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Tim Hentschel: Smaller groups is key. The more you can automate this part of the market the better off you will be

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In an exclusive interview, Tim Hentschel, CEO and co-founder of HotelPlanner.com and Meetings.com elucidates on the road to recovery and his belief that the market will return provided the hospitality industry can prove it can offer a safe product to the consumer

How did the concept of HotelPlanner.com develop? Was it an idea ahead of its time?

I was reading Time Magazine in 2003 with the top ten most successful web companies. One was Ebookers, and the next was eBay; it occurred that no one was booking group travel online.

Subsequently, John Prince and I decided to build a system for group buyers where hotels bid for the group coordinators’ business online. Six months later we filed for a patent that expanded on that idea by automating the group booking process through prebuying direct inventory and bundling multiple suppliers from around the world.

We have been working on adding more inventory to increase automating the group hotel booking process every day since.

Covid-19 impact – how long will recovery take? How can the hospitality industry ride out the storm?

Recovery is being seen around the world, namely in the USA, where travel has been opened up recently. However, while positive, this trend had a very short life span toward the end of June as lockdowns come back into place due to an increase in Covid-19 restrictions.

I see Southeast Asia having a stronger bounce back in travel compared to Northern Asia. This is due to the low cost of travel in SEA. Needless to say, due to the social unrest in China, travellers will always seek out safer options like the SEA.

Despite this, outperforming Northern Asia will not mean a V-shaped recovery. We are forecasting hotel occupancies will stay at 50 per cent of 2019 levels till the end of the year. SEA recovery will also be dependent on the health of the airline industry. Several airlines like AirAsia and Hong Kong Air are on the brink of bankruptcy. If there is less competition in low-cost careers, prices for air travel will rise, and higher prices will hurt the recovery.

The general thought is that domestic travel will recover first.

This is the general sentiment. As people come out of lockdowns and begin travelling again, they will seek places and destinations they are comfortable in – these places include local staycations, weekend drive getaways to remote areas.

HotelPlanner’s main target is group travel. Will MICE/corporate/incentive travel ever be the same again post Covid-19? 

Naturally, group events and corporate conferences are set to be hit the hardest. Without a vaccine or guarantee, event coordinators will be reluctant to risk large losses of a second wave. However, this time should be taken to implement new procedures and safety measures as a collective industry to restore consumer faith and safeguard against future similar crises. It’s important that with time, trust and faith is built back for travellers to feel safe.

One way this can be done is through keeping staffing levels efficient to deliver the best product in line with pandemic protection measures. For example, virtual meetings at hotels will be the solution to having a 200-person meeting, allowing hotels and venues to socially distance and keep capacity low. Venues can choose to have temporary walls installed in convention halls and split up rooms of a low number of people each, and tie these rooms together through virtual conference technology with cutting edge AV systems.

What will be the New Normal in group travel?

Until a vaccine is found, smaller groups is key. The more you can automate this part of the market the better off you will be. The market will return but the hospitality industry needs to prove it can provide a safe product to the consumer.

Apart from revival packages, what role can governments play in reviving world economies?

Governments need to do more to add stimulus to the hospitality industry. Recovery is definite, but it has been slow. This slow growth makes it difficult for hospitality companies to deliver quality products and services – all due to low staffing levels. The industry should try to keep high staffing levels to provide quality even at low occupancies. Hopefully, we can see the government help these companies with a payroll stimulus plan.

On top of that, they need to protect the people so they feel confident to travel. Seeing the effort put in to enforce prolonged lockdowns, it is the hope that authorities put in an equal amount of effort in creating a stable society for economic recovery.

Future plans for HotelPlanner.com

Before the virus, we were growing aggressively. Obviously recent times have been tricky but the lockdown has been an incredibly fertile time to make new partnerships. With the fading of the virus and the timely discovery of a vaccine, we predict serious growth.

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