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Business travel in Covid era

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Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The business travel segment was booming before the health crisis struck in early 2020, contributing 13.5 per cent of the total international visitors in the previous year.
  • In spite of the heavy hit from the pandemic that saw occupancy rates plunge to decades low, Nairobi was last November named Africa’s leading Business Travel Destination in the 2020 World Travel Awards, highlighting the potential of the segment.
  • Since easing of Covid-19 health curbs last September, recovery of the hotel industry has been slow.
  • A Central Bank of Kenya survey showed that most hotels had reopened in October, but a follow up study put the average occupancy at 26 per cent.

As the Kenyan hotel industry pursues different strategies to speed up recovery from the debilitating effects of Covid-19, one segment is evolving to regain and build up on its pre-pandemic growth momentum.

The business travel segment was booming before the health crisis struck in early 2020, contributing 13.5 per cent of the total international visitors in the previous year.

In spite of the heavy hit from the pandemic that saw occupancy rates plunge to decades low, Nairobi was last November named Africa’s leading Business Travel Destination in the 2020 World Travel Awards, highlighting the potential of the segment.

Since easing of Covid-19 health curbs last September, recovery of the hotel industry has been slow. A Central Bank of Kenya survey showed that most hotels had reopened in October, but a follow up study put the average occupancy at 26 per cent.

To speed up their recovery, airport hotels, which largely target business travellers, are changing the way they do business in response to their sensitive clientele.

Corporate clients are prioritising hygiene and safety when choosing accommodation facilities for their employees.

Hotels such as Crown Plaza Nairobi Airport, Four Points by Sheraton Nairobi Airport and Hilton Garden Inn Nairobi Airport are looking to refine their customer experience in response to the new demands and in so doing, keep the plum contractual agreements with airlines and other multinationals.

Their location within and near the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport makes them an easy pick by business travellers jetting into the country for meetings, trade shows, product launches or marketing campaigns owing to their convenience and easy connectivity.

Besides international travellers, the facilities are also preferred by locals flying to Mombasa or those who have just landed in the late hours and wish to rest before travelling to upcountry areas like Eldoret or Kisumu.

“We are lucky that we still have some traffic especially with airline crews. That has been our bread and butter,” said Mr Barnabas Wamoto, general manager at Crown Plaza Nairobi Airport.

“Before coronavirus we were able to hit occupancies above 90 per cent, which is phenomenal. Once Covid-19 checked in, this reduced by more than 60 per cent,” he added.

Most of the airport hotels have adopted strict hygiene and cleaning measures since resumption of passenger flights across most global cities last year to attract bookings.

“Organisations are not worried about price, but rather health and safety levels. Therefore, rates have become secondary concerns. There is also a need to communicate about transportation and government directives prior to arrival,” said Mr Lorenzo Baleri, general manager at Hilton Garden Inn Nairobi Airport.

Minimal contact

The hotels are also changing operations including use of QR codes for scanning menu, reservation process which are done online prior to checking in and payment details. This way, the visitor just receives their room key on arrival, minimising contact and possible infection risk.

Hybrid conference facilities

The management at Hilton has prepared their rooms to support virtual meetings, in anticipation of bookings.

“Business from airlines has reduced due to the minimal movement (after return of restrictions in Europe in January). However, we are seeing communication of resumption from February. The hotel is putting up a hybrid meeting set up to make sure conferencing facilities and rooms are compatible with members who will still be required to travel for business,” Mr Baleri said.

“We are also spending to ensure wireless internet connectivity, as well as offering a nice quiet room with office desk setting or a small conferencing room.”

Exclusive technology

And in response to the new normal, the hotels are also looking to tap exclusive hospitality technology whereby guests will not need to get a physical key from the reception but will have access through a mobile phone application (app).

Along with the changes by the hotels, the traveller is seen being more cautious than ever.

Expectations for most businesses travellers include convenience, comfort of room, recreational activities and connectivity such as the internet.

Guests are expected to be more enlightened on the services and experiences.

"It’s been a long season of alienation and since mostly they travel alone, they will also be looking for personal touch in the service,” Mr Wamoto observed.

In 2019, the country received 2,048,834 visitors out of which 63.15 per cent came in for holidays, 13.5 per cent for business and conference, 10.6 per cent were visiting family and friends while 12.75 per cent flew in for sports, medical, shopping or education.

The total revenue including from the international tourism travel was Sh163.56 billion, representing a 64.1 per cent increase from Sh99.69 billion in 2016 (and 1,342,899 visitors).

Majority of those international travellers are aged between 35-44 years (30 per cent) 25-34 years (29 per cent) and 45-54 years (18 per cent).

Top leading months for travel included January, June, July, August, September and December.

The recovery of the tourism industry is still dim as the growth of the travellers expected to go at a slow pace translating to weak demand for the facilities.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) passenger numbers are expected to rise 62 per cent in 2021 off the depressed 2020 base, which will still be down almost 30 per cent compared to 2019.

A full recovery to 2019 levels is not expected until 2023.

The players, however remain optimistic, predicting the need to adopt cost management measures without affecting the standards, while also increase incentives to travel agents.

Vaccination boost

“We are optimistic that with the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine, more people will be able to travel for business and leisure. There will be a shift in the way we do business in the future as we embrace the technological innovations that will see the movement of people change. We are already seeing a pick-up in enquiries from our global accounts which is a good sign,” Mr Baleri added.

“The reduction of air traffic has directly affected us. We are hopeful with the news on the vaccine, that we shall resume our business well in the second quarter and be able to pick up in the last quarter,” Mr Wamoto added.