3 hospitality trends for 2021

The headlines in hospitality right now are bleak. Hospitality giant Disney recently announced another mass layoff, bringing its total to 32,000 people out of work. The American Hotel & Lodging Association states that at the beginning of 2020, there were 57,000 hotels across the U.S. A recent survey found 52 percent of hotels will close without additional aid.

Typically, posts looking back at a year reflect upon the year’s accomplishments, highlights and reviews. Sometimes they forecast upcoming trends or predictions for the year ahead—but as we continue to reel (and adapt) to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this forecast looks different. That’s my intention with this post—to predict three trends I see being prevalent in hospitality in 2021 as direct outcomes from the year we’ve experienced in this hard-hit industry.


2020 put us through the wringer. Not only from a business perspective, but the pandemic hit us hard at home, at school, in our communities, and disrupted daily life. Hotel professionals endured the same struggles, watching vacancies span days, then weeks, and into months-long stretches hurting revenue and pride. When someone works in the hospitality industry, empathy is a leading strength. Without someone to serve, it becomes hard to find the purpose and passion in the day to day. So by trade, we’re an empathetic bunch. Our profession is dedicated to serving and understanding and being inclusive.

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I predict empathy will be even more important in the New Year as we return to work and normalcy—whenever that happens. I saw firsthand how our team responded to the needs and challenges all around them, day in and day out, as they struggled with their own needs. In our Ralston, Neb., community, our team responded to a mom displaced by unemployment to offer secure housing for her and her two girls through collaboration with Nebraska Children. As a company built on family values, we wholeheartedly extend those values to everyone we can.

Every person has his or her own beliefs about COVID-19, often accompanied by fear and anxiety. And rightfully so. We’re adhering and responding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local, state and national guidelines plus our own company guidelines, and it changes so often. Managing that plus the human aspect of individuals—employees and guests alike—takes patience, dedication, understanding and empathy.

And it will take even more empathy into the foreseeable future.

Community Involvement

I read an article from Fortune about the collapse of small businesses amidst the pandemic stating more than 100,000 establishments that faced temporary closures have now closed permanently. Small businesses employ nearly half the private-sector workforce, making this phenomenon an even greater problem. The hospitality and service industries in particular have been hit hard with layoffs and closures. I’ve seen it firsthand in the communities our properties are located. It’s heartbreaking. People in the service industry are givers by nature and many have built their dreams around offering a place for others to congregate, share meals, celebrate togetherness. Watching those businesses close … is so hard.

Yet with any negative impact comes the opportunity to grow and chase the silver linings. The second trend I see being impactful in 2021 is community involvement. At KAJ, we have a program called KAJ Cares where our properties and employees team up to support the local economy and community organizations. This program has done incredible things for our culture and employees’ well-being. It ties them to the community they work and live in, and broadens their viewpoints in order to better serve our guests. For travelers, seeking concierge-type service from hotel employees who are fully vested in their communities means a richer experience during their stay and increases the likelihood of return visits.

The Rebuild

2021 is going to be a tough year, especially the first half as we wait for vaccines and manage the ramp-up of COVID-19 post-winter months. We haven’t heard the worst news or seen the data from our industry paint an accurate picture just yet. There will be a lot of hospitality-based companies that can’t justify staying in business. Our industry will need to collaborate and set aside any competition in order to protect and promote our craft. Opportunities will be plentiful to invest in this industry and get in at the ground level for what will be a generational restructure and rebuild of the hospitality industry.

Many of us will look at current operations to gauge efficiencies and long-term goals. Do we have the right people and processes in place? Have we dedicated the right time and resources to the most impactful areas—like recruitment, retention and guest service? How will we serve our people, especially our employees who have dealt with so much through the fatigue and uncertainty of the future? Rebuilding will look a lot more like reinvesting in our people.

Looking Forward

As people prepare for a new year, they seek improvement in both their personal and professional lives. We start with ambitious goals and a vision for execution. I can’t help but think of our mindset and outlook from one year ago. We had no idea we were going to be met with a pandemic this year. Who would have thought? But those of us in hospitality are nimble and quick to change course. We think on our feet and seek first to serve.

I look forward to the day when the world starts moving again. When we can engage and interact with people without COVID-19-related fear or judgment. And more importantly, I look forward to the day when operating hotels goes back to embracing the true sense of hospitality. Right now we spend so much time trying to preserve cash and keep the doors open that we tend to lose sight of why we’re in this business in the first place.

People. We’re here for people.

Aaron Johnson is the chief vision officer for KAJ Hospitality.