Auburn professor optimistic about future of hospitality and tourism marred under pandemic

Published: May 07, 2020
Updated: May 11, 2020
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The worldwide quarantine has halted global travel, vacated hotels and forced restaurants to close or switch operations. Fortunately, the hospitality/tourism industry has faced crises in the past and survived. Martin O’Neill, the Bruno Endowed Professor and head of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, explains how the global industry will recover in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

This global pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the hospitality/tourism industry. Hotel occupancy rates have plummeted and restaurants have either closed or switched operations to remain open. How will a global industry rebound from this? Is it just a matter of getting everyone back to traveling again?

I am afraid not. While traveling would undoubtedly help, tourism-oriented travel as we knew it, both domestic and international, is going to be changed and the traveling public is going to have a very different mindset moving forward. Before getting into the sticks and stones of it, I have to say, the travel, tourism and hospitality industries are really hurting right now. Who could have seen this as we entered 2020? Our industry was booming and contributing greatly to the economic, socio-cultural and environmental wellbeing of the state, the nation and the world. We were a huge employer, generating billions in tax dollars and encouraging entrepreneurial activity in the form of servicing support infrastructure the world over. Better still, we offered the opportunity to broaden people’s minds and enhance their socio-cultural wellbeing because of the very exchange-oriented nature of our business. This, it seems, has all come to a crashing halt. Aircraft have been parked, hotels and beaches are empty and restaurants remain on lockdown the world over. In addition, and most terribly of all, our most valuable asset, our people, have been furloughed or laid off. The knock-on effects personally, for their families and in a trickle down economic sense for communities, is awful. In all truth, Main Street may never be the same.

That said, our industry will rebound. The travel and tourism industries have weathered some pretty bad storms over the years, but have always come back stronger and better than ever. We’ve had two world wars, two gulf wars, multiple economic downturns and recessions, cataclysmic environmental disasters and weather events and the tourism industry has always managed to come right back. I have no doubt that we will again; it is just a matter of time and good science. In the interim, things will be a little different; however. Primarily, the traveling public is going to be very wary of the mere thought of travel, not just internationally, but domestically. Where once people substituted domestic for international travel in times of crises, they are more likely, at least for the short term, to want to stay home in the face of a killer virus that has no known cure or vaccine. Tourism and hospitality rely heavily on social interaction and up close and personal engagement. Whether on a plane, on the beach, in a restaurant or in a hotel, this is the very essence of hospitality—people interacting and having fun. The invisibility of COVID-19 and the absence of a tried and tested vaccine will force the traveling public to think differently about how they do tourism. People will still want to travel, it is just that they will be more wary and will be very mindful of personal health, space, distance and safety moving forward. Family holidays, for most, will be very much just that, with social interaction and engagement being limited to immediate family and friends.

Then you have the industry, which will continue to do all it can to remove the “fear factor” from the travel experience. Whether it be deep cleaning rooms on a more regular cycle, sanitizing bed linens and in-room furnishings, temperature testing passengers prior to boarding an aircraft, encountering flight crew wearing personal protective flight suits, flying at 2/3 capacity because of social distancing requirements and/or using sheets of plexiglass to separate sunbathers on popular beaches, much will change. Yield and capacity management problems are not new problems for most tourism professionals. The very seasonal nature of our business demands that industry professionals constantly keep their eye on fluctuating demand and the exogenous business environment. Repeatedly, our industry has proven itself resilient in the face of change and crises and highly innovative in a need to remain afloat. Only time and science will fix this, but when it does, the tourism and hospitality industries will bounce back as they always have. We are typically the first to falter in times of crises and always the first to rise and prosper when we turn the corner. People love to travel for any number of reasons and they will always be motivated to eat away from home. If history has taught us anything, this too will pass, and when it does, I imagine the tourism industry will be bigger, better prepared and more resilient than ever.

What do you think will change in the industry as a result of the pandemic?

Put simply, everything—at least in the short term. Until scientists come up with a reliable vaccine, we are going to be forced to do things very differently. At its most basic, face masks will be the new norm, both for industry employees and the traveling public. Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, suits may even replace employee uniforms. The hotel check-in experience may be handled entirely technologically with the people factor being removed from the normal guest cycle. Restaurants and airlines may be health checking and monitoring guests prior to entry and boarding aircraft and almost certainly will be operating at lower capacity levels than usual. This will also be the case with major sites and attractions. Visitor management, health and wellbeing is almost certainly going to be of paramount importance for operators and local municipal authorities at destination sites. Timed tickets, controlled entry and capacity limits will be strictly enforced. Then there are the beaches. As suggested, certain European countries are actually considering the use of plexiglass to separate sunbathers on beaches, and I believe many resort pools will be off limits to guests and the public at large. Again, these are all short-term measures, and when a vaccine is found, we will quickly get back to business, as we once knew it. When this happens, I imagine there will be quite a global celebration and more than one beach bonfire built from facemasks and PPE.

Longer term, I feel as though both industry and the traveling public will be much better prepared to handle any future public health crises. This has been a real learning curve for us all, and we have had to think fast on our feet as regards change to our normal work and life day-to-day. Both industry and the traveling public have reacted well to our new norm and the very symbiotic nature of this relationship only bodes well for the future. As an example, the many “support your local restaurant” initiatives that have started in localities and cities all across the globe shines a very bright light on the value with which the public views our industry. By the way, I don’t see curbside delivery disappearing anytime soon. This has been a great success for many smaller restaurants and hotels and I anticipate it remain an extension of their food sales strategy moving forward. Similarly, airlines and hotels have been quick to reimburse the public for forced cancellations due to travel restrictions and to offer room and flight credits for future travel plans. Again, this all looks good and I am confident that it will be a very bright future for all.


How will these changes affect the customer?

In the immediate short term, there will be much less travel. I come back to the “fear factor” as it relates to COVID-19. People are going to be very wary and there will need to be a lot of confidence building measures put in place by operators and when they do travel, it will mostly be domestic in nature and not very far from home. If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s about the very real importance of feeling safe and secure in your own home. For those that do travel, every aspect of the typical guest cycle, from check-in to checkout will have changed. There will be a noted absence and/or distance when it comes to service personnel. There will likely be an increase in in-room dining, and restaurants when visited, will most likely have strict capacity limits and well-spaced table and seating arrangements. Table and countertops will be cleaned and sanitized between each use, and almost certainly salt and pepper dispensers will disappear and most flatware and napkins will be disposable in nature. I envision a huge uptake in self-catering accommodation outlets, with most folks opting to further develop their newly found cooking and baking skills for family and friends. Expect prices to rise almost immediately at hotels, restaurants and for airline seats. Operating, as they will be forced to, at a much-reduced capacity, will leave operators little choice but to increase prices to remain profitable. This, in turn, may force many members of the traveling public to consider driving to their destination as opposed to flying and to investigate cheaper accommodation offerings at their destination. At the same time, the industry will almost certainly be working hard to value-add the typical guest experience to ensure their customers come back and remain loyal. Similarly, major tourism sites and attractions will be strictly enforcing social distancing guidelines and capacity limits. I believe the primacy of the customer will almost certainly be a central focus for all businesses. Dare I say it, but for some time now, good service has occurred more as an exception, than the rule it ought to be. If there is one very positive outcome from this crisis, it is the fact that the industry will be laser-focused once again on customer satisfaction.

What lessons will this underscore for the hospitality students at Auburn?

We have always done an excellent job at Auburn in preparing our students for the future and their role as industry professionals. Our education model speaks to planning on multiple fronts, both internally and externally, and for the immediate, short and longer terms. Students are taught that there are factors within their control and many beyond their control that they must plan and be prepared for. If history has taught us anything, it is that our industry is more susceptible to external change factors than most. That said, it has also taught us about the very real value of sound planning, being prepared for change and leading from the front when it occurs. That is the beautiful thing about a human sciences education; we are preparing students to take their place as effective and responsive leaders in business, and more importantly, society at large. We pride ourselves on delivering a very differential education to students; one that is laced with many very high-impact, hands-on learning experiences. It is this model and approach that sets the Auburn University hospitality management graduate apart from their peers when it comes to placement post-graduation. Right now, we are building a world-class culinary and hospitality management center in the heart of Auburn. The Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, set to open in the fall of 2021, will phenomenally enhance what is already a top-level program within the College of Human Sciences. The Rane Center will include a teaching hotel, restaurant, spa and market, all in one place. We’re seeing now that the same kinds of standalone businesses had to adapt to unique circumstances during COVID-19. It’s important that our students have access to hands-on experiences in different hospitality roles such as these so that they’re better prepared to enter the workforce and continue to be successful even if there’s a crisis situation.

It is often said that folks are at their most resilient and innovative during times of crises. Our role as faculty and administrators will be to continue to focus on just that; producing graduates that confront crises head on and respond in a socially ethical and responsible manner. As difficult as things seem right now, the traveling public will take to the air once more, our hotels and restaurants will reopen for business and there will be a secure future for the Auburn hospitality management graduate. In the immediate short term, the very multidisciplinary nature of our program enables graduates to move into any business sector as a temporary stop gap. They compete very well in the broader business environment and will easily give any business graduate a run for their money. Regarding lessons to be learned, planning for the best and preparing for the worst almost certainly comes to mind. That said, it would be a very dull and uninspiring educational program that deals solely with despair and crises management. We will continue to underline the importance of timeliness and sound data when it comes to informed decision making. On a more personal note, if this crisis has taught us anything, it is to be ever grateful for our health and the importance of family and friends.

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