Hilton Vice President Australasia, Heidi Kunkel
Hilton Vice President Australasia, Heidi Kunkel

An unbreakable spirit and determination to look after each other was the underlying emotion to emerge from Day 2 of AHICE 2020 as leading hotel executives across the world committed to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic and prosper once again.

The Australasian Hotel Industry Conference and Exhibition, headline sponsored by Intrust Super and Hostplus, reached its conclusion with a strong and informative day of seminars, interviews and presentations at the Hyatt Regency Sydney. The day was watched on by a government-mandated capacity in-person crowd of 150, with more than 700 more watching on virtually from homes and offices around the world.

ARMA Managing Director, Melissa Kalan, discussed Revenue Management at a special breakfast panel.

Kicking off for Day 2 was a breakfast panel discussion by Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School, moderated by Australian Revenue Management Association CEO, Melissa Kalan. The panel affirmed the current trends of strong weekend performance by city hotels and the need for revenue managers to see the positives despite a lack of weekday corporate and business travel. The group shared tips, tricks and techniques on managing revenue expectations amid an environment of minimal yield.

Hilton then took the stage as Vice President Australasia, Heidi Kunkel, sat down for a chat with HM Editor-in-Chief, James Wilkinson. Heidi spoke of the challenging environment from Hilton’s perspective but shared her optimism at gradually growing consumer confidence helped along by the company’s CleanStay initiative which continues its global rollout.

“What we want is to be able to build that trust with people and to create that world-class hospitality experience, which is what our team members are doing,” she said.

Intrust Super CEO, Brendan O’Farrell, talks the impact of superannuation on the hospitality sector.

The next segment featured an online interview with one of AHICE’s headline sponsors and supporters, Intrust Super CEO, Brendan O’Farrell.

Speaking from his office in Brisbane, O’Farrell spoke of the impact on superannuation that the government’s policy allowing people to draw down part of their retirement balances to help get them through the pandemic.

“It caught us by surprise. We had to turn our systems upside-down virtually overnight to meet the new policy,” O’Farrell said.

“Hopefully we’ve learnt enough to prepare ourselves for the next one and everyone can prepare better. The early release taught us a lot – never get between somebody and $10,000. We learned to communicate better and there will always be an element of learning,” he added.

IHG’s Leanne Harwood conducts an Executive Conversation segment with NRMA CEO, Rohan Lund.

The second Executive Conversation segment was next on stage as InterContinental Hotels Group Managing Director, Australasia and Japan, Leanne Harwood, sat down with NRMA Group Chief Executive Officer, Rohan Lund.

Reflecting on the NRMA Group’s centenary year that was meant to take place with a year of celebrations and events in 2020, Lund said it was particularly disappointing for a year of devastating events to have eventuated instead.

“This is a moment where we remember our purpose and why we’re here,” Lund said.

The next in the popular ‘What Owners Want’ panel discussion series then kicked off, moderated by AHICE emcee and Kcom Managing Director, Howard Kemball.

A panel of hotel owners and asset managers share ideas on ‘What Owners Want’.

The panel looked at occupancies and the impact disruptors such as the short-term rental market led by Airbnb has had on hotel owners. Combined, the panellists represented around 12,000 hotel rooms across 53 hotels and 19 brands, amounting to around AUD$12 billion in assets.

James Wilkinson then returned to the stage for a live cross to Honolulu where he interviewed with Outrigger Hospitality Group CEO, Jeff Wagoner, who was colourfully adorned in a Hawaiian shirt. Wagoner spoke of the eerie sight in Waikiki which was extremely quiet compared to its usual environment bustling with tourists from around the world.

“What we’ve all learned is that there is a pent-up demand for drive vacations and we can’t have that here in Hawaii,” he said.

“We’re keeping a close eye on all our markets and getting ready to bring back travel when we can.

Outrigger Hospitality Group CEO, Jeff Wagoner, dials in from his office in Hawaii.

“I think there’s enough testing capability and protocol out there to enable us to open up travel to some degree. We’re pretty bullish that we can open in most of our destinations pretty quickly,” he added.

Wagoner said that efforts were being made to return the Outrigger brand to Australia but that the right opportunity and letters of intent had not yet materialised.

Tourism Accommodation Australia National CEO, Michael Johnson, then took the stage for an industry update presentation where he focused on the green shoots the industry is enjoying in some places, particularly regional NSW.

TAA National CEO, Michael Johnson, talks about green shoots of hope for the hotel industry.

“In NSW, we’re seeing some really positive signs in places like the Hunter Valley, Blue Mountains, Byron Bay, the South Coast and others. Average rates are holding up and they’re actually exceeding their rates of last year,” he said.

“There’s no doubt our industry is in survival mode and there’s still no clear end in sight.”

Quest Apartment Hotels COO, David Mansfield

Next up in the hotelier Q&A Series was Quest Apartment Hotels COO, David Mansfield, who chatted via a live link with James Wilkinson from his Melbourne home. Mansfield spoke of the growth potential of the Quest brand both domestically and in its newest target market in Europe.

“We’re confident of the potential we see in Europe and have ambitions to grow the franchise model in the continent over the next 2-5 years.”

Doma Group MD, Jure Domazet, shares his plans for the growth of the Little National brand.

Heading up on stage next was Doma Group Managing Director, Jure Domazet, who spoke about the excitement of the imminent opening of Little National Hotel Sydney and his desire to see the brand grow across the country.

Domazet said he didn’t see working from home as a long-term change to remain after the pandemic subsides and people will eventually return to offices and cities will thrive once again.

“I think there will be a Tuesday to Thursday work-from-the-office culture which will emerge. We might do things a little bit differently to before but we’ll adjust and learn from this,” he said.

After the morning tea break, the next panel discussion got underway, with Midscale and Upscale brands taking to the stage, moderated by QCC Collection Founder and Owner, Caspar Schmidt.

Hotel leaders in the Midscale sector talk unique challenges being felt by the segment.

The panel looked at how to create value for owners in this segment and how brand standards were being impacted by the pandemic as many hotels in this space were in regional areas.

“At the heart of it, you need to drive revenue to add value and I’m pleased to say we are performing above expectations,” said BWH Hotel Group Managing Director, Graham Perry.

“It’s about adaptability, flexibility and communication,” said StayWell Hospitality Group Director of Development, Jip Van Driest.

TFE Hotels CEO, Antony Ritch announced the Australian debut of the Quincy brand.

In the first big hotel announcement of the day, TFE Hotels CEO, Antony Ritch headed to the stage with James Wilkinson, where he advised of the imminent arrival of the Quincy Hotel brand in Australia.

“As we bring Quincy to Australia, we’re bringing the sights, sounds and flavours of Singapore and South-East Asia to Melbourne. Everything you see from when you walk into the hotel will reflect on the exciting atmosphere of Singapore,” Ritch said.

Ritch flagged a repositioning of the Adina brand which will be further detailed in the next few months which will see the brand take on a much greater focus on design and a big step away from the space the brand has traditionally operated within.

Advice and ideas on how to retain quality staff were shared in this special HR panel.

The matter of staff retention was next under the spotlight as the next panel discussion investigated the challenges in businesses keeping the best employees engaged in the current environment. This panel was moderated by Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School GM, Jerome Casteigt.

“The challenge of retaining your best people hasn’t changed. You always need to keep your best people. The real risk that we run is not that we may lose our people to our competitors. The risk is where these people jump to a different industry entirely,” said Event Hospitality Group GM – People and Culture, Sarah Salkild.

“We do have to identify the talent in our organisation. Studies have shown one in every ten people will go on to a senior leadership position and we have to identify that one in ten,” said Accor Pacific Senior Vice President, Talent and Culture, Sarah Derry.

Tourism Australia Managing Director, Philippa Harrison, talks the direction of domestic marketing.

Tourism Australia was next to the stage as Managing Director, Philippa Harrison addressed delegates with a snapshot on how domestic tourism was being celebrated from a promotional level.

Harrison said Australia was very well placed in a post-pandemic world.

“Forty-six percent of people are actively planning an Australian holiday in the next six months,” Harrison said.

“These people are looking to have a break and connect with family and friends. We need a quorum of borders to open but we are confident this will happen in the next couple of months.”

Hostplus CEO, David Elia

The second of AHICE’s headline sponsors, Hostplus, was next to speak to delegates as CEO David Elia dialled in from hotel quarantine in Brisbane.

Elia spoke of the immense financial stimulus that the superannuation industry has paid to Australians in the wake of the federal government’s policy unlocking a piece of retirement savings to help people through the hardest days during the pandemic. The company said it paid out AUD$2 billion to 300,000 Hostplus members during the payment window. Of these, 97% of payments were transacted within five business days.

“We’re looking to become a super of choice and not just for the hospitality sector. For us, it’s all about looking forward and continuing to grow the retirement savings of our members,” he said.

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts President, Asia Pacific, Joon Aun Ooi.

The interviews continued with James Wilkinson then talking to Wyndham Hotels and Resorts President, Asia Pacific, Joon Aun Ooi, who spoke of his recent move from Singapore to China to take up his new senior role overseeing the newly merged and wider Asia Pacific region.

Aun Ooi spoke of the company’s success in the first half of 2020, which saw 59 new hotels across the wider Asia Pacific join the network. He hinted that further new brands were on their way to Australia, including the debut of the Wyndham Grand label in Adelaide.

The Wyndham Grand Adelaide is tipped to open in 2024, featuring as part of a building which, once complete, will be one of the tallest hotels in South Australia. It is anticipated that the hotel will offer 347 rooms. More information will be available about the new hotel in the coming weeks.

Marriott International’s Group President – International, Craig Smith.

The interview segment then shifted to San Diego where AHICE linked in with Marriott International Group President – International, Craig Smith.

Smith, who is readying for his pending promotion to the company’s top job overseeing the entire Marriott International portfolio outside of North America, said he expects global travel to open up in pockets, with several Asian countries creating travel bubbles with each other.

“We really want to see more luxury in Australia. The opening of the Ritz-Carlton in Perth has been great for us and the hotel is doing very well. Domestic is going to be important business too,” Smith said.

“We’re going to have to change some things with travel. We’re going to have to be more mindful on cleanliness.”

The financial recovery of the hotel sector was discussed in this panel.

After delegates broke for a delicious lunch at Hyatt Regency’s Sailmaker Restaurant, the next panel to take the stage was moderated by Dean Dransfield of Dransfield Hotels and Resorts. Joined by Adele Labine-Romain from Deloitte Access Economics and Brad Duff from CBRE Asia Pacific, the trio discussed the financial recovery and a timeline for the return to profitability for the sector.

“The mission is to get to the other side. The future will be different and don’t tell stakeholders that things will be as they once were, because they won’t believe you,” Dransfield said.

MICE industry legend, Stephen Turner, shared his insights on the impact of the pandemic on events.

Marriott International Area Vice President Australia, New Zealand and Pacific, Sean Hunt, then took the reigns for the next Executive Conversations session, where he posed some questions to Face to Face Event Management and Medical Meetings Managing Director, Stephen Turner. The pair discussed the MICE industry and how the recovery of events may be more protracted than the wider travel sector.

Turner said many hotels active in the events sector would generate around 20% of their revenue from meetings, conferences, exhibitions and events. He said that even as COVID begins to fade away in time, the look of mass business gatherings is going to be different.

“We’ve got to make those big meetings work well. We’ve got to make sure the first big group interactions go really well. If they do, there will be more of them,” Turner said.

“Coming out of this will be a slow build. We want to reach a consensus where we can all return to a hotel and get some industries back up and running. Let’s get this show back on the road!”

Accor Asia Pacific Chairman & CEO, Michael Issenberg.

James Wilkinson then returned to the stage for the next Global Hotelier Q&A, linking in with Accor Asia Pacific Chairman and CEO, Michael Issenberg.

Speaking from Singapore, Issenberg rocked the room with the next major hotel announcement that the company’s luxury Fairmont brand would expand to Australia in 2023, landing in Port Douglas in the form of a futuristic eco-resort on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef.

Issenberg said the company had also signed a Mondrian branded property for Australia, however was unable to disclose its location at the present time. A new Mondrian would also be opened in Singapore, continuing the sbe Entertainment Group’s expansion in Asia Pacific. Mondrian had recently expanded into the Asia Pacific in the South Korean capital of Seoul, heralding its arrival in the region.

Innovators in hotel tech will stand out from the pack, said tech guru Craig Simpson.

Technology took centre stage for the next segment, with Standing Rock Technologies Founder, Craig Simpson, taking the stage for a presentation on the future tech working its way into the hotel sector.

Simpson said the industry was in a period of great change and that now was the time to harness it.

“Those hotels that do things differently are going to be the successful hotels of the future,” he said.

After a quick break for afternoon tea, proceedings resumed with the next panel discussion focusing on the luxury market, moderated by Baker and McKenzie Partner, Graeme Dickson.

Leading Directors of Development shared insights on the need for partnerships.

IHG Vice President, Development – Australasia, Japan & Pacific, Abhijay Sandilya said the future of the corporate traveller market would be based on what sort of office space businesses take on as the pandemic subsides.

“I think what we’re seeing is we’re going to have to do things differently. You look at dense city-centre developments and consider companies like Google and Apple who will inevitably review their needs for city office space,” he said.

“As such, we’re seeing a realignment in that corporate traveller market. I don’t see the basic product changing that much, but it’s how sub-sectors such as F&B adapt to the new normal which will be interesting to see.”

Ovolo CEO, Girish Jhunjhnuwala

James Wilkinson returned to the stage for the next pair of Hotelier Q&A interviews, this time chatting to Ovolo Group Founder and CEO, Girish Jhunjhnuwala.

Speaking from Hong Kong, the interview centred around the newly released images of Ovolo South Yarra, which will become the brand’s second location in Melbourne. Girish also spoke of the brand’s innovations during the pandemic including ‘Restaurant In Room’, a concept which debuted at Ovolo Nishi and expanded to Ovolo Woolloomooloo in response to wildly popular demand.

“We’ve been able to do the Staycation very differently. We can tailor a Staycation for our guests and have been making the experience effortless, which is what Ovolo is all about,” he said.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts Area Vice President – Pacific, Robert Dawson.

From Hong Kong, the focus shifted to Melbourne where Hyatt Hotels & Resorts Area Vice President – Pacific, Robert Dawson dialled in for a chat.

Dawson spoke of his excitement at the opening next month of Park Hyatt Auckland – the first Park Hyatt to open in this region since Melbourne opened its doors around 20 years ago.

The final panel discussion of AHICE 2020 took place under the control of Time Out Australia Managing Director, Michael Rodrigues, who casually chatted hotel food and beverage with some of the industry’s leaders in hotel dining.

Hotel F&B Directors shared their experiences in guiding dining through the pandemic.

Set amidst some locally sourced beer and wine, the panel focused its attention on the push to bring local brewers and winemakers into commercial environments by developing supply chains.

Another hot topic was the pressure experienced by the hotel dining sector as hotels were among the first businesses to reopen following Australia’s hard lockdown during the first few months of the pandemic.

“We talked about cost management and cost reduction. It was a conversation that made sense for all parties – both owner and operator,” said IHG Director – Restaurants & Bars, Australasia & Japan, Alison Hulm.

“The talk about buffets is continuing and what makes sense for all parties and hotels of all sizes going forward,” she added.

That’s a wrap for AHICE 2020. Keep your eye on HM for more of the latest breaking news across the accommodation and hospitality sector.