COVID-19 decimated the travel sector in 2020. But with lockdowns now easing and summer on the way, easyHotel’s Chief Marketing and Digital Officer, Rav Dhaliwal, is preparing for a brighter year ahead for the industry.

The travel sector was hit hard by COVID-19 and continues to be so. In general, how has your experience been over the last 12 months? And what were some of the early decisions that you made?

We took the decision to close part of our estate and protect our guests before the government guidelines came in, back in March 2020. While we were closed, we spent time revising our opening plans. So, when the time came, we were in a strong position to reopen safely and have the right protocols in place in a post-COVID world.

The biggest change we’ve had to make is, without doubt, the new approach to health and safety – ensuring that guests feel comfortable and protected, and that they're able to relax and enjoy their stay. We needed to reassure and provide consistency in terms of protocols, such as cleaning, hygiene, etc. We are at the value end of hotelling, so although it’s very easy just to talk about price all the time, I think in the post-COVID world, people need reassurance on a more human level.

Have all the travel bans and flight cancellations had a big impact as well?

Absolutely. We’ve got a very strong international segment as well as a domestic segment. Because of the lockdown approaches in most of Europe – and we've got a lot of hotels in continental Europe – we ended up with more occupancy being taken up by the domestic markets. Of course, the huge pent-up demand of the international market will be unlocked with the market opens up again.

There's a lot to consider: how the government will navigate travel policy in the future, whether there will be mandatory testing at airports, what the fee will be for that, and also the idea of vaccine passports. I think that will probably dictate how those segments come back and how resolutely they do.

Hotel searches and bookings recorded year-on-year growth in March for the first time since the start of 2020, according to data from the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) Tourism Recovery Tracker.

What's your experience been at easyHotel this past year in terms of being more flexible with the way that you work, and how you generate consumer insights and data?

We're a business that wants to use CRM insights and social insights in order to target and personalise our customers more effectively. Over the last year of COVID-19, our ways of working focused on prioritisation, new operational focuses, and new priorities for guests.

We’ve been able to make some tough decisions quickly using data and evidence-based decision making. Putting our faith in the data and in evidence-based decision making is, I think, why we were able to make those calls with confidence.

We collect a lot of quality feedback on our customers, such as via post purchase surveys and TripAdvisor. We use that first-hand, first-party data not only to improve the customer experience but also ask ourselves questions around our roadmaps. Are they aggressive enough? Are they digitised enough? We've seen a lot of companies accelerate their digital roadmaps, and we've certainly been one of them.

Are you approaching the loosening of restrictions, which will allow more recreational travel, as a continuation of what you've been doing or more like a relaunch?

We’re looking forward to welcoming guests back. It's been a long time. We've been housing key workers in our hotels, and it's been good to support them that way. But we're approaching the upcoming period with a little bit of caution as well – COVID-19 is still present in quite a lot of areas, so the health and safety of our guests and employees will remain paramount.

We rely on the sporting market as well, such as football. We've got hotels in prime football areas like Manchester, Liverpool and London. When football attendance comes back, that gives us an opportunity to go to those segments and be a lot more relevant. As in-person events come back into the calendar, that gives us more of an opportunity to rebound successfully.

The brands that will win are the ones that listen to their customers and adapt processes, workflows and the customer journey, and enable technology to be used. It’s all about speed. If you can give your customers back time, which is a scarce resource, then I think you're doing a good job. We want to create those economies of scale to enable customers to get through to purchase, experience our content, and experience our cities. Those are all things that are important for us going forward.

Are there any specific changes coming out of COVID-19 that you think will be different, such as travel behaviours or expectations in terms of what people will be looking for?

I don't see any kind of huge structural shift because I still think there's a lot of pent-up demand. We are geared to rebound quite strongly when government mandates are not in place.

The biggest issues to solve are around efficiency of experience. Everybody's carrying out transactions via mobile phones. Ensuring that we can still serve people, as they become more mobile in their movements, and make the location of our customer redundant in the booking process is really important. The ultimate outcome should be customer-centric rather than location-centric.

In the next 12 months, what is the single biggest challenge and opportunity facing your brand? And how do you plan to tackle it?

The biggest challenge has to be the uncertainty within the market. The UK Government’s COVID-19 roadmap has given us some clarity. As we move towards stages three and four, that clarity will definitely be welcome. However, no one really knows what's going to happen in the coming year, so we need to continue to be flexible and adaptable, and our workflows need to reflect that as well.

Because we have a physical experience that will never go away, there's always going to be that element of, ‘how can we make things better’? That's something we're really focused on, as well as on the quality and quantity of research that we do and the data that we have on customers. We want to continue to critically interrogate that in a way that enables us to personalise an experience, but also to optimise it in the new world.

Some responses have been edited for clarity.