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Comment: Minding the expectation gap

Tourism-dependent economies will find it hard to maintain pre-pandemic standards and customer relations will be key, says Steve Endacott

How quickly we forget the sheer hassle of Covid-19 protection in the UK. Face masks have disappeared, the NHS Covid App remains untouched on our phones and when is the last time you took an antigen test to enter an event?

Despite this progress on the home front, however, not everywhere in the world has recovered at the same pace as the UK, where triple vaccination and a mild but dominant Omicron variant has reduced the impact of Covid to little more than a bad cold.

The fear has gone and has taken with it a lot of our tolerance for any anti-Covid measures.

Visiting Barbados last week, it was clear that most UK holidaymakers simply did not comply with local laws requiring mask to be always worn in public spaces. The general attitude appeared to be: “We are on holiday, and this is bullshit.”

How quickly we have forgotten our own lockdown measures and caution to protect the vulnerable in our society. Barbados continues to have shortages in vaccine supply and has suffered from a lot of misinformation about vaccine safety, which led to only 53% of the population being vaccinated.

Like many destinations, tourism is the life blood of the economy and lockdown hit pockets hard in Barbados, making the welcoming back of tourists essential. But this has left the country facing a tricky balancing act between public safety and removing enough restrictions to attract tourists from the USA and UK where all restrictions have been lifted.

In reality, I think the requirements to wear masks will put UK customers off travelling to a destination more than the extra costs of outbound lateral flow tests, although the fear of being randomly tested at entry and forced to stay in a quarantine hotel for the duration of your stay definitely creates some booking fear.

So could we see future booking patterns being influenced indirectly by a country’s vaccination status?

Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding yes, as we are bound to see new Covid-19 variants develop this coming winter, forcing greater restrictions is destinations with more exposed populations.

Maintaining standards not easy

Barbados as a destination retains its ultra-laid back and friendly vibe, which combined with beautiful beaches and sunny skies make it both a favourite winter and summer sun destination. However, like most destinations, it is struggling to deliver previous standards after Covid disruption.

We stayed at the four-star boutique The House hotel, which recently became part of the Elegant Hotels Group. The hotel had excellent historic review scores from when it had been a bed and breakfast hotel situated next to the world-famous Daphne’s restaurant.

However, during Covid Daphne’s shut down and the hotel turned into an all-inclusive, despite not having its own kitchens, by using the facilities of nearby group hotels to add a range of food options to the simple buffet-focused food served on site.

This concept may eventually work, but while the hotel continues to not have a front desk and instead relies on multi-trained “ambassadors” to serve all roles, things can go very wrong. In our case it was being turned away from other group hotels because restaurant bookings had failed to be made or laundry disappearing for days, which combined with some inedible food early on led to a harsh meeting with the management team.

Fortunately, The House has an experienced top management able to accept the situation and put in place a recovery plan that got the holiday back on track, which when combined with their friendly staff created a great overall experience, which saved the brand’s credibility.

But it just shows how hard our industry will have to work as we come out of Covid to meet the expectations the prices we are used to charging generate.

Which hotels will reduce their prices, because they have brand new chefs or service teams not used to serving in 4/5-star hotels? Will discounts be given for rooms that have not seen a lick of paint during the Covid-19 shutdowns.

With the industry desperate for recovery cash, the answer is clearly no. This means the expectation gap this summer is likely to be bigger than ever and with reviews and social media easily accessible on all holiday phones, we are likely to see hard-built reputations destroyed during this first recovery season.

Ultimately, it will not be about preventing errors, but how they are recovered. This will be the key to maintaining a hotel’s brand and is why I can say a big thank to The House’s staff and the Elegant Hotels team for what turned out to be a great holiday.

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