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“Fighting for every guest”

The prevailing circumstances in connection with the corona pandemic also pose great challenges for travel agencies, the hotel industry and guest houses. For the corona forum that is jointly published by the KU and the regional newspaper Donaukurier, we have interviewed the holder of the KU Chair of Tourism, Prof. Dr. Harald Pechlaner, who spoke about the gradual easing of restrictions in the tourism industry.

Photo: Klenk/Press Office

Mr. Pechlaner – hotels and guesthouses are closed since March. Can you describe the current situation in the industry?

The tourism industry is currently in a bad state. Traveling is always directly connected to mobility and freedom of movement. But since the outbreak of the pandemic, the only thing that was still able to move around freely was the virus – to put it in exaggerated terms. After the borders were closed, both the national and international tourism industry came to a complete standstill. Large hotels and small guesthouses, but also travel agencies were affected most within the tourism industry.

From next week on, hotels will be allowed to open again. However, a local hotel operator tells us that people are still very reluctant...

Yes, simply regaining our freedom to travel is not enough. Many people are very uncertain, and uncertainty is a factor that spoils the fun in traveling. This is why travel bookings only pick up again slowly. Guests and hosts or travel agents alike ask the question of how we can overcome these concerns?

And what can we do?

Those who want to book an accommodation now are reaching out personally more often than usual. Guests want to know: What measures have you taken to guarantee the safety and health of your guests? What is a safe place to go out and have dinner? Hosts must be able to convince their clients that they are making intensive efforts to guarantee safety and health of their guests. Travel agents must also deal with these questions: Are they approaching their clients actively to reduce their fears and uncertainty? They should also update their websites with the respectively most current information.

What travel destinations are currently high in demand?

At the moment, many travelers prefer to book private holiday apartments, or decide to go on farm holidays in rural areas or go camping. They like calm places and avoid gatherings. People do not want to be dependent and have all-round service. Rather, they are looking for offers that grant them autonomy. This is connected to a certain sense of caution and worry. For regions with a sparse accommodation structure, such as the Altmühltal region, this could be an advantage. Hosts now need to invest in advertising their offers properly in order to be able to maintain existing structures. However, in popular tourist destinations, such as the Alps or the Baltic or North Sea, hosts fear a strong tourist influx. Here, the regions must make an effort to actively steer the flow of visitors to be able to control it.

What about the economic situation of hotel businesses?

Tourism is a business that is always dependent on the occupancy rate. The decisive question is: How quickly will the season start off for hotels and tourism providers in the weeks to come? I sincerely hope that many will survive this crisis and do not go bankrupt. Government support in form of emergency aid or loan packages is very important in this context. Furthermore, the government has also established larger stabilization funds on a national level for large companies such as Lufthansa. Business travel is a real problem. The situation is very problematic especially in metropolitan areas. Seventy percent of overnight stays in a city such as Nuremberg, for example, are covered by business trips to conferences, trade fairs or work meetings. The region now suffers a severe loss. This also applies to cities like Ingolstadt.

How can the industry emerge from this crisis?

High hopes are placed on family-owned businesses. Certainly, this summer, tourism businesses will employ fewer seasonal workers than usual. Families will have to step in themselves to maintain liquidity. This is a tough business. Decisions must be taken in the short-term and adjusted flexibly as people go along. Businesses have to fight for every guest. The greatest danger is that hosts enter into a fierce competition for visitors with cheap offers and ruin themselves in this way – despite increasing costs. The requirement to keep minimum distance between people means that hotels can only welcome a reduced number of guests because they need more space. This means more comfort for the guests but increased costs for hotel owners. They also need to make additional investments to increase safety and hygiene measures. This means that hotel owners must successfully explain to their guests why costs for their products are actually increasing at the moment.

On the internet, we currently witness a rise in offers for virtual travel. Can this be an adequate substitute?

During lockdown, we could see an increase in virtual travel bookings. Thanks to today’s technology, these travel experiences seem more real than a couple of years ago. Experiences of this kind feel very real. Still, traveling online with your computer or tablet will never be able to replace real travel that is strongly characterized by meeting other people. But they can have a taster effect that enhances our desire to travel. Apart from tourist destinations, I think that more business meetings and conferences will be held online in the future. New technologies and video conferencing tools accelerate this trend. Therefore, a valid question to ask already now is: What will trade fairs of the future look like?

In the end, we must not forget that tourism was recently placed in a bad light. One of the European hot spots of the corona crisis was Ischgl, a skiing destination in Tyrol. Has the industry suffered an image loss from this?

There is no doubt that mistakes were made. Public prosecution and politics are carefully looking into the matter. But tourism markets forgive these kind of mistakes surprisingly quickly. We have also witnessed this in other contexts – for example in one of the biggest avalanche accidents in Austria that happened in 1999 in Galtür, which is near Ischgl. Or in Egypt, where the risk of terrorist attacks was particularly high for a long time. I am convinced that the tourism industry will undergo profound changes in the upcoming years. People have become more skeptical, hedonism in the travel business is questioned more strongly.

What changes can we expect?

Values such as contentment and simplicity, which were almost forgotten, are experiencing a comeback. Space and time are the actual luxury. I think that people will tend to plan one big journey per year instead of three to four smaller trips. Our way back to normal life will thus also be accompanied by a new understanding of sustainability. Up to now, sustainability was mainly associated with ecological, social or economic matters. Now, the health component is added. In the future, hotel owners and hosts will have to prove that they can live up to this new standard.

The interview was conducted by Thomas Metten. He is a team member in the “Mensch in Bewegung” project. The project is jointly conducted by the KU and the Technische Hochschule Ingolstadt (THI). It is funded by the funding initiative “Innovative Hochschule” of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Free State of Bavaria.