From this summer’s air travel chaos to staffing shortages in hospitality sectors around the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel persists to this day.
The hotel industry continues to move toward recovery after years of unplanned losses, though experts believe full recovery remains several years away. A recent report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association notes that room revenue for this year is expected to surpass 2019 numbers on a nominal basis, but when adjusted for inflation, revenue per available room might not reach pre-pandemic levels again until 2025.
The data is perhaps not surprising, given the increased interest in vacation rentals through Airbnb and VRBO during the peak of the pandemic. Many travelers expressed their preference for renting a private home that allowed for distance from others, the ability to cook their food and space for the whole family to gather.
But that doesn’t mean the hotel experience is kaput. Below, industry experts share how hotels are trying to entice travelers to return to these familiar accommodations ― and some good deals you might be able to take advantage of in the process.
Emphasis on workspaces
Since March 2020, many office spaces have closed for good, while others remain significantly emptier as flexible policies allow workers to come in only a few days a week or as infrequently as they wish.
Business travelers, who previously may have worked out of their company office in a different city aren’t necessarily doing that anymore. And even those who don’t travel for business are taking advantage of the opportunity to “work from anywhere” and explore new destinations once they sign off for the day. As a result, many hotels are now marketing themselves as ideal workspaces for those “bleisure” travelers.
“Since so many people are working from home, we’re seeing incentive programs for hotels,” Jessica Nabongo, travel expert and author of “The Catch Me If You Can: One Women’s Journey To Every Country In The World,” told HuffPost. “They’ve put together different setups around various properties, so people have spaces to work.”
Marriott International’s efforts to reinvent the Sheraton hotel brand began before the pandemic, but the chain’s newly designed lobbies’ focus on communal and private workspaces has become even more relevant over the past two years. Revamped properties in metropolitan areas like downtown Phoenix, Arizona, and Denver, Colorado, feature modern tables and counters, comfortable seating, coffee bars and other new settings that encourage work and collaboration.
“Our lobbies are designed with spaces to gather in small groups for remote work but we also offer enclosed, sound-proof booths for video calls or solo working space,” said Amanda Nichols, a global brand leader at Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. “We’ve been hearing from our hotels that guests and locals are becoming regulars in their lobbies, choosing to meet up with clients or colleagues at the hotel while some offices remain closed.”
Non-overnight guests can take advantage of these sorts of workspace options by conducting business from publicly accessible hotel lobbies, or, in the case of Sheraton, by purchasing a day pass for 12-hour access to a private room and on-property business facilities.
Long-term stay deals
Remote and hybrid work models also give people the opportunity to spend much more time in a destination than they could when they needed to be in the office five days a week. Now, instead of a weekend getaway to a new city travelers might plan a trip from Wednesday to Tuesday, working during the weekdays and spending the rest of the time exploring local attractions, restaurants and shops.
Hotels are responding accordingly with deals that encourage visitors to choose their properties for these long-term stays.
“Miami Beach hotels are providing travelers with opportunities to extend their stays through length-of-stay offers and remote work packages, catering to the new bleisure nomad,” said Steve Adkins, chairman of the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority. “For example, Dream Hotel South Beach features the ‘Dream Longer’ package, an offer extending up to a 25% discount on stays seven nights or longer.”
Indeed, industry experts have pointed to the extended stay business model as one of the strongest areas of recovery since the onset of the pandemic.
“While rentals could offer a cost-effective option to travelers, especially for large family groups, hotels offer standardized features and services that the customer is more familiar with,” said Mychal Milian, director of complex operations at AC Hotel Fort Lauderdale Airport and Marriott Fort Lauderdale Airport. “Branded hotels have a loyalty base of leisure and business travelers that are incentivized by frequent traveler programs that will offer very attractive perks such as room upgrades, late check-ins, airline miles, executive floor access, etc.”
In addition to the usual amenities and loyalty program benefits, many hotels have enhanced their offerings to attract visitors in the age of COVID. Think complimentary spa treatments and fitness classes, restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs, bespoke cocktail bars featuring extended happy hours, live music events and themed seasonal experiences.
“Many hotels are providing more immersive and personal guest experiences to draw visitors back … anything from offering in-room gym equipment to stargazing experiences to set up private art/graffiti tours or culinary excursions,” said Katie Fontana, vice president of communications and PR at Dream Hotel Group. “There’s always been an emphasis on guest experience for any property, but hotels are really stepping it up and becoming more lifestyle entities.”
Ash Tembe, vice president of sales and marketing at AIC Hotel Group, said that his brand has worked to implement exciting offerings that people can experience individually or in small groups after emerging from lockdown.
“Aside from enticing booking deals and promotions, each property curated an exclusive menu of private experiences, featuring cooking classes, tastings, bonfire experiences, dance lessons and more, that allowed guests to book and experience them with the people they traveled with,” he explained.
Focus on strengths
Even without extra amenities and experiences, the most basic hotel stay can offer benefits that aren’t necessarily available with vacation rentals. Recent hotel ad campaigns have emphasized these differences.
“There’s nothing quite like a great hotel stay,” Nichols said. “Personally, I have relished walking into a hotel and seeing how much people are loving the feeling of being together and traveling again. Walking into a hotel and feeling the energy of the people around you, that feeling of opening your guest room door and seeing a freshly made bed awaiting you, plus the personalized service you receive with every interaction.”
Those in the business are naturally quick to tout the benefits of convenient, personalized service with concierges, room service, bag assistance, housekeeping and even just the presence of a 24/7 desk to help with unexpected maintenance issues or other needs.
Pandemic-era marketing has highlighted the familiarity of the hotel experience, increased flexibility around cancellations, connection with others and dedication to wellness and stress-free travel. Of course, there’s been plenty of focus on health and safety as well, from the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” initiative to Hilton’s “CleanStay” program to Accor’s “Allsafe” plan.
“Our main messaging was centered around the strict protocols set forth at each property, giving travelers that instant peace of mind they were looking for,” Tembe said. “We also remained flexible with our policies, adapted to changes in a seamless manner and were proactive with our communication to keep our guests informed.”
Increased variety in lodging options
Another way hotels are working to compete with the vacation rental model: implementing their own.
“A home rental can be a great choice if you’re looking for more space or privacy during your stay ― for instance, for a big family reunion,” Nichols said. “We know a lot of our Marriott Bonvoy members enjoy using home rentals — part of the reason we launched our own home rental platform, Homes & Villas by Marriott International, was because our research showed that around one in four of our members were already using home rental services.”
She emphasized that the Homes & Villas program allows Marriott Bonvoy members to stay in a home rental, while also redeeming loyalty points or earning more points for future hotel stays.
“A home rental can also give you more choice in terms of location,” Nichols added. “In fact, 40% of the locations where we have home rentals are destinations that are new to the Marriott Bonvoy ecosystem.”
Although the Marriott program tends to cater toward premium and luxury vacation rentals, there are also more affordable rental options from other hotel brands.
“For those who prefer an apartment-style stay, Yotel Miami is the first Yotel hotel property to also feature Yotelpad,” said the hotel’s general manager, Gilberto Garcia-Tunon. “Pad spaces ― ranging from studio to one-bedroom and two-bedrooms ― feature a full kitchen with appliances, dishwasher, washer and dryer, living room with custom Murphy bed, and a balcony with breathtaking views of Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami.”
Whether or not these efforts to more directly compete with Airbnb and VRBO are fruitful has yet to be seen, but the reality remains: Hotels want you back, and they are thinking outside the box ― er, standard room ― to make it happen.