As an industry leader in the hospitality space, Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) was particularly exposed to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Properties around the world were forced to close in the spring last year, with many still having their doors shut today.
As SLH managing director, Richard Hyde, tells Breaking Travel News, it was the global nature of the pandemic that really caused challenges.
“Things have been bad – with the travel industry over the past 20 years, there has always been something, be that 9/11, Lehman Brothers, Icelandic volcanos or SARS.
“As a global company, we usually have checks and balances against this kind of event; but last year was bad everywhere.
“Last year was probably the worst in our history, and there was very little to compensate anywhere.
“Usually, following a terror attack, for example, the market is able to bounce back within six months, but we are now entering the start of the second year of this crisis and we still have a way to go.”
According to data from the UNWTO, international arrivals slumped by 74 per cent last year, causing an estimated loss of US$1.3 trillion in export revenues.
At the same time, IATA recorded the worst ever year for aviation.
Despite the gloom, SLH managed to record some successes, with 48 new hotels signing to the brand, illustrating a degree of long-term confidence in the market.
“In terms of signings, last year was surprisingly good for us, and we did not see a decrease in marketing budgets from new hotels wishing to join the brand,” continues Hyde.
“We had to be a little bit flexible, as we were unable to make some of the usual visits to the hotels in person – though all new members went through a quality inspection using industry knowledge and reviews.
“In general we have been lucky, as those that have joined have been of the highest quality.
“We have added some hotels which really develop the brand, including Arctic Bath in Harads, Sweden, which allows guests to bathe in arctic waters and take a sauna in the ice.
“Here in the UK, we have added Homewood near Bath, while in Belize, we have added four properties, reinforcing how important Central America is for us.”
Already in 2021, SLH had added seven new member hotels, including three in South Africa from the Liz McGrath Collection.
Whether guests will be able to visit, though, remains open to debate, with Hyde arguing forceful government action will be needed.
“The recovery will depend on how quickly we are able to get vaccinated and the government is able to put a plan in place as to what is needed to reopen borders,” he explains.
“It looks like the UK might be among the first, but does that mean we will then be able to travel to Germany, France or Italy – will British travellers we allowed in?
“We will see a lot of domestic travel bouncing back first, within countries, but to get back to 2019 levels, we might be looking at three-to-four years.
“We need a coordinated effort to reopen the market – who will be able to reciprocate, even if we here in the UK are able to vaccinate all over 55-year-olds, for example?
“There will need to be global guidelines – people want to travel, but unless regulations are reduced the process will be very, very slow.”
With its focus on leisure travel, especially at the top of the market, SLH is however well placed to benefit from the return of the sector, whenever that might be.
“Leisure will be the first to come back, as hotels open and it becomes possible to travel to these locations again – but it will take time,” continues Hyde.
“There are fears we have missed Easter again this year, before we look to hopefully get moving again for the summer.
“In terms of business travel, which tends to increase around September and October, we might be a little further along the line by then.
“We need the cities of Paris, London, Hong Kong, New York and elsewhere to open, while they are closed business travel will continue struggle.
“There are also issues around safety, are businesses willing to risk their staff by sending them to place that have not been fully vaccinated?”
In the interim, SLH is doing what it can to support both its hotel partners and its guests, with plans continuing to evolve rapidly.
“One thing we have been able to do is remain flexible, that has been the key thing – though we do end up seeing a lot of bookings being cancelled.
“We need to respond if airlines cancel flights, schools reopen at short notice and people are forced to change their plans,” explains Hyde.
“Very few of our trips are pre-paid currently, which makes it as simple as possible for customers, allowing them to make plans at the last minute.
“We have been extending our gift certificates, allowing people to book later, again to boost that flexibility.”
There have also been some bright spots in terms of bookings, he adds: “Around half of our hotels remain closed – and this does include those we would expect to be shut at this time of the year, seasonal properties in Greece for example.
“However, we are seeing bookings in Central America, where we are strong, as well as the Caribbean and the Maldives – though these are quite niche, expensive destinations.
“Scandinavia, perhaps because of the more liberal regulations in places, has also been popular, while China, Australia and New Zealand have also seen recent growth in bookings.
“It remains early days, but we are seeing demand for local, simple trips as soon as restrictions are lifted.”
When travellers are allowed to venture out again, SLH is working to reassure them properties will meet newly enhanced hygiene standards while also keeping the brand front of mind.
“We started offering hotels a new page on our website in March last year for them to share information on Covid-19 – be that social distancing, staff testing regimes or hygiene standards,” continues Hyde.
“We would love to delete this information as soon as possible, but I don’t think we will be able to in the near future.
“All of our hotels are also going through a process with the Global BioRisk Advisory Council (GBAC), which offers accreditation for hygiene standards.
“This offers reassurance to the customer – and is a process we will repeat this year and maybe into 2022.”
He concludes: “The focus is to keep the hotels alive – when people can’t travel, they love dreaming about their next trip.
“We’ve engaged our travel trade with lots of updates on our new and existing hotels, while we also launched a brand-new website.
“Our research suggests people who were not able to spend money on a holiday last year will use that cash this year, if they are able to, so the opportunities will be there eventually.
“As part of that, we need to remain top of mind – we have been working a lot on social media, running various campaigns and offering chances for people to come and work from hotels.
“When things do come back, it will come back in a big way.”
Small Luxury Hotels of the World is a community of independently minded travellers and independently spirited properties around the world.
The group currently represents 520 hotels in more than 90 countries – each one is anti-chain and anti-same.
Find out more on the official website.