War in the Middle East, terror attacks, foot-and-mouth, Sars and now swine flu. The hospitality industry should be ready for anything by now. Gemma Sharkey reports
It's fair to say that swine flu - a hybrid strain of flu that affects pigs and birds and can be contracted by humans - has come at the worst possible time for a hospitality industry already grappling with the worst global recession since World War II.
Tourism and hospitality companies felt the effects of the news, with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) seeing its shares fall by 5% in one day.
But the outbreak is just one in a long list of global events that have hit the sector in recent years, such as terror attacks in 2001 and 2005, the Sars outbreak, the Iraq war and bird flu, and the industry appears committed to follow the advice of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC): Don't panic.
Industry bodies such as the British Hospitality Association and VisitBritain have played down the potential impact of swine flu on UK tourism, while the WTTC stressed that crises such as Sars have left the tourism industry well placed to cope.
Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the WTTC, said: "I would like to stress that the level of preparedness for such a pandemic within the industry is much better than most people realise, since mechanisms to deal with global health risks have been stepped up considerably since SARS and avian flu."
Jonathan Langston, managing director of TRI Hospitality Consulting, agreed that the industry was in good shape to cope. He said that, although the crisis facing the hospitality industry was similar to the conditions in 1991, following the economic slowdown and the first Iraq war, the market will have greater resistance to corporate discounting, and will reap the benefits of the internet, better distribution, more rapid sales and marketing techniques.
But experts have also warned against complacency, pointing to the impact of major global events. In 2003 - post foot-and-mouth, 11 September, the Iraq war and Sars - the UK tourism industry lost an estimated £3b as visitors stayed away.
In its Tourism Impact Analysis Report, VisitBritain said that, after the London bombings in July 2005, growth was reduced significantly and cost the UK visitor economy about £750m and London tourism more than £500m in forecast earnings during the year. And the UK took up to two years for its visitor economy to recover fully to the level of activity that would have been achieved in the absence of any attack.
TRI summed up the impact of global events on the sector in a report in 2004. "The hotel industry in particular is highly susceptible to the events that make significant changes to people's behaviour," it said. "Consequently the hotel industry has had to become highly responsive and resilient in order to trade through and recover from adverse market conditions."
So what can hoteliers do in to minimise impact of swine flu? Starwood and Marriott said they had been monitoring flu outbreaks for a number of years by keeping in touch with the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization and had also been meeting with local and national agencies to discuss pandemic flu issues. They also have a "Pandemic Preparedness Task Force" with plans and procedures in place which meets regularly, especially as outbreaks occur.
As well as putting in place flu management and response plans, both IHG and Starwood are waiving cancellation fees for individuals with reservations at hotels in Mexico up to 31 May. They are also considering group reservation requests for waivers of cancellation fees on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, the impact on foreign travel could turn out to be a boost for domestic tourism. Figures from VisitBritain show that UK residents were still taking and planning more trips within the UK in the summer of 2004 - a year after Sars and the invasion of Iraq.
And while the implications of swine flu are "frightening", individual operators can't do much to control global events, pointed out Craig Bancroft, managing director of the Northcote Group and Ribble Valley Inns, which has just taken on its fourth pub - the Bull at Broughton in Yorkshire (see Caterersearch for more details).
"All you can do is control the world you live in: control your product base, look after your customers and make sure everyone who walks through your doors loves it," he said.
The Government has issued a swine flu guidance document for the hospitality industry. Advice includes:
- Educate staff to wash their hands after touching or shaking hands with an infected person before touching their mouth, nose of eyes.
- Review the contact details of all staff and check on reports of staff illness at the start of each day.
- Review plans for dealing with above-average levels of staff absence.
- Ensure that adequate supplies of cleaning material are readily available and that there are procedures for cleaning hard surfaces - and that they are cleaned more than usual.
- Review booking conditions to encourage those that are ill not to travel.
- Review restaurant service arrangements and avoid self service to reduce the number of people handling the same utensils.
- Review check-in arrangements to try and ensure that contact between guests leaving and arriving is minimised.