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James Doolan: Lessons from hospo and tourism can help our Covid response

4 min read

OPINION:

Covid has been an unmitigated disaster for the tourism and hospitality industry.

With high-value international travellers shut out and anywhere between 10 and 80 per cent of revenues gone, financial performance for the sector has been predictably woeful.

There’s no doubt the Government has succeeded from many measures in the fight against Covid and we should applaud and acknowledge that.

New Zealand’s case numbers and Covid fatalities are very low compared with similar countries. The unemployment rate has remained low and our economy, at a macro level at least, has been resilient so far.

However, Government’s performance in the fight against Covid is showing signs of strain. What lessons from the tourism and hospitality industry might help Government as we transition to a ‘new normal’?

Lesson 1: Anticipate what Kiwis want

The art of hospitality, true manaakitanga, is anticipating what people want. Too often during Covid, Government acted only after sustained pressure from ordinary Kiwis or the media.

These things include relaxation of lockdown requirements in Auckland, the 90 per cent vaccination target, and belatedly announcing timelines for when New Zealanders can return home without hotel quarantine stays.

The next threshold is properly opening up our borders to all double-vaccinated travellers without isolation on arrival. As a geographically isolated nation, we need to be truly ready to wholeheartedly welcome back international travel in all its forms.

For a Government that prides itself on promoting mental health, there’s been a total failure in recent weeks to recognise a growing need for greater personal autonomy, especially around movement and travel.

Lesson 2: Plan ahead for bookings, supplies and staff

Hospitality businesses flourish when they plan effectively for bookings, supplies and staff. It’s the unglamorous but essential grunt-work that supports everything we do. Hospitality businesses know that the bookings process must be easy, informative and efficient.

In contrast, the Government’s MIQ lottery has been an exercise in frustration and failure for the vast majority of “customers”.

On the “supplies” side, the Government missed a beat when executing its first vaccine purchase orders and seems to have completely botched the process of identifying and securing supplies of lateral flow tests. Again, other countries have had this stuff sorted for months now.

Lesson 3: Execution trumps concept

Tourism and hospitality businesses know that execution is more important than concept. There’s no point having the best restaurant theme, menu and décor if the food and service is terrible.

Hospitality industry success is often achieved by the best “fast followers”, which are businesses that identify and copy leading concepts from overseas. In contrast, the Government appears determined to follow its own path, rather than simply adopting the best ideas from elsewhere and concentrating on perfect execution.

Surely other countries have done some things right? Why did we need our own bespoke vaccine certificate regime? Why so slow to deploy rapid-testing? Why create an MIQ booking system from scratch?

Unneeded innovation wastes time and resources which leads to execution failures, delay and cost escalation.

Lesson 4: Think deeply about the guest experience

Tourism and hospitality businesses focus on ‘guest experience’ – the perspective of customers is more important than the best intentions of the host.

Government planning around lockdowns appears attuned to one type of ‘customer’ only – the risk-averse, salary-earning, domestically-focused, non-Aucklander.

Planning for vaccination rollout seems to have bypassed the predictable experience of marginalised and at risk groups.

The ongoing requirement for all healthy, double-vaccinated travellers to isolate in a border hotel for seven days is a confusing and frustrating experience when other countries have found better ways to slow the cross-border spread of Covid.

Lesson 5: Clarity, consistency, timelines and targets

Hospitality is facilitated by human beings, but we all make mistakes if left without guidance. The best operational playbooks for frontline staff provide clarity, consistency, timelines and targets.

Government policymaking has had to be nimble and adjust to new information. However, we’ve been short on clarity, timelines and targets. New Zealanders have often been left unsure of our roles.

At times, the failure to set clear targets has seemed intentional, as if uncertainty would somehow translate into greater vaccine uptake.

Even now, with nationwide vaccination fast approaching 90 per cent and thousands of domestic Covid cases in home isolation, the Government is frustratingly non-committal about when vaccinated travellers will enter New Zealand without isolation on arrival.

There’s no excuse for this ongoing failure to set clear timelines and targets and work consistently to achieve those goals.

Here’s hoping that Government learns from the wisdom of tourism and hospitality. New Zealand’s once-proud tourism industry now pins its survival hopes on a timely, well-planned and well-executed reconnection with the rest of the world. Let’s work together to make that happen.

– James Doolan is the strategic director of Hotel Council Aotearoa.


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