Will Airlines Be Hotels’ Biggest Enemy in the Recovery?

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In earnings calls and conference commentary this year, all I hear about is optimism related to the still untapped potential of pent-up travel demand.

A lot of that is tied to leisure travel, the segment that has already led the recovery. It has left many hoteliers hopeful there is still more upside to unlock, and more and more of it is tied to the return of business travel, which has shown some early signs of life.

As an active traveler myself, I can say there is definitely something very real about this return of travel, and it really is quite joyous to get back into the world and experience new places after a prolonged period of hibernation.

But I caution all hoteliers to keep something extremely vital in mind: All is not right in the world of travel.

Anyone who has been out on the road, or more appropriately up in the skies, over the past year or so can tell you that the overall experience of traveling is more stressful, expensive and anxiety-inducing than it has ever been. There is a single, simple reason for that: The air travel experience right now is atrocious.

In my months back as a business traveler, I don’t think I’ve had a single trip that wasn’t hit by some airline-related woes, usually in the form of significant delays or outright cancellations to flights. The staffing issues in the airline industry, particularly among pilots, are well-documented, and it’s easy to see the domino effect playing out in reality, but as a traveler, that doesn’t make things any less stressful as they happen in real time .

Personally, I only need to think back as far as last week to recall a time air travel made an otherwise wonderful trip into a quagmire. On the morning of my flight to Berlin — as the HNN team was embarking to cover the 2022 International Hospitality Investment Forum — the first leg of my flights was canceled without warning or explanation.

What was slated to be a simple journey from Cleveland to Newark to Berlin, with an extra legroom seat booked for the trans-Atlantic portion of my travels and ample time to adjust to the time shift before covering the conference, turned into a 24-hour slog from Cleveland to Chicago — O’Hare, of course — to Munich and finally to Berlin, getting me to my final destination just in time to eat and try to sleep before having to hit the ground running the next morning.

And my experience with the airlines is not novel or unique. The latest survey from JD Power shows satisfaction with air travel is down across the board

One is left to wonder just how much tolerance for a bad experience travelers will have. I agree that it’s true people want to travel and experience the world, but absolutely no one wants to get stuck at O’Hare overnight or to spend all day stressing about missing a connection because their initial flight was seemingly randomly delayed an hour. And even in the best-case scenario, the feeling that airlines are treating you like cattle rather than valued customers is more heightened than I can ever remember.

Everyone loves to go to new places and do new things, but just how far can the airlines push things before people say enough is enough and the whole experience just isn’t worth the hassle? Couple that with rapidly increasing airfares and limited airlift to many destinations, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster — especially in markets on the smaller side, such as Cleveland. If you’ve only got one direct flight from point A to point B each day, how much are you willing to risk that flight being randomly canceled and all of your plans thrown out of whack for literally days?

I hate to be such a naysayer on the travel recovery, and overall I still think things are heading in a great direction for the hotel industry, but it has to be frustrating to know so much of the travel journey is completely out of your hands as a hotelier. Guests want a great travel experience, and no matter how great their stay is right now, no hotel can guarantee that for the time being.

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