Responding to change: leading trends and navigating the future

How Radisson is rebuilding confidence in travel by introducing and evolving new concepts faster than ever before.

The team at PACE Dimensions regularly conducts interviews with industry leaders to develop thought leadership on strategically important topics, sectors and markets. In an interview with the Global Chief Commercial Officer of Radisson Hotel Group, Eric De Neef shares the latest trends that the renowned hotel chain has embraced.

Rebuilding the confidence of customers is a universal challenge for those in the travel and hospitality industry, and one that Radisson has embraced head on. As we move firmly into a world that is still working out how to live with Covid-19, Radisson is proud of its agility, speed and flexibility. Eric De Neef, global chief branding & commercial officer at Radisson is bullish about the need to jump on a trend fast to continue to achieve success, “Speed to market is so important today. We were proud to be a lean business pre the pandemic, but we ourselves recognise that we were slower than is now ideal. Today, we are almost surprised at how quickly we are able go sometimes, and fast is a new mindset. We take the philosophy that it is better to have made a mistake and corrected it than to have not done anything. Our success depends on moving faster than our competition, and providing more answers to the needs of our customers.”

Tapping into new travel and hospitality booking trends

And true to their promise, new services and options have been coming thick and fast for Radisson and are set to continue. Lots of different concepts were on the table pre-2020 and have been accelerated and evolved to meet the new demands of consumers. Radisson Individuals launched during the pandemic, recognising the consumer trends for more individual experiences, and the commercial reality facing non-branded hotels over the last few years. De Neef explains, “Hoteliers with non-branded hotels have suffered big-time as a result of Covid-19. With Radisson Individuals we provided the opportunity for these businesses to become part of our ecosystem, while retaining the individuality that made them appealing and unique.”

As well as the big brand shifts for the business, De Neef is also a keen follower of booking trends as-they-happen and ensuring that Radisson makes tweaks to enhance consumer confidence. “During the pandemic we’ve seen the average lead time for a booking drop by around 25 days, with bookings commonly only made eight days before travel,” De Neef explains. “It is not uncommon that bookings are made when the customer is already travelling. This means more bookings made via mobile, and that processes such as needing to secure a booking with a credit card are a real barrier to conversion. Tracking this data and being able to respond quickly is important. We’ve picked up a lot of bookings by simply removing the requirement to guarantee a room with a credit card ahead of arrival when booking on a mobile device. Engaging with our customers and understanding their drivers is so key; it is critical to be flexible.”

Monitoring search terms is one way in which Radisson is watching consumer trends. In the early months of the pandemic, searches related to travel looked at safety. Hotel brands followed suit quickly launching campaigns to highlight cleanliness and safety protocols that met the needs of customers. However today, travellers have moved on and there are new factors driving decision making. Google search trends show that one of the top themes in travel and hospitality currently is about flexibility in cancellation policies. “In the past having non-refundable options wasn’t an issue. Today, total flexibility is key. Historically being able to pull out of a booking two days before was enough, and not really a consideration. Now, to be successful, travel and hospitality businesses must offer total flexibility.”

How partnership and reinvention is shaping the recovery of the hospitality sector

De Neef is clear that the travel and hospitality sector must work together to plan for the future. He outlines, “in this environment we are all in the same boat. We were working with our OTA partners closely anyway, but now we are more active. The travel and hospitality sector must overcome the frenemy view of OTAs and rebuild the confidence of the traveller in our global industry all together, rather than only thinking about the small piece your own business represents. We need to reinvent our industry, to discover what trends will still remain, and to anticipate what trends might come up.”

Sustainability is one much-reported trend that Radisson has firmly been leading for some years. In 2018 the Radisson meetings and events proposition was carbon neutral, and in late 2021 it was enhanced further to be carbon negative. Greater consumer and corporate travel desire for better approaches to sustainability were emerging pre-pandemic, and it’s a trend that has continued to grow over the past few years. “Improved sustainability criteria  are one area where we can build consumer confidence, and mandatory minimum standards for hotel brands is something we see ahead of us. We’re a founding partner of a new initiative with the World Travel & Tourism Council and the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance to launch a common definition of hotel sustainability. This is part our efforts to support the industry’s return to business in a responsible way, driving positive impact for the planet,” adds De Neef.

Converging forces changing customer needs and expectations from hotel brands

The converging forces of sustainability and lockdowns are also changing corporate travel behaviour. De Neef describes, “Hybrid meetings have changed mindsets. There used to be little thought on if flying to attend a four hour meeting was the right thing to do, and now we are all very aware that for information-sharing sessions, we don’t need to be in the room. In relevant cases we get local people together, and stream in international colleagues. However, the magic happens when people meet and humans crave social engagement. Our industry needs to find new ways to interact and embrace innovative technology. Previously, around 30 per cent of travel and hospitality business was related to meetings. When you consider that one in three meetings, for example, could be virtual, then we have to reinvent ourselves.”

It is for these reasons that De Neef is clear that Travel Management Companies (TMCs) are under pressure, and together with hotels, there are no answers just yet. “As well as the impact of the pandemic, sustainability, new technology, and hybrid approaches to meetings are all reducing corporate travel, and we don’t know how the industry will evolve just yet. It is very clear that not everything can be done virtually,” De Neef states. “But there remains a trend to discover and concepts such as ‘bleisure’, which had little traction in the past with corporate travellers rarely combining business and leisure trips. Working from anywhere and expanded long-stay property portfolios from hotel brands, could truly change that.”

One area where Radisson accelerated its brand development recently has been in long stay properties. Dubbed “resilience products” by De Neef due to the appeal of such options to investors, serviced apartments from a trusted hotel brand are an important part of the growth mix for Radisson. “Given the buoyancy of the hotel market pre the pandemic, investing in hotel properties was a safe move. That changed over the last two years when most hotels were forced to close. Serviced apartments for long stays are a great answer to many changing trends. Travellers can stay, and work, from a location for longer, without the restrictions that come with a hotel packed with shared facilities during peak Covid-19 waves,” De Neef explains.

However, De Neef is also keen to point out that some trends seen during the pandemic are more of a distraction than something meaningful. Converting hotel rooms into places for those working-from-home to hire for the day has been an answer right now but is not something he sees having a place in the long term. De Neef says, “There is some added value for corporates when their people work from a hotel, such as safe protected wifi, but making bedrooms into offices doesn’t have long term appeal. The longevity in this trend is more about hotel brands having a quick response to market needs; we demonstrated we could jump on a trend with real speed and change what we already had.”

The future of hotel loyalty schemes – the role for personalisation

There will be changes coming thick and fast in Radisson’s loyalty schemes during 2022 as the business applies more personalisation to these programmes. De Neef is excited about the prospect of these new approaches, providing more ways to engage with customers. He outlines, “We see some real cultural differences around the world with how our guests respond and interact with loyalty programmes. In North America points are still relevant and very important. However, amongst our European and Asian guests, it is more about access to experiences than collecting point. We therefore need different approaches, and to maintain points as one element of schemes, but to also explore how the personalisation of schemes can come from the experiences guests can redeem instead.”

De Neef is passionate about the starting point of loyalty, saying, “Loyalty is built at a property level, it is all about the experience a guest has when they walk into one of our hotels. As a brand we have to give our properties the tools and back-end resources to nurture this loyalty into the future. Our vision is that how points or experiences are earned and redeemed can be customised, and that engagement with guests will always be central to everything.” Radisson is exploring how to let guests state what is important to them, and as De Neef defines, he is a strong believer that one size does not fit all.

“Price and discounts will always be important in loyalty schemes,” De Neef continues. “For example, we may see loyalty schemes where the guest can choose to have more of a discount on a particular booking, or more points. For those wanting instant gratification then the lower price might be more appealing, for others then having access to points than can be used to pay for a drink in the bar could be more valuable. Currently too many hotel loyalty programmes tell the guest what to do. We want a proposition that allows guests to do many different things and use their points to achieve different things. For some that will be about room rates, and for others it might be access to local events or museums. There are lots of opportunities here and I’m excited about the potential doors this new approach can open.”

Virtual lives and the impact of technology on the future of the travel and hospitality industry

Future gazing yet further ahead, and key trends for the travel and hospitality industry to grapple and decipher how they impact the long term are firmly rooted in technology for De Neef. “It is really interesting to see how virtual environments are evolving, and what this will mean in a couple of years. We have to be conscious of the impact of developments from Google, Amazon and Meta, to name a few, around the metaverse and start to think about what is coming our way,” explains De Neef. He adds, “There is an evolution happening in this area, and the young people who have grown up during the pandemic see it as normal not to travel to a place of work, to join a concert virtually, and to experience somewhere new via screens and headsets rather than in person. Our industry needs to understand this, and to be part of the change.”

Becoming a leader across many trends is a clear ambition for Radisson as the brand looks to continue to nurture the consumer confidence established during these difficult years. De Neef is most passionate about the changes that are “socially complicated” but intellectually exciting and challenging to begin to think about how to address. He notes how over the last few years it’s been a personal mission to learn how to train and coach people who are remote working, and to try and be good leader without regularly meeting someone. As he sums up, “It’s a whole new environment, and it throws much of what you know about change management on its head. That makes it exciting. We are always about to do something we’ve never done before.”

As part of its investment in research development, PACE Dimensions explores the trends across different sectors of the travel and hospitality industry through its executive interview series. The series of executive interviews are just one area in which PACE Dimensions provides thought leadership and advisory services to its clients. For more executive interviews please click here.

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