What we learned from ATM Virtual

Published: 4 June 2020 - 7:45 a.m.
By: Josh Corder

In previous years the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) exhibition was a time for hospitality and travel leaders from around the world to network, announce plans and hash out business for the year ahead. With COVID-19 freezing travel plans, ATM went digital this year with ATM Virtual.

While this meant we didn’t get much in the way of hotel opening announcements or record-shattering visitor figures, we did see the whole industry come together to discuss the path to recovery.

Here’s some of the things we learned from the three-day event:

The hospitality industry's shifting priorities

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Hotelier Middle East editor Claudia de Brito hosted a panel on whether hygiene will become guests’ top priority when returning to hotels.

Joined by Radisson Hotel Group regional director Arabian Peninsula and East Africa Bert Fol; Diversey VP for Africa, Middle East and Turkey Alp Aksoy; Hilton SVP, brands and franchise operations, EMA John Rogers and Minor Hotels VP of operations for Middle East, Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles Amir Golbarg, the 45-minute session delved into the shift in customers’ decision-making, how hoteliers can adjust to hiked operational costs and the rise in technology-based initiatives.

In response to an audience member’s question, Golbarg explained how hygiene in hospitality has always been a given and was preferred to be hidden away as not to draw from a hotels’ luxury. In these times however, guests are demanding hygiene to be visible, reassured by the sight of staff cleaning touchpoints. Hilton’s Rogers echoed this point by saying visible indicators in rooms are crucial to relaxing guests their room has just been cleaned.

As many of the world’s professionals face furloughs and salary cuts, it was asked whether lower prices will be a necessity for moving forward. The panel agreed that hygiene is currently the number one priority for guests, with many so eager to travel following lockdown that pricing is not the primary concern.

Experience-led travel facilitated by technology is suggested to see an uprise. Fewer guests will be travelling, meaning the ones that do travel will be given a more curated experience during their stay, with contactless check-ins growing in demand.

The effects of coronavirus on food tourism

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Sister publication Caterer Middle East editor Simon Ritchie hosted a panel on how food-driven travel could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic at the conference.

Joined by Singapore-based food writer and World's 50 Best academy chair Evelyn Chen, founder of impartial restaurant review website Foodiva, Samantha Wood, acclaimed food writer Courtney Brandt, and VP of F&B at JA Resorts & Hotels, Rob Cunningham, the session covered everything from the current situation for F&B outlets in both the Middle East and the Far East to how consumer confidence in dining and travel can be restored.

In response to an audience member's question, Cunningham outlined how JA Resorts had removed its buffet option during the coronavirus pandemic, and suggested that it would be unlikely to return, with all the panellists agreeing that a la carte is likely to be the future of F&B.

With air travel severely limited for the near future, the panel discussed how restaurants in Dubai could take advantage of a captive foodie audience and provide them with experiences they would usually get elsewhere, highlighting how some high-end restaurants around the world have already pivoted towards easier, more comfort-style, menus.

Hotels must not succumb to price wars

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Radisson Hotel Group area SVP Tim Cordon, Colliers International head of hotels, MENA Christopher Lund, Four Seasons president of hotel operations, EMEA Simon Casson and Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) CEO Raki Phillips came together to talk about the road to recovery.

During the first day of ATM Virtual, the four came together to discuss the future of the industry in ‘The Hotel Landscape in a Post-COVID-19 World’ webinar. Moderated by Gemma Greenwood, the group suggested how hoteliers should move forward.

Phillips, with his in-depth knowledge of the northern emirate, urged hoteliers not to succumb to price-slashing, they should instead focus on sanitation and reassurance. He said: “Our industry is very resilient and will recover and for this reason it’s important that hotels don’t drop their room rates. Tourists will come back, we are already seeing this in Ras Al Khaimah where we are lucky to have large, spacious resorts with some offering private villas, making the implementation of social distancing measures much easier. Hotels need to adapt to a new normal with increased sanitisation at the forefront, while being creative with their offerings and embracing innovative technologies which can help differentiate them from their competitors.”

Cordon seconded this by saying: “There has never been a global pandemic of this scale in modern times, building confidence will be key as we look ahead to the post-COVID-19 hospitality recovery. Not only is it important that our workers have confidence that their health and wellbeing is of prime importance, but for consumers too. They will need full reassurance that our properties are safe, secure and following the highest standards when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness.”

According to data from Colliers, MENA hotels alone have witnessed an approximate 42% drop in occupancy since March, with many opting or being forced to postpone all travel plans. Lund however said that the UAE is in an advantageous position to begin welcoming back guests thanks to recent partnerships with accreditation agencies.

He said: “One way of achieving this consumer trust, and I believe the hospitality industry in the UAE is leading the way in this respect, is by partnering with accreditation agencies such as the Bureau Veritas to ensure your property is following disinfectant and sanitisation protocols implemented by government bodies and abiding by the highest levels of hygiene. Passing these audits provides your property with a label that guests can view and take reassurance from.”

“In addition, the implementation of immersive technologies that provide potential guests with virtual 3D tours of properties, as well as phone apps which allow you to enter your hotel room, change the temperature, call the elevator, book excursions and order room service are going to be vital in helping hotels recover and stand out from their competitors.”

Casson added: “At Four Seasons we have been spending a lot of time exploring how the new guest journey, from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, will look. While we are doing everything we can to ensure the wellbeing and safety of our guests, it’s important that we continue to work with our local partners, such as airlines, airport transfer providers and activity and tour guides, to ensure they are abiding by the same level of sanitation and hygiene. Consistency across the entire experience is key.”

Social distancing on flights makes no sense

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Though social distancing has become the norm on all passenger flights, Emirates Airline president Sir Tim Clark has said the move doesn’t make economic or environmental sense.

Like most of the world’s airlines, Dubai’s Emirates has been deploying a range of measures and protocols to spur travel and reassure guests.

Speaking at a webinar session organised by ATM, he said: “If we start leaving seats in the economy inventory open or unsold because of social distancing, one has to accept that you have to be consistent about this. There’s no point in leaving the seat next to you empty because the seat behind you, if somebody sneezes of coughs, irrespective of the seat back, meant to be deflecting it, this will not happen. These will travel 20 feet down the cabin and into the air.”

“What it basically means is that you will have to take 50%, in the case of economy, of your inventory out. It doesn’t stack up for anybody to do that.”
He added: “Equally, on the environmental side, it makes absolutely no sense to fly empty aircraft or half-empty aircraft, because we’re all very conscious of this.”

45% of Chinese travellers are willing to travel abroad

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A joint survey conducted by the Ivy Alliance Tourism Consulting, China Comfort Travel Group and Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) was discussed at ATM Virtual.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic first starting in China and tearing through the country, the hospitality industry has bounced back relatively quickly according to analysts. The survey found that 45% of Chinese travellers are willing to travel overseas.

The forum was moderated by Dr Adam Wu, with panellists including International Institute of Peace for Tourism chairman Dr Taleb Rifai; H.E. Khalid Jasim al-Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority; Pan Ukraine founder & director Helen Shapovalova; VIA Outlets tourism director Lisa Dinh and HCG International Travel Group chief business officer and VP Tony Ong.

Rifai explained: “After 9/11, people had to get used to security restrictions such as removing their shoes and belts, no liquids, now that is a way of life. People are now afraid to travel, but things will change, new protocols will be introduced and the quicker that happens the more trust and confidence will be communicated, bringing travellers back.”

Saudi Arabia is readying itself for global tourism

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As the curve flattens and air travel tip toes towards normality, Saudi Arabia has said it is preparing for the arrival of global tourism.

Speaking at the digital event, Ministry of Investment MD of tourism Majed al-Ghanim said that the government understands the importance of the tourism sector and is working hard to develop it.

He said: “We believe we have the platform for investors to come to Saudi Arabia, as well as a diverse destination on offer here.”

“Saudi has a compelling, attractive tourism market from this perspective – with the new cultural, adventure and sun destinations on offer.”

He added: “We are looking at Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates in general, which is a great destination, but so are Oman, Bahrain and all our other neighbours.”

Ajman is ripe for investment

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Ajman Tourism Development Department (ATDD) used the three-day event to highlight the features of Ajman and its position as an attractive investment.

HE Saleh Mohamed Al Geziry, ATDD Director General participated in a panel discussion on the initiatives to be taken to revive the travel and tourism industry to secure sustainable investment in the region.

He highlighted that the emirate is close to both Dubai and Sharjah, its cost-effectiveness, relatively low set-up costs, faster decision making process and less bureaucracy.

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