Insider: The world was our oyster

(Nanjing China)

The world used to be our oyster and now our oyster is closed. Oysters can do a lot worse, of course, which is what we are hoping to avoid. The question which is now paramount for the sector is when will the oyster reopen and will it reveal pearls or grit?

In the search for treasure all eyes and been turning east to China, where occupancy was up to 20% as hotels started to reopen. By Thursday Huazhu told analysts that it had 93.5% of its hotels in operation, achieving 62% occupancy, the kind of figures which give a market cheer. Respectable figures. Figures to base a business plan on.

Ignoring for a moment whether the virus will return - and China is keeping a close eye on its borders to keep it at bay - getting occupancy up further will depend on who is travelling and why. The country’s state planning commission issued a statement calling for an upgrade in products to try and encourage domestic consumption - the only consumption it will see for now.

Fosun Tourism happily answered the call, with the group’s chairman commenting that the outbreak meant that “consumers generally expect a higher quality and better service in tourism” and that the epidemic was “changing consumers’ perception on consumption profoundly”.

At this point in the outbreak guessing how the consumer will change is a matter for a Boggle set and a bottle of whisky. No-one knows but it is fun to make stuff up. What is apparent about the return of China is that caution is going to be a factor. And, unless a vaccine is found, social distancing will pay a role. Huazhu was at pains to highlight its 26-stage cleaning process in hotels. Many is the time a guest will have wondered to themselves who slept in the bed before them (for crying out loud don’t check behind the headboard. Ever.) now they are likely to wonder what the person before them may have been carrying. For this reason the large brands may be able to provide reassurance in a way platforms such as Airbnb will not.

Competition for guests will be greater, at a time when Europe is experiencing a historic high in supply. As STR pointed out this week, group business will be affected, along with discretionary business travel. And of course, jettisoning us into all these locations, airlift remains critical. The UK government said this week that it wouldn’t bail airlines out unless it was a last resort - it will come to that. The US looks likely to be more supportive.

But, as people travel less, there is a chance to drive more loyalty. Actual, non-points-based loyalty. When travellers are less blasé, less tenth-business-hotel-in-a-month, they will notice their surroundings and their treatment more. The search for witches in all this has meant that any company behaving badly during this epidemic has suffered potentially fatal reputational damage. Those who remember how to make travel special - and help to reassure those returning nervously to the fray - are likely to see the doubloons tumble in.