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As lockdown restrictions are eased in several European countries, many in the travel industry hope that with higher cleaning standards and social distancing, business can continue in a new form.
Nicolas Vigier, whose agency manages 60 Airbnb apartments, says he’s slowly seeing demands come in for summer rentals in the south of France.
“Before the crisis, our clients were 90 to 95 per cent foreigners. We had very few French people booking our apartments,” Vigier said.
But now his demand is entirely from France.
Domestic Airbnb reservations in the Netherlands and Denmark are at 80 per cent and 90 per cent respectively of what they were in April 2019, the company said.
Vigier said in France they cannot confirm reservations since people are not yet allowed to travel further than 100 kilometres from their homes.
But the demand is a glimmer of hope for an industry that’s been one of the hardest hit due to the pandemic.
‘Severe and sudden impact’
“Airbnb’s business has been hit hard, with revenue this year forecasted to be less than half of what we earned in 2019,” said Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, as he announced staffing cuts at the company this past week.
For many, the change to business was abrupt. It wasn’t until the French government announced the lockdown measures mid-March that Vigier saw a significant drop in demand for Airbnb apartments, he said.
Hotel data benchmarking firm STR estimates that hotels that are still open globally are at less than 30% occupancy. In many European countries, the few hotels that are still open are only at 10 per cent occupancy.
Marriott hotel CEO Arne Sorenson said in a sobering video message in March that the coronavirus was “nothing like we’ve ever seen before.”
“COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.”
Marriott saw a 90 per cent decline in business in China after the outbreak started, the CEO said in March.
Restoring customer trust in a global crisis
Airbnb has announced a new cleaning protocol for hosts that will launch in May that includes a learning and certification programme.
“Hosts will have access to expert-backed cleaning educational materials and will be supported to show that they take cleanliness and prevention seriously,” Airbnb said in a statement.
These new guidelines will be most “drastic” change to their daily work, said Vigier. It means they will have to have three days between reservations.
Hotels are instituting similarly stringent cleaning policies.
A spokesperson for Marriott said the hotel was adding to its cleaning protocols including “requiring that public space and guest room surfaces are thoroughly treated with hospital-grade disinfectants.”
The company is also testing “electrostatic sprayers” to disinfect entire guest areas.
“The concern seems to be around rebuilding consumer confidence and trust,” said Mark Ashton at the University of Surrey’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
It will depend on “enhanced cleaning standards” and a “reduction of touch points” such as tablets or remote controls.
Whether someone picks a hotel or Airbnb, “depends on trust with the consumer as to whether they perceive that a hotel chain or independent hotel as perhaps going to be more reliable at delivering a higher level of cleanliness and sanitation,” said Ashton.
A potential recovery?
A spokesperson for Airbnb France said that there had been an increase in people on the website investigating spring and summer holidays close to home.
“Travel in this new world will look different, and we need to evolve Airbnb accordingly. People will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable,” Airbnb CEO Chesky wrote in a note to employees.
Meanwhile, Marriott International said they were slowly seeing an increase in occupancy rates in China, including during an April holiday, where some hotels reached 60% occupancy.
But it will be a long time before things go back to normal.
“It will take a period of time for things to bounce back,” said Ashton. But there’s “a potential that hotels will consider increased automation and a move to digital” which might “speed up the adoption of those types of technology”.
It’s an area where Airbnb already has an advantage due to the ability to check in with an application and be in contact with a host via messaging instead of in person.
Vigier said they used to have someone greet every guest who stayed in an apartment, but it will be an easy change to allow guests to pick up keys in a box or at their agency.
In a crowded hotel, it could be more difficult.
“Do we have robots doing certain things, maybe taking bags, room service, sanitising areas?” asked Ashton.
He expects that digital changes hotels were expecting to implement anyway will happen more quickly.
“There’s going to be some fairly fundamental shifts,” Ashton said.