What’s life been like for a hotel chain with a large geographic footprint and over 350 properties? We sat down with Fernando Soler, Chief Commercial Officer at NH Hotel Group, to talk about reopening and the steps they’ve been taking to bring back business during the recovery.
Click.: Tell me about your reopening experience. How do you determine when a hotel is ready to reopen, and have you noticed any trends around reopening?
Soler: We are managing now the reopening with caution but also great enthusiasm. With less domestic restrictions in Europe, we are progressively reopening our properties based on customer demand and profitability. The exact opening calendar depends on the country, how legislation is behaving, and of course, how the pandemic is evolving.
We are seeing the reactivation start faster in Northern Europe. Especially in Germany, where we are seeing faster reactivation compared to, for example, Holland, where that depends more on the international customer. Around 80% of the business in Amsterdam is international. Without airports actually receiving the flights we need, it will take longer to recover. But we are already noticing a reactivation of business trips and domestic leisure travelling during the weekends in Germany.
Click.: Many chains we’ve spoken to have seen corporate and group travel dry up. How much do you rely on this business?
Soler: Over 25% of our business is groups, events and weddings. For any hotel, this would be probably the most profitable segment. We expect that corporate travel, which is over 50% of our sales, will see big cuts this year. So we are adapting our commercial strategies in a very surgical way.
We currently have no demand for big groups, what we internally call “XL” groups. But we are receiving demand faster than we expected for smaller groups of 20-50 people.
Click.: Hoteliers have been working overtime to create and implement cleaning programmes for a brand-new guest experience. What did you do?
Soler: We chose to collaborate with Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS), an inspection, verification, and testing company, with certification to be done by an external provider. In addition to reinforcing hygiene and disinfection measures at our hotels with their help, the situation has brought up the need to review absolutely all traditional operating standards to update them to new regulations.
This rethinking starts with our ‘Feel Safe at NH’ brand to communicate our cleaning and sanitation processes and protocols. As part of this, we have designated a health and safety manager at each of our properties. This is somebody with dedicated accountability who is responsible for introducing all-new measurements and training to employees.
Click.: One big challenge for every hotelier has been instituting social distancing guidelines. What have you learned in your own efforts?
Soler: We must, of course, promote the most stringent safety measures and support personal distancing. Actually, I prefer to say “safety distance” or “security distance”. I think we need more talk about safety and security instead of social distancing - especially in the hospitality industry. We are humans. We are social animals.
Leaving aside this personal point of view, we are of course implementing distancing rules recommended by health experts worldwide. Our common areas have signs reminding guests and employees of this distance. We have also redesigned furniture locations at our hotels to ensure that those spaces comply with safety regulations. And, we had to reduce our room capacity.
Our hotel personnel have also undergone a series of health and safety courses so they have the know-how to act and interact with customers. It's not just adding a mark on the floor. It's training our employees so they are sensitive to what customers should expect.
Click.: How have guests and employees reacted to the upheaval?
Soler: I think gaining consumer confidence is vital, not just for our own recovery but for the industry as a whole. I would go further and say that it is also necessary to retain the trust of employees, owners, suppliers and all stakeholders. No other crisis has impacted every single stakeholder not just from a professional perspective but from a personal perspective. We are trying to involve all of those stakeholders in the process of transforming the customer journey.
I believe it is our own teams who have the most important role. Although face masks may now hide our employees’ welcoming smiles, our hope is that travellers will see it in their eyes and feel at home, as they used to feel before.
Click.: Many hoteliers are developing touchless check-in and other tech-based solutions to cut down on human interaction. Do you have programmes like these - or any in the works?
Soler: From a technology perspective we were well-positioned. For example, our online check-in system, Fastpass, lets guests choose a room they want on the floor they want. The innovation was there before the pandemic, but it wasn’t being adopted. In two months, we’ve pushed for that adoption to happen because there is now clear demand for it.
We are also implementing new tools for B2B meeting planning, adding more bandwidth at our properties to cover the needs of large online conferences, and adding apps to our hotel services so consumers can order room service from their app, book a table for breakfast, or be in touch with staff without having any human interaction.
- The hotel chain is seeing the most demand in Northern Europe, especially in Germany, which has seen a reactivation of business trips and weekend domestic leisure travel
- Over 25% of their normal business is groups, events and weddings, which has been slow to rebound.
- The chain underwent a cleaning and certification process in consultation with a third party and have implemented an extensive staff training programme
- Technology solutions for touchless check-in and guest communications are high on their list of current and future plans