Could technology mitigate?
Even before the pandemic, hotels were emphasizing technology, especially apps. Contactless technology “was happening before the pandemic. Now if you can do contactless check-in down to the room key, I think people will take a digital form anyway,” said Reimer of Amex GBT.
At the height of the pandemic, many felt the less contact the better, he said, and some have grown accustomed to that approach. “People don’t necessarily want to talk to people,” Reimer added, “so if you can go faster and do what you need to do without making a phone call, without having any interaction, a lot more people will choose to digital first.”
Mouw added that apps can do more than check in and out of travelers, citing keyless entry and housekeeping and service requests.
Even so, digital strategies and customer expectations depend on the market, Torrance noted. Especially in high-end and luxury hotels, digitizing the experience can run counter to brand mission and guest expectations. “The first year, people were so ready to [apps]; they didn’t want to talk to anyone. People are now striving to have that human touch and see a smile.
What about amenities?
In BTN’s fall hotel survey, buyers expressed concerns about reduced sales staff and the ability of their hotel partners to negotiate new contracts, or renegotiate or attenuate existing preferred partnerships in depending on the realities on the ground.
“Where we haven’t had that level of steady demand, we may not have gotten all the sales staff back,” Mouw said. “But at least for the United States, the sales staff is pretty much back. We had to make sure we could meet the leads.
Smaller or independent properties, on the other hand, “work with small sales teams, and sometimes without any sales team at all,” said Lukasz Dabrowski, senior vice president of vendor relations at HRS. “We work with many independent hotels that don’t have sales staff, and they go to great lengths to meet expectations.”
Whether it’s a big brand or an independent, not getting what you bargained for is a situation not for Deborah Borak, ConferenceDirect vice president, team leader and meetings consultant strategic.
“Sometimes restaurants or club lounges aren’t open,” Borak said. “What does it mean if you have breakfast or club access included in your rate? Are you just out of luck, or can you negotiate room service delivery or another option?”
That uncertainty was one of the reasons a travel buyer for a major energy company opted to renegotiate the company’s entire hotel program for 2021, despite industry advice to postpone rates for the pandemic year. The buyer said the company took a very different approach to the RFP, targeting market rates using data from Yapta (now Coupa) and Tripbam and considering strong leisure markets. The buyer presented these requests in each market to half as many hotels as previously in the program and included a mix of last available rooms and regular rates. The approach alleviated potential resource pressure for targeted partners and sought to push total volume to fewer hotels.
The company achieved a 20% reduction in overall hotel rates in 2021 compared to 2020. After the first year with the new program, the buyer relied on strong partnerships to defer these rates from 2021 to 2022.
“It wasn’t like flipping a switch,” the buyer said. “There was a lot of engagement and discussion and understanding of what would make it easier for my partners. I’m super fair, and I’m very transparent. That goes a long way.”
It’s the kind of process that many buyers can count on in 2022: relying on strong partnerships for the best win-win opportunities. In companies where business travel is rebounding – and there are many – suppliers are eager to respond.
And while achieving full pre-pandemic normalcy will be a challenge hotels will continue to face in 2022, Torrance said, “Even if we can’t deliver what was contracted three years ago…I think we can always find solutions.”