Featured Post

Monday, April 20, 2020

When Can We Travel Again?

There is little doubt that the travel industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the global economy during the COVID-19 crisis. Tourism revenues worldwide have tanked, millions of jobs have been lost, and many small and medium-sized travel companies will end up going out of business.

I will be appearing on WGN Radio from time to time to discuss the implications of the crisis for the travel industry.  This is what I discussed in the most recent segment, which aired on April 19.

I should mention that Chicago's hotel industry in particular has been very proactive during the crisis. Working with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the industry was the first in the nation to offer free rooms to first responders, medical staff, and citizens suffering from mild symptoms in need of a place to quarantine. Other cities quickly announced similar programs.

This has allowed some hotels to keep on workers. However, with the cancellation of all festivals for the rest of the year, and the likelihood that conventioneers won't be returning to Chicago anytime soon, things will continue to be dicey for the city's hotel industry through next spring (as winter in the Windy City is generally a very low season for hotel occupancy).

The Good'ish News

But let's consider some good news. When stay-in-place orders are lifted, there will be pent-up demand for traveling. However, in order to feel safe, with a modicum of control, people throughout the world will likely travel close to home for the foreseeable future. Expect plenty of road tripping, with visits to family and friends top of mind. 

Visits to nearby state and national parks, and to rural areas, will also be of interest. Trips to crowded big cities and overseas destinations will be slower to come back. And the cruise industry....forget about it. The cruise industry will be the last sector to recover....with a caveat. I am talking about ships that carry hundreds if not thousands of passengers. River cruising and expedition cruising may recover more quickly. 

The Jet Set

It's going to be awhile before travelers feel comfortable hopping on a crowded plane. The first groups that might be willing to take the risk are wellness seekers and luxury travelers. Certainly, the craving for wellness vacations during this age of uncertainty is going to be high. Travelers will not only be seeking vacations to boost their physical health, but to regain their mental health as well. Meanwhile, high net worth travelers will still have the money they need to afford luxuries like private jets and access to exclusive getaways and high-end accommodations that will allow them to get away from crowds.

There's no doubt that the next two years are going to be a slog for the travel industry.  But there is opportunity for smaller players to attract a large pool of travelers by focusing on the regional market. Additionally, those destinations that can develop effective messaging and hone practices needed to inspire confidence in travelers may find themselves ahead of the comeback curve.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

In the Wake of Coronavirus, Should We Be Using Paper Boarding Passes Instead of Mobile Ones?

Let me preface this post by noting that I am not a scientist. But I am a veteran travel journalist who has written many a story about the germiest places on airplanes.

Other publications have recently written about the "safest" seats to book when flying these days. But I haven't seen any attention given to the boarding process.

At the risk of being dubbed Chicken Little, I do want to propose a question for health professionals.

In recent years, the majority of frequent travelers have dispensed with the use of paper boarding passes. Instead, the mobile phone is serving that purpose.

But let's consider the mobile phone. It is estimated that the average user touches a cell phone more than 2500 times a day. That figures includes every tap, type, swipe and click.

Now, even discounting those who use their phones while, ahem, doing other business (and yuck), think about the number of times you use your phone after opening a door, using a remote control or shaking someone's hand. Then think about the number of microbes that have been transferred to your phone in those circumstances.

Now let's wander over to the airport check-in process. First, passengers hand their phones over to TSA agents to enter the security zone. Next, they hand those same phones over to gate agents so that mobile boarding passes can be scanned, or they may do the scan themselves. In all cases, your phone screen often directly touches the scanner. Then, the next passenger scans his or her phone, the surface area of that phone touches the scanner that previously touched your passenger's phone, and so on and so on and so on. You see where this is going.

So, I pose a question to health professionals. In the wake of travel bans and airport health scans, should we perhaps be considering going back to using old-fashioned paper boarding passes for awhile? Health and travel experts, please weigh in.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Chicago's Luxury Hotel Community Welcomes Refugees

Due to the sheer number of entry-level jobs it provides, the hospitality industry is a large employer of newly-arrived immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and refugees. While the two groups are often lumped into one melting pot, they are not the same.

While an immigrant may have a variety of reasons for coming to the United States, a refugee is legally defined as someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to persecution, war or violence.  In order to emigrate, they have to go through a long vetting process, often while living in a refugee camp.

While the United States has had a long history of bringing in refugees, the numbers have gone down dramatically in recent years. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the annual ceiling for 2020 is 18,000, the lowest on record. That compares with a cap of 85,000 in 2016, during the last year of the Obama administration. 

Even so, refugees are still coming in. That’s certainly what is being seen by Heartland Alliance, a global anti-poverty organization. One of the organization’s missions is working with refugee communities to provide help with the resettlement process.

According to Lea Tienou, director of Refugee and Immigration Community Services (RICS) for Heartland Alliance’s Chicago office, during the past two and a half years, the bulk of refugees have been coming from Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Eritrea. Others trickling in include some from Afghanistan and members of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. 

One of the biggest issues in refugee resettlement, according to Tienou, is financial stress. “When refugees arrive, they are financially fragile,” she said. “The federal government gives such limited support--a $1000 per person grant for the first 90 days. So, there is a need to move to employment really, really rapidly, (yet) they have to find a job with limited language skills and no experience working in the United States.” said Tienou. 

That’s where Heartland Alliance’s hospitality training program comes in. The six-week course is designed to prepare refugees for jobs in the hotel industry. 

The course includes lessons on the types of jobs available within the industry, employer expectations, the concept of customer service and the vocabulary of hospitality. Guest speakers, ranging from former students currently working in the industry to hotel general managers, often come to address the class. Field trips include hotel tours, meetings with human resource directors and attending job fairs.

According to Tienou, “The program is unique both in its breadth of content and in terms of the caliber of hotels we work with.”   

Hospitality 101

That caliber is mainly luxury, thanks in part to Nancy Callahan. She ran Heartland’s hospitality program from 2008 through early 2020. Prior to onboarding with Heartland, she had been part of the concierge team at Four Seasons Chicago. In fact, she actually learned about the Heartland program through a hotel colleague whose husband was the head of refugee resettlement for Illinois.

When Callahan came to Heartland as the Hospitality Training Coordinator in 2008, she discovered a fledgling program, taught mostly by ESL teachers without hospitality industry experience. But over the years, Callahan worked to develop a full-fledged partnership with Chicago’s high-end hotel community. “We leaned on hotel partners to hone the curriculum,” said Callahan. Participating hotels also provide guest speakers, offer opportunities for job shadowing, and of course, provide jobs. Most of those jobs are in housekeeping, banquets or security. As their English skills develop, there are opportunities to move up the ladder. 

Over the years, about 50 Chicago hotels have participated in the program. They include Four Seasons, The Peninsula, The Radisson Blu and The Langham. The focus on the luxury sector is intentional.  Due to the competitive nature of Chicago’s hotel industry, starting hourly pay at luxury hotels was significantly higher than minimum wage. 

Higher-than-normal wages and the potential for upward mobility are two of the industry’s big pluses for refugee job seekers. Another is its reputation for, well, hospitality. As Tienou pointed out, a big issue for resettling refugees is isolation stress. An assistant human relations manager for a five-star hotel, who asked not to be named, summed it up well. “We are talking about people in difficult situations, who are often completely by themselves and lacking in social support.  We want to help them become part of a community, give them access to connections and to teach them what it means to be successful."

According to Randall Williams, general manager of 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, “Working in a hotel environment can help allay feelings of loneliness. Yes, there may be a language barrier, but fellow employees have a level of patience and compassion for what the person is going through.” Williams continued, “We want to make them feel comfortable. That’s half the battle--the feeling of inclusion and being part of a team.”

According to Susan Ellefson, a spokesperson for The Peninsula Chicago, “Hospitality is so welcoming and so multicultural that there’s an immediate comfort level. Plus, we try to create a family kind of environment. This is our home and we have people (both guests and employees) coming into our home every day and our role is to take care of them.” That’s why, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of different countries stay a long time because there is that feeling of belonging and being part of something.”

Class is in Session

On the day we attended the training, the class of nearly 30 students was about one month into the program. The group was preparing for a job fair at The Langham.  Positions available included steward, house attendant, room attendant, server and club lounge butler. The class worked on completing resumes, coming up with answers for potential interview questions and role-playing troubleshooting scenarios with guests. 

There was palpable excitement and camaraderie as the class discussed the possibilities. Christy Hruska, the current hospitality training director, challenged the students to answer questions like  “what is luxury?” and “how can you make a guest feel welcome?” She also provided information on what they could expect at the job fair.

Heartland staff will accompany the class to the job fair to ensure everyone attends and arrives on time. This is a practice for individual interviews as well. Staffers will, according to Callahan, always bring students to interviews while “cheerleading on the train on the way.”

The process seems to be effective. According to Callahan, the program has placed about 90 percent of its graduates, and participating hotels keep coming back for more. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Travel 2020: Transformational Travel Set to Alter the Landscape

As the year — and decade — turns, travel journalists are bombarded with client-serving PR pitches about the newest/hottest/splashiest trends. But given that change is an evolution without a clear starting date, it’s wise to employ 2020 hindsight before looking forward to how travel will unfold in 2020.
Conveniently, the recently released 18th annual Bain & Company Luxury Study, produced in conjunction with Altagamma, provides some guidance.
The pool at Ritz Carlton Bacara in
Santa Barbara, California

According to the study, the overall luxury market, encompassing both luxury goods and experiences, grew by four percent at constant exchange rates to an estimated 1.3 trillion euros globally in 2019. The growth is coming largely from Asia and from younger generations, according to the study, which was authored by Bain partners Federica Levato and Claudia D’Arpizio.

The report says that while millennials accounted for 35 percent of the luxury market in 2019, by 2025, that will rise to 45 percent. It’s members of Generation Z, however, who are poised to reshape the industry. By 2035, Gen Zers could comprise up to 40 percent of luxury buyers.

"Gen Z customers are the new frontiers of tomorrow's luxury market — and they already represent a growing portion of luxury consumption in Asia,” said D’Arpizio. They are also already showing specific consumption habits differentiating them from millennials. Therefore, going into the new decade, "luxury brands will need to connect with customers in an increasingly personal way," said D'Arpizio. "The products, experiences, and ideas that they deliver will need to flow together to appeal to the emotions of younger customers, who are diverse, global, and opinionated, and also more pragmatic than millennials."

She predicted experiential travel will progressively evolve into “achievement travel” for Gen Z, with an emphasis on travel experiences that allow them to align with community. Those experiences will need to be designed to be more sensitive to ethical and environmental standards, as Generation Z "will be more committed to social responsibility than prior generations." Moreover, the relevance of social responsibility is aligning among nationalities, with Asia catching up with the West.

The Travel Landscape Transforms

Global consultancy Euromonitor suggested that experiential luxury is set to outpace all other categories of luxury spending: “Luxury is becoming more than just a price point but a state of mind that luxury brands embody as consumers continue to seek truly authentic and transformational experiences.”

Transformational travel seems to be the term on everyone’s tongue as we enter the New Year. It’s defined by the Transformational Travel Council as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn, and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world.”

Currently, transformational travel is mainly linked to the wellness arena. And, in fact, a new survey of Virtuoso travel advisors specializing in wellness named meditation and mindfulness as the top travel activity their clients are seeking. That’s because clients “are looking to wellness trips to restore balance and transform mind, spirit, and body. They are seeking skills to help maintain that calm and support their mental, spiritual, and physical health once they return home.”

But in 2020, transformation is likely to break free of its wellness yoke. According to Philippe Brown, founder of luxury travel advisory Brown + Hudson, a 2020 vision of transformation includes insight, memorability, knowledge, purpose, and timeliness, all of which can permeate all levels and types of travel. 

“As travelers harness nature, culture, and social activities to connect with their inner self and to promote qualitative life changes,” said Brown, “travel won’t be so much about the where, but the why.”
Anse Cafard Slave Memorial in Martinique

Brown + Hudson has coined the term "meta travel," suggesting, Brown said, “both ‘beyond travel’ and a self-referential idea of travel that teaches you how to travel. It’s getting consumers to think about why they are traveling in the first place.”

For families looking to bond, for example, Brown + Hudson is designing trips as compelling games, like “a 14-day in-country escape room that helps families to discover themselves and wherever they are almost peripherally — and addictively,” said Brown. These are tailored journeys that include challenges, puzzles, and mysterious encounters. By turning a trip into a game, Brown said, “Serendipity and shared experiences allow families to discover places with a heightened multi-sensory awareness.” 

Providing tourists with a means of experiencing different cultures is another type of transformational travel that is gaining traction. In Luang Prabang, Laos, Amantaka has launched the Buddhist Learning Centre designed to educate guests about the principles of Buddhism. Guests can receive private daily teaching from an abbot, or they can witness monks and novices at sunrise accepting alms.

In terms of travel to remote and unfamiliar destinations, Brown noted that it's easier for Western travelers to experience transformation when they are comfortable. Providing the luxuries needed to make challenges achievable in difficult environments is key to allowing nature help the mind switch off, focus, rebalance and potentially transform, noted Brown.

Piers Schmidt, founder of London-based Luxury Branding Services, applauded forward-thinking companies like Brown's that continually eyeball trends, rather than waiting for a date on the calendar. "In the real world, consumers and the companies and brands that seek to serve them continue to adapt to the beat of a drum that has little to do with the pronouncements of forecasters and more to do with evolving commercial contexts and consumer preferences.”

“The eagle-eyed will always be able to spot interesting new things that are gaining traction in the less well-documented nooks and crannies," added Schmidt. "The trick, however, is not to seize on these willy-nilly and lazily badge them as a trend with a pithy headline, but to have the wit and imagination to interpret what such early indicators mean for you and your business and execute on them accordingly.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Traveling with 2020 Vision

Where’s everyone going in 2020? Check out my most recent appearance on Great Day Washington to find out.

Need more information on any of the destinations mentioned? Here you go.

Cape Verde:  

Japan National Tourism Office:  www.japan.travel

Tourist Office of Spain: https://www.spain.info/en_US/

Tuesday, December 17, 2019