Lockdown easing: Has Covid-19 changed the chance of success for high-end hoteliers?

Giles Fuchs, owner of Burgh Island Hotel, explains why he believes luxury hotels are “primed to thrive” post-Covid.

With the unveiling of the Government’s roadmap for easing lockdown in England, brighter times are on the horizon for the hospitality sector, which has seen bookings surge by as much as 300 per cent since the Prime Minister’s announcement last month. 

It is a far cry from the £30bn estimated to have been lost in revenue from the UK’s hospitality sector during the first national lockdown, but what do repeated closures and, now, a roadmap out of uncertainty mean for high-end hoteliers? With pent up demand for UK staycations, people craving the trappings of luxury as an escape from lockdown and changes in guests’ priorities accelerated by the pandemic, the sector is primed to thrive. 

Has Covid-19 changed the face of luxury? 

The face of luxury has been changed by the pandemic in ways that would have been unimaginable just twelve months ago, before Burburry repurposed its manufacturing to deliver PPE, Jo Malone produced hand sanitiser from its Petersfield factory and Clarridges became home to NHS staff working tirelessly on the frontline of London hospitals. 

Like all businesses in the luxury market, hotels such as Burgh Island have been faced with months without guests and uncertainty about when they will be able to reopen. But it has also presented an opportunity to embrace and support our community. For instance, at Burgh Island we have participated in the Hospitality Positivity challenge, founded by our expert hoteliers, Inntelligence, with 100 per cent of the proceeds donated to Hospitality Action – an organisation that has for the past 150 years supported people working in the sector. 

While an anticipated date for reopening has been welcomed by the hospitality sector, it should be mindful not to forget the lessons of lockdown – how to pivot quickly, adapt in agile ways and remain resilient in the face of uncertaintly. By continuing to support our employees and communities post-lockdown – from mental health provisions for staff to engaging with local charity initiatives, luxury hospitality can now be at the heart of driving recovery from the pandemic. 

However, there remains an immediate challenge ahead for experiential luxury in navigating the still tight restraints on how people can interact; with limits on capacity at restaurants, the intrusion of social distancing, as well as mask wearing all hurdles that luxury venues still face. 

In fact, I believe this is an opportunity for hotels to elevate their experience for guests. For instance, hotels can open up rooms such as libraries as dining space, and offer smaller sittings for meals over longer service hours. Decreasing the number of in a space per sitting does not have to compromise on experience – instead, it can enhance a sense of intimacy and allow for even more attentive service, which will only enhance guests’ experience of  the hotel. In fact, at Burgh Island we have embraced lockdown as an opportunity to rethink the offering of our black tie restaurant, the Grand Ballroom, to now serve an exclusive tasting menu, in turn creating a more luxurious experience for guests returning to the Island this year. 

Pent up demand for luxury experiences

With a date to reopen in sight, confidence in the sector has bolstered significantly and particularly for UK staycations. Pent up demand has seen an explosion of bookings since 22 February, but it would be wrong to assume that this burst will wane as we approach and pass a reopening date for UK hospitality venues. 

With the UK Government yet to announce guidance on the practicialities of international travel this year, UK staycations will remain for many be their first port of call in 2021. And, with the reduced cost of travelling domestically, many will also be considering higher end accommodation than they might have voted for abroad, increasing the prospective customer base for luxury hoteliers.   

At Burgh Island, we are seeing strong bookings throughout the year ahead, as people opt to stay closer to home. However, being able to offer a sense of escapism will be an invaluable asset for luxury hoteliers. Moored on a private island, the Art Deco architecture and black tie ballroom at Burgh Island give guests the opportunity to escape from 2021 and travel back in time to the luxuriously hedonistic 1920s, and, as we emerge from the pandemic, this is exactly the type of experience that guests are craving.  

This trend will also be far from temporary. Domestic travel is often the more sustainable option, and post-pandemic we expect this to sit higher on the agenda for guests than it had done previously, prompting people to vacation closer to home more regularly than they might historically have chosen. Luxury hoteliers that can align luxury with sustainability will be well-placed to benefit, offering experiential luxury that caters to this increasingly prevalent guest profile. 

As a result, it would be misguided to assume that UK hoteliers will have to compromise on the luxury experience underpinning a high-end hotel brand and attract guests at a lower price point, either this summer or beyond. The appetite for luxury experiences in hospitality is expanding more than ever. With all the sacrifice and stagnation that lockdown has brought to people’s lives, we all crave a vacation that goes beyond the ordinary – and guests will be prepared to invest accordingly in a truly luxury experience.

Where next? 

The buck doesn’t stop with the pandemic. Looking to the long-term, priorities are also shifting on a demographic basis, which is an encouraging sign for the sector. Increasingly, when it comes to spending in the luxury market, a younger generation of Millennial and Gen Z consumers are placing the emphasis on experiencing luxury, rather than investing in consumer goods. Meanwhile, older people who have spent decades investing in goods are now happy to divert their money towards experiential luxury, rather than making new purchases. It is a trend that the end of lockdown, which has starved people of gratifying new experiences, could only accelerate. 

While luxury and escapism is undoubtedly what prospective guests currently crave most, the sector faces an immediate challenge in calculating how to deliver this safely. By managing social distancing to enhance guests’ experience, hotels will not only manage people’s expectations, but exceed them. And, despite these immediate hurdles, the apetite for luxury is robust  – a trend that we anticipate will continue to grow not only over the remaining months of 2021, but over the years and decades ahead. 

With confidence in the sector rightly gaining momentum, luxury hospitality has everything to play for. 

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