relied on locals, and we will restart by targeting locals and expats in Laos.”
Ms Puyat also sees the role domestic travel will play for reopening, including business trips and family holidays. “There is a lot of pent up demand for travel and the need for people to see their colleagues face to face. So, we can see domestic business coming back again, though slower regionally and internationally.”
She added, “With children staying at home for the past many weeks, we hope to see families coming for staycations…having a well-deserved weekend breakfast buffet or simply dinning out as a family. Domestic travel will certainly have a lot of uptake from families.”
Mr Dupart envisions a drop in international arrivals due to cancellations or postponements. “The Chinese will still maintain a leading market on tourism…once travel restrictions are lifted. They will travel back into our region versus the European market that will take longer to recover.”
As for the cost-conscious traveler, Mr Dupart said, “Mid-range tourists will be the most affected by the current crisis, while high-end tourists with financial stability will travel again, having been ensured of extreme safety.”
Mr Fradelizi agrees that the mid-range will take a hit because of the economy, “and international travel is a low priority…The more elite will still come, so the 5-stars should be okay, but big hotels with 100 rooms may face problems. They need groups and to work with agents. They might get to 50% of their previous occupancy rate during the reopening phase, if they’re lucky.”
Luang Prabang View fits the “big hotel” bill, but holds a pragmatic view. According to Mr Williams, “It looks like we will have to first depend on the Asian markets. This will be a challenge as there will be huge competition as everyone tries to gain back what they have lost.”
He acknowledges that the European and US markets will be slow to comeback, and adds other demographics. “What we did have, such as the senior market, may not bounce back. A younger generation, who are healthier, may become the new staple from Asia.”
Mr Williams noted that the hotel could see smaller groups again. “This depends on each country and how people feel…tourists in general will initially be more cautious until it is okay to travel.”
However, much of the comeback will rely on the old tourism mantra, “Follow the Airlines.” Mr Williams feels airline routes will dictate what markets will be the first to return to Laos. “Connectivity is and will be an issue if we can’t get more flights in,” he said. “Direct flights to Luang Prabang and then on to Vientiane would help a lot.” He also pointed to virus testing and facilities at airports and borders as a possible hurdle.
Ms Puyat agreed. “When we get to the point where borders open, many questions come to mind…what will the quarantine rules be and how will they get rolled out between countries? Will supplies continue to be delivered the same way, or will there be a change to adhere to stricter hygiene and sanitation procedures?”
Lao hotels appear to have an operational direction in the post-Covid era, though access and demand will dictate the road ahead.