Hospitality And Tourism Experts Research Solutions And Offer Hope For A Covid-Wracked Industry
COVID-19 was a lesson in adaptability for the hospitality and tourism industry. As the virus spread and killed thousands of people, hotels, restaurants, bars and event spaces closed. The costs to the industry were sizable. Global revenue for travel and tourism plunged nearly $4.5 trillion and the industry lost 62 million jobs in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
In the midst of the devastation, USF Sarasota-Manatee campus hospitality and tourism experts, Cihan Cobanoglu, Faizan Ali and Adam Carmer, shifted their focus to research the unprecedented situation. Along the way, they provided encouragement, training and a path to resilience for people around the globe.
“We wanted to give people hope and help them find their way, because the industry was lost,” said Cobanoglu, a professor, McKibbon Endowed Chair and director of the M3 Center for Hospitality Technology and Innovation. “They didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We wanted to provide a light so they could see around.”
Predicting the Future
Near the start of the pandemic, Cobanoglu and Ali, an assistant professor and graduate coordinator for the USF School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, predicted heavy losses for the industry. A survey they conducted in March 2020 of more than 2,000 travelers from 28 countries showed that 63.8% would reduce their travel plans in the next 12 months. The study also projected hospitality/tourism business losses of 50% for 2020.
“At the end of the day, this is the reason we have universities. We want to help impact
our environment, industry, people, and educate people to do jobs.”
Their study was one of the first to forecast the industry’s demise. It was featured in The Conversation, a popular online repository of research articles, as well as in Forbes, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. Albeit a gloomy message, the study helped prepare the hospitality/tourism industry for a sustained economic downturn and further positioned the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and the M3 Center as industry thought leaders.
It also proved to be an epiphany for Cobanoglu. “What we found in that initial study is that what determines whether people travel is their level of confidence,” he said. “We have seen in the top moments of COVID that some people would still travel, unless it was banned 100%. This has nothing to do with the level of threat. The way these people perceived it as a threat was very different.”
Armed with this knowledge, Cobanoglu developed a survey instrument to measure consumer confidence: The American Travel Confidence Index. “We are seeing the confidence index is a great predictor of how many people are traveling now and how many will travel in the coming months,” he said. “This will be a tool that we can use to predict travel demand in the future.”
Opening Doors in a Post-Crisis World
In light of the job loss forecast, Cobanoglu spearheaded the development of an online certificate to help hospitality workers prepare for a post-COVID-19 industry and to pivot their skills to new careers, if necessary. Partnering with Open edX, an open-source learning platform, the M3 Center hosted a tuition-free, Post-Crisis Hospitality Management Certificate program. It was the first massive open online course (MOOC) offered by USF.
“With open-source technology, it cost us $100. All of our faculty volunteered to teach,” Cobanoglu said.
The program combined academic insights with real-world examples and industry testimonials. Roughly 6,000 students from more than 100 countries registered for the seven-week course.
“My biggest takeaway was hearing from industry leaders about how they maintained their businesses and improved upon them during this pandemic,” said course participant Clarence Burge II, who works at Walt Disney Company and Universal Orlando Resort. “It truly showed me that transformative practices, re-invention, and creativity are what it takes to survive.”
Helping Brands Shape the Message
Already crippled by storefront closures, Faizan Ali, who taught a marketing course for the certificate, recognized the hospitality industry needed help with its brand messaging.
“I noticed that early-on in the pandemic, for the most part brands were all saying the same thing. Everyone was talking about social distancing and cleanliness. The CDC was also saying this.”
Should brands be the purveyors of health and safety messaging, Ali asked himself, or do people want something else from their brands? A nationwide survey confirmed his suspicions.
“We saw 86% of respondents say that brands can be a positive, unifying force during a crisis by connecting consumers,” he said. Brands have a large platform through which they can influence public opinion, as well as financial resources, media coverage, and in some cases virtual communities. Most of these resources are focused on monetizing a product or service; but survey respondents said these could also be used for public good, he said.
The study also found that in a pandemic, people want brands to talk about available products and services, and how they’re dealing with their employees, e.g., layoffs or furloughs – not public health recommendations.
In another 2020 study, Ali assessed consumers’ perceptions of brands that took a stand on social issues related to COVID-19. During COVID-19, some brands temporarily changed their logos to reflect their support of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety recommendations. “McDonalds changed its logo so that the M was separated, to promote social distancing. Starbucks put a mask on its mermaid logo. ... Audi separated the circles in its logo,” he said.
Ali found that consumers were divided on the practice. “Right wing political stance holders absolutely hated brands for doing it,” he said. “More leftist-middle leaning people, they actually liked it. There is no way a brand can make everybody happy.”
Ali suggested that companies use data analytics and crowd/social media monitoring strategies to determine when, where, how and how much to take a stand on social issues. Brands could also host panel discussions that feature differing points of view. After listening to its consumers, the brand can better justify the public stance that it takes, he said.
Innovating Safety Options
Ali and Cobanoglu’s studies on consumer confidence also saw benefits for businesses that adopted technology and digital processes. “For example, during the pandemic, some people didn’t want to touch menus,” Cobanoglu said. Restaurants that created QR codes that allowed people to access menus digitally with their cell phones, and hotels that offered contactless check-in processes saw increases in customer loyalty.
The key is not to force the technology, he said. “Our research tells us that confidence level is determined on an individual level, so you need to give people options so they can pick and choose. ‘Options’ is the new buzz word in hospitality, based on our research.”
Another study conducted by Cobanoglu and Ali, found that consumer confidence increases when hotel and restaurant workers wear masks. Solid black masks provided the greatest level of customer assurance, based on the survey. The study was published online in January 2021 in The Conversation.
“Our goal [with these studies] is to help the industry cope with this [crisis],” Cobanoglu said.
Helping to feed that industry are educators, who are developing tomorrow’s hospitality/tourism professionals. The pandemic strained the talent pipeline. Professors had to create or adapt curricula to an online or hybrid delivery method – in a matter of days – and students also had to adjust.
“It was panic-gogy,” a place where panic and pedagogy intersect, said Adam Carmer, coining a phrase from a colleague. An assistant professor and chair of the Beverage Education Special Interest Group (SIG) of the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education (ICHRIE), Carmer organized a faculty learning community for beverage educators, to brainstorm virtual classroom solutions and support each other during the transition.
A particularly challenging course to convert to online delivery was the sensory perception of wine tasting. A talented sommelier identifies a wine’s varietal, its region of origin and the type of soil where the wine’s grapes are grown, without ever looking at a label. Books don’t teach these skills, Carmer said.
He should know. In 2008, he invented the Carmer Spirits Tasting Enhancement Method, only the second of two tasting methods in the world. He was knighted in Belgium in 2014, in recognition of his work in beverage education.
“Experiential learning is not just the flavor of the week. Especially in hospitality, most every student values their experiential learning, just like a medical student working on a cadaver would value that experience,” Carmer said.
The SIG’s 136 beverage instructors – from around the globe – met weekly to discuss how best to teach these valuable lessons in the new COVID environment. Carmer and five other SIG members consequently compiled a case study on the topic. The Wine Business Journal published the resulting article, “An inquiry into the pedagogy of the sensory perception tasting component of wine courses in the time of COVID-19.”
The study filled a knowledge gap for a valuable subset of wine industry stakeholders: beverage educators.
“The idea was to make a meaningful, valuable impact – and oftentimes in our business in academia that’s through research and publication,” Carmer said.
Cobangolu and Ali share his sentiment.
“At the end of the day, this is the reason we have universities. We want to help impact our environment, industry, people, and educate people to do jobs.”
Even as the hospitality and tourism industries begin to bounce back from the effects of COVID-19, Cobanoglu predicts the economic sting of the pandemic will endure.
“Meeting exhibitions, industry fairs, shows and conferences, those are going to be impacted 30%,” he said. “If today the World Health Organization said there is no pandemic in the world, 30 percent of that demand will never come back. COVID has changed the behavior of people, mostly of business travelers.”