The ability to celebrate special occasions, visit new destinations, savor a meal at your favorite restaurant, or attend any type of event—be it sporting, a concert, or even a conference—was shattered this year due to the pandemic. Always fragile, hospitality was perhaps one of the industries hardest hit during the COVID-19 outbreak. This is due, in part, to the fact that hospitality’s foundation is built on the concept of “perishable commodities.” In other words, if a hotel room is not booked (sold) on May 1, 2021, even though it may be sold on May 2, 2021, the revenue from May 1 can never be recouped. Similar results occur if a restaurant table remains vacant, a seat on an airplane goes unfilled, a wedding is postponed, or a concert is canceled. Again, these profit margins (slim as they may be, particularly in restaurants) are lost forever. Which begs the question, is hospitality, as an industry itself, a perishable commodity?
As a nearly 40-year veteran (how is that possible!?) of this industry that I love—having begun in retail, moved to restaurants, transferred to travel, and then progressed to teaching the subject matter—I must confess that I’m a bit anxious. The majority of individuals who choose hospitality and excel in the industry recognize it is not merely a job, nor even a career, but rather a lifestyle. A bit nebulous, abstract, and certainly difficult to define, hospitality is one of those “I know it when I see, feel, touch it” experiences. It is not an exact science. In a recent New York Times article, author Tejal Rao described a memorable dining experience where the server made him feel, “comfortable, cared for, safe and unhurried – but not sure exactly how he did this.” THAT is the key to hospitality. It is not merely using rote memory to follow a series of prescribed steps, nor is it a technical list used to check off things as described in written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Instead, it is a warm welcome during perhaps such an unfriendly, even devastating, situation as COVID.
COVID Impacts on Hospitality
Nearly decimated by this recent epidemic, many hospitality venues were forced to “pause,” laying off numerous hard-working employees. Some venues closed, never again to reopen. Moreover, if they do reopen, some questions remain. Will patrons return with the same fervor? Alternatively, will they begrudgingly wear masks, unhappily respect safety distance standards (perhaps only when reminded) or even ignore mandated protocols? What impact will this ultimately have on providers responsible for “the act or service of welcoming, receiving, hosting or entertaining guests?” In such an environment, will current workers return, or prefer to bring their special talents to other industries? Most alarming of all, will students with a natural aptitude for this industry feel pressured to choose other career paths? Will they sublimate their ability to, as restaurateur Danny Meyer states, “simply feel good making other people feel good?”
Will Hospitality Perish?
Being an eternal optimist, (just imagine me sprinkling some of Disney’s proverbial pixie dust here) I firmly believe this industry will not only rebound but also reinvent itself. The lessons learned will create a more sustainable business model and progressive future for hospitality.
Indulge me as I offer a personal example to support this theory. When contacting my friend who happens to be a travel agent, I asked her to research a specific cruise for next summer—thinking I had PLENTY of lead-time especially since SO many friends are still afraid to socialize in public settings—only to be informed that the cruise and cabin choice I desired were nearly sold out already. Seriously? How is that possible? The answer, she told me, is really quite simple: pent up demand. Patrons are already clamoring to travel, to be waited on in a safe relaxed atmosphere, to actually visit friends and family (NOT via Zoom), to cheer on their favorite teams in person rather than virtually, to begin to feel normal again.
Therefore, in answer to my original question, is hospitality itself a perishable commodity? I would reply with a resounding NO because its foundation is rock solid. Rather, I believe it will return with a formidable vengeance—one almost as far-reaching and rapid as its arch nemesis, COVID.
The leaders in this hospitality resurgence will be those who embrace positivity and prepare now for future success (even though it is still invisible)... the first responders, if you will. Hospitality needs every single one of you—current and former workers, students seeking such a lifestyle choice, and individuals willing to do their best to be sure that everyone has a Walt Disney World-level “magical day.” Really, couldn’t we all use a bit of magic right about now? In the aftermath of 2021, I do not think that is too much to ask for.
Karen Silva, Ed.D., teaches in JWU’s online graduate degree programs. If you’re interested in pursuing your master’s degree, consider exploring your options from JWU. Learn from experts with real-world experience. For more information, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881, or email [email protected].