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Like staycations, ‘workations’ now in vogue

As international travel resumes, Rebecca Masri tells Candice Krieger about new trends that will emerge post-pandemic, including the rise of a phenomenon known as ‘bleisure’

Algarve , Portugal
Algarve , Portugal

The past year has been bleak for the hotel industry. Covid-19 brought travel to a standstill. For many, ‘travelling for work’ has meant taking a few steps to the kitchen table or makeshift home office.

Even with the successful vaccine roll-out, as international travel resumes on Monday and hotels welcome back clients, it is likely to take roughly three years for demand to return to 2019 levels, say reports. 

But as hotels reopen, a tech-transformed, agile hospitality sector will emerge, as will new trends. Among them, the birth of “bleisure” – combining business trips with leisure time. 

Luxury travel expert Rebecca Masri MBE explains: “The growth opportunities lie with leisure. We have already seen the average length of stay increase, as offices remain closed, there is more remote working, and people are not necessarily restricted to holiday days.”

 Masri is the founder of Little Emperors, a private members’ hotel club, which counts the Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton and Shangri-La among its portfolio. 

The Four Seasons, Hampshire

She says: “The pandemic has shown us people can work from anywhere and we have seen some very appealing offers from hotels that want to encourage longer stays.” 

Little Emperors’ average length of stay has increased from five to nine nights, and 70 percent of bookings made over the past few months have been extended after the guest has checked in. “‘Workations’ are popular, and I imagine this will continue to lead the return of leisure travel,” says Masri. 

The Global Business Travel Association anticipates one in three business travellers will add a leisure component into at least one of their business trips a year.  

 But Masri is well aware of the challenges the hospitality industry faces in 2021 – as hotels strive to overcome the tremendous hurdles of the past year. She predicts business travel will take the longest to recover,  as people have adjusted to remote working.

Rebecca Masri MBE (Photographer: Riccardo Lugermad)

According to reports, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation expects international tourist arrivals to be down about 85 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2019, representing a loss of some
260 million international arrivals when compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Unsurprisingly, the vaccine roll-out and consumer confidence will determine the speed of market recovery. According to research by Deloitte, there will be a substantially reduced number of overseas holidays in 2021. But counter to some projections, it suggests no significant change in the type of holiday, no great switch to the outdoors or away from luxury hotels, and no shift away from all-inclusive.

Little Emperors offers its 30,000-plus members access to preferential rates and guaranteed leisure and corporate benefits at 4,000 exclusive luxury hotels around the globe. Company bookings were in fact ‘up’ in 2020 (more than 10,000 taken), and Masri predicts this year to be the best one yet in terms of bookings, as members have more desire than ever to get away.

Baccarat Hotel, New York

 As of 17 May, foreign travel for Brits will reopen under a risk-based tiered traffic light system; ‘green’, ‘amber’ and ‘red’ categories based on a combination of risk factors.

 With Israel included on the ‘green list’, alongside Portugal and Gibraltar, Masri acknowledges it presents an exciting opportunity for the country’s tourist industry. Little Emperors has already taken Israel bookings
for September onwards. 

Speaking before this week’s rocket attacks from Hamas and violence in Jewish-Arab cities, she said: “There are many reasons to travel to
Israel, which will attract a new and hopefully repeat market. 

“The hotel game is getting stronger too, with The Norman being our members’ favourite boutique hotel in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, the Mamilla has attracted many visitors and, pre-Covid, we had an increase already noted in first timers ticking Israel off their bucket list. 

The Norman Hotel, Tel Aviv

“We are particularly excited for the opening of Six Senses Shaharut. I hope this opportunity to host a new audience will help in the recovery for all the tourism that has been missed this past year. Since the borders opened with the UAE and particularly Dubai, Israel has a high benchmark of hotels.”

 An avid traveller, Masri was inspired to set up Little Emperors in 2008. She was working at Goldman Sachs in London at the time. 

“The market took a tumble and the world headed into a global recession. I saw that the approved hotel list from the corporate travel programme at Goldman Sachs had also, in turn, changed significantly, with most luxury hotels being removed. 

Six Senses, Shaharut

“Coupled with the rise is SMEs [small and medium enterprises] that did not have their own volumes for rate negotiation as people were laid off from larger firms, I identified an opportunity and, together with some university friends created Little Emperors.” 

The company recently won the Four Seasons Preferred Partner Advisor Awards.

 With both a web and app-based presence, the enterprise has become more of a ‘tech’ company. Bookings can be completed in four clicks. 

And it’s tech that will shape travel going forward, as Masri explains: “When I started my tech journey at Little Emperors, I received some negative feedback from high-end luxury hotels concerned that tech would take away from the personalised experience people might expect. I was certain that technology would in fact personalise the guest experience, using AI [artificial intelligence] to customise and tactically suggest relevant offers and information. Now I can see a shift towards tech, as Covid has perhaps led people to want to ‘de-personalise’! Hotels are investing in their own apps – keyless entry, checking in and out on your app, in-app chats, in-room dining and restaurant menus.”

Keyless mobile phone entry

 As for other shifts, she cites Covid-safe protocol. “Regular cleaning, with stronger products, masks, testing, fewer touch points, no more buffet breakfasts; these are all present in hotels as they reopen in a ‘new
era’, and have become the ‘new normal’ way of travel.”

 Masri says the crisis has led to a greater emphasis on wellness and mindful travel. “Health and well-being have been at the forefront of peoples’ minds and I can see hotels offering more wellness programmes.”

Outdoor experiences are more in demand, as well as culinary ones. This is a direct result of lockdown, where people have been confined to their homes and are now seeking adventure and activities.

 Pre-pandemic, there was a shift towards new destination discovery, but Masri says this has not followed through. “Familiar favourites seem to be more popular. People may feel safer where they have been before. We have been forced to think about things such as hospitals in places that are not home, proximity to home and local familiarity. Finally, there’s the obvious trend for flexible hotel cancellation policies.”

 In 2015, Masri was awarded an MBE for her services to charity. Aged 15, she and a friend organised a play to raise funds for a bed for the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at St Mary’s Hospital. She has since taken on work for Israeli charity Afikim, and the Tree of Life, a non-profit foundation she founded. 

In recognition of her impact, she was invited by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to join the development board for the Legacy List, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park charity.

www.littleemperors.com

 

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