Trade Talk: Christine Galle of Heavens Portfolio

The Managing Director of the Asia-based PR firm, which represents luxury hotels and high-end wellness resorts around the world, talks about weathering the current storm and post-Covid trends.

All photos courtesy of Heavens Portfolio

What is the most significant challenge facing your business right now?

I would say the lack of visibility and uncertainty of a timeline for when countries will reopen their borders and when restrictions will ease. In other words, we have a limited view on when things will go back to “normal” again.

We have had to constantly update and revise our sales and marketing plans. At the beginning, the plans were based on the closure of the China market and to provide messages of support to our China partners. That was followed by the closure of the rest of the world, and the partial reopening of the China market when we provided messages of support from China to the rest of the world.

HR and team management have also been challenging—it can be difficult as a leader dealing with all this uncertainty to try to stay positive and motivate your team. I have kept a positive outlook on it to ensure our team would remain hopeful throughout, but it’s also a delicate balance in managing cash flow versus sustaining the right team members to ensure deliverables to clients are completed.

A guest room at EAST Hong Kong. Swire Hotels is a client of Heavens Portfolio (HP).

What steps has Heavens Portfolio been taking to stay afloat in these uncertain times?

Both our company and our clients have had to restructure our head counts to sustain sufficient cash flow for the months when the world was on lockdown. We have had to implement phases of partial unpaid leave with our remaining staff to reduce the company’s expenses as much as possible. A number of our hotel clients have furloughed or reduced pay for their staff and put their teams on hold. We are also diversifying our business and finding new sources of revenue. In light of the major economic downturn, to protect the weakest we hope to see more hotel brands initiating or increasing their charitable initiatives to support those in need.

A bird’s-eye view of tented lodgings at Indonesia’s Bawah Reserve, another HP client.

How have your clients had to adapt to this new reality of social distancing measures and sweeping travel restrictions?

Our hotel clients have all implemented additional housekeeping and sanitation procedures ahead of their reopenings for domestic guests. Across the board, we’ve seen new measures introduced for the cleaning of rooms, and modified check-in and checkout processes to facilitate social distancing practices.

Hotel dining establishments have also rearranged their seating layouts to ensure proper distancing between patrons and are now encouraging in-room dining instead of restaurant dining. Staff health is also closely monitored, with practices such as regular temperature checks, mandatory wearing of masks and gloves and other similar measures.

The Patchouli Suite at Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand.

In your opinion, which consumers and markets will lead the recovery of the travel and tourism sector?

We have big hopes that China will drive the recovery; however, that is contingent on the world’s attitude to Chinese travelers and we hope that there will be no anti-China sentiment to limit such recovery. We are hopeful that not only China but India can also drive the luxury sector after China. Singapore and other key Southeast Asia countries can present some potential but only the larger markets like China and India will be able to fill the gap left open by European and American travelers in the immediate recovery.

The recovery will also be determined by how governments and economies work together.
With every country on survival mode, likely the majority will be focusing on their domestic recovery, but soon after there will a need for all to think about the regional and global situations too. Much cooperation and opportunities can arise from such crises. I have no doubt we humans have the capacity to create such opportunities.

A two-bedroom beach villa at eco-conscious resort The Datai Langkawi.

What lasting changes do you think we’ll see in the industry after the pandemic passes?

We are going to be a lot more concerned about hygiene and travel will have to yet again adapt to the new norms—masks for instance, longer check-in and security screening at airports, and most likely we will see more free independent travelers and off-the-beaten-track travel with perhaps higher demand for smaller or boutique establishments rather than large operators. On the top end we expect to see a surge in private-plane travel and I would like to see more hotel operators perhaps enhancing their arrival and departure services to fit this category of travelers.

We think nature will be a big factor in travel from now, along with wellness and health for the next one to two years. Family travel will also likely see a boost as the social distancing measures appear to have bolstered familial relationships. Meaningful and experiential travel will prevail. I am hoping this pandemic would have made our world realize the importance of the environment and being sustainable in our everyday actions. This crisis also reminds us that being genuinely kind is the foundation of the hospitality industry.

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