Tasmanian accommodation and travel providers and still doing it tough in a post-COVID world.
Guests staying at The Woodbridge have been commenting. Many Tasmanian accommodation and travel providers, and hospitality businesses seem to either be not operating. Or they are only operating limited hours.
They are right! Even some top restaurants are only operating a shortened week.
Recently a local provider of self-contained accommodator phoned to say thank-you. Apparently the drivers for a series tour group that uses our property are now booked in to her accommodations. She commented how slow the season is and said that this regular booking is helping her keep afloat.
There is no doubt that hospitality businesses that stayed open over the winter have had a very lean few months. In fact a recent tourism newsletter said that it has been a very ‘tough 6-8 months’. And ‘business confidence’ surveys are indicating that nobody expects it to improve any time soon.
The Woodbridge has been operating as a small luxury hotel since 2007.
Significantly, back then, reservations were made months, if not years in advance – signed, sealed and paid for. Back then travel agents reigned supreme, and online reservations and OTAs were only starting to dominate. (OTA stands for Online Travel Agent, like booking.com and Expedia.)
One of the saddest trends that I have noticed is that so many of the travel agents that I communicated with, no longer pick up. So many went out of business during COVID or in the post-COVID ‘troubles’.
The other, and possibly the hardest to navigate has been the shift to last minute reservations. We all understand why this has happened. because of o many people either lost money or were left with time-sensitive credits. They are in no hurry to go back there.
So consumers either book very last minute or expect ‘full refund, change of date’ flexibility. Last minute reservations is very difficult as one cannot plan. How many staff are needed? What produce to order, and what level of spoilage if it is not used. These have traditionally been the dilemma of restaurants, and you know how long many of these last!
But it also applies to other hospitality providers like accommodation, tour and experience providers.
And, bookings in advance can now be just as much if not more of a headache. Travellers now have the expectation of full flexibility. Travellers now expect full date change and full refund capability as the norm. It is an extension of the ‘I want it all, and I want it now’ mentality … and we are all guilty of it.
The problem is that it can remove all availability from the booking platforms in advance. Providers think they are full, put on staff and plan for the full house, only to have an avalanche of last minute cancellations.
(I have previously blogged that the recent building boom of additional hotels in Hobart have caused oversupply of accommodation. This combined with slowing numbers continues to challenge accommodation suppliers)
The headlines about “we want our money” dominated the news.
Everyone understood that everyone was hurting financially, but that recognition did not make it easier.
Small operators, and even the giants like Qantas could not refund everything just like that. Cashflow in any business is a cyclical thing. I know of one highly successful restaurant that had a very successful marketing campaign for gift vouchers in the lead up to Christmas 2019. I heard that they almost went bust because nobody could use the vouchers and wanted refunds. Unfortunately the monies had already been used in getting set up for the increased demand that they anticipated for use of the vouchers in the new year.
At The Woodbridge we extended and repeatedly extended our Covid credits, trying to accommodate all our disappointed guests. We finally closed credits off in September 2023, almost 5 years after the first outbreak.
And nobody knew when things would turn around. And there were so many false starts.
Staffing became and continues as a major obstacle to tourism and hospitality operations. Many hospitality operators depend on casual staff because there is no regular pattern of trade. These operators did not qualify for the government’s job-keeper programmes, which applied only to full time staff. Staff had to seek work elsewhere or contact Centrelink.
At the Woodbridge, we had had the same staff working with us for years, some since we started in 2007. They had happily worked extra casual hours during our tourism season. Doing this they made the money in one hit, and then did their own thing during the downturn the winter months. We lost most of these. They went with our blessing, our recommendation and our gratitude for years of service. They had families to feed and lives to live.
As borders opened and interstate travel was encouraged, John and I did a lot of travelling around Australia. Everywhere we went there were signs begging for staff. One car dealership on a major city had hired a huge flashing roadside sign as they were on a major thoroughfare. They were essential saying ‘We need you. Write your own salary and terms!”
Where ever we ate or stayed, or pumped petrol, the signs were up for staff. When they heard of our background, John and I were repeatedly offered jobs .. for “as long as you can”.
And so many places we saw on our travels were just closed.
People forget – if you don’t have staff, you can’t operate.
The fallout continues. So many businesses are still closed.
Finally in 2023, I am see our staffing situation improving, but we still cannot operate to full capacity. It has been hard.
And now Australian tourism is being hit by pent-up demand for overseas travel, and the tourism dollar is heading off-shore.
I recently watched a media discussion that confirmed what we had all been experiencing. Australians are eager to go overseas in 2023-24. Hospitality providers already knew this – domestic travellers were just were not coming.
And stats confirmed what anecdotal evidence reported – international travel has not yet kicked back in.
We knew this was so in Tasmania, but I realised how dire and widespread the malaise was when I heard a report that Uluru was ‘just not happening this season’.
The analogy of the heading might seem a bit far fetched, but it is not. Hospitality is theatre. And like theatre it always puts its best foot forward. Put on the face and perform your heart out.
Everyone puts on the brave face, says ‘things will look up’ and keeps on keeping on.
And hospitality is like theatre in that it is addictive. Everybody loves a winner! Nothing feels as good as when the show is playing out brilliantly, the ‘audience’ loves it. Hospitality staff like actors bath in the applause.
But sadly, for some Tasmanian accommodation and travel and hospitality providers, the curtain eventually falls for the last time.