I am on an itinerary that takes me through the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and the Drakensberg and then on down to Durban by car. The prompt for the trip is to bring “life” into the concept that local is lekker from a destination, venues, packaging, price point and routing perspective. In this feature I explore the need for product and marketing flexibility with Robert Jasper, the GM of the Sandton Sun Hotel.
JC: I know the international travel market is important both to the hotel units you manage and the Tsogo Sun group as a whole, but given the uncertainty over international travel and the spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in the UK and Europe, what is your thinking in terms of hospitality products and their marketing?
RJ: It is going to be very important for the whole hotel/hospitality sector to be responsive and agile. You asked the question whether I saw the hotel units I manage as being business travel-focused, and my answer in 2019 would have been yes. However, since the reopening following the lockdown, occupancies for business travel, not only in terms of bed nights taken by airline companies but for the individual business traveller, have dropped off significantly while leisure bookings have increased dramatically. We shall need to see if this is to be the new direction for these units or just a Covid-induced blip and then respond accordingly.
JC: I read a report recently that 900 people in Mongolia had died of bubonic plague, the scourge of the Middle Ages and estimated to have caused 250-million deaths. These types of diseases do not “go away” overnight if, in most cases, at all.
RJ: I think that there is a growing realisation that we are going to have to live with Covid-19. Your comments in and around March about saving several million lives through the measures being introduced being laudable, but a poor exchange if the result puts 1.5-billion people out of work, may yet come back to haunt us. Famine is another ever-present plague and the drop-off in commercial activity could see either food shortages or people being unable to buy food as they have no income reach unprecedented levels.
All of this suggests we shall need to expand commercial activity as much as possible, while being aware of the need to be vigilant so as to minimise the risk of increased infections.
JC: Given that living with Covid-19 might be the way we go forward, how is this likely to affect the profile of travellers and the numbers?
RJ: I think travel will undergo real modifications from what was considered to be the norm only a year or so ago. I foresee that the larger groups of tourists travelling together on a coach tour will be greatly reduced or disappear entirely. Much smaller groups and travellers in only twos or threes might become the norm. I also believe these travellers are going to want to do more under their own steam, which could offer a much-needed boost for the car hire companies, which are taking real strain at the moment.
This, with the type of traveller, will be elements we shall need to watch and create the products for — in an ideal world, proactively. But if not, then reactively.
JC: Numbers of people travelling together usually means better prices, so if travellers move in smaller numbers, are we going to see an increase in travel prices across the board?
RJ: Airlines have been a mass-market business model with the core costs covered by the economy seats and the profits being made off business and first-class sales. I think it is too early to tell if there will be a significant price shift, and hotels are going to have to be keen in their pricing and/or packaging to get through this period.
JC: The intention with Destination Golf Travel was to develop products that would appeal to the international travel market and the regional and local traveller. The example would be the Royal Tours, because whether you are ordinarily resident in Windhoek, London or Johannesburg, what golfer would not want to take one of these trips?
RJ: Yes, and I foresee equal value in the golf staycation products you are developing. Twinning the Sandton Sun with Royal Johannesburg & Kensington, which will leave the non-golfer free to explore Sandton City, should fit very nicely with the new leisure demand we are experiencing.
JC: There is also the real chance, at Sandton Sun and some of the other venues we shall use, that the golfer will not even be missed.
RJ: Indeed, and we also have the contingency that should a couple book with both being golfers, then we can reformat the non-golfer elements into a golf package with no change in the original pricing. The fact is that this will be the type of agility and innovation this sector will need going forward.