Over the past few years, not once has it seemed that the world is coming to an end. The Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns, wars and the undeniable, increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change have, at times, shadowed even the most optimistic of thinkers.
The tourism industry has been among the most affected, not only during the pandemic, but even after the lift of travel restrictions revenge travel has left some destinations completely overwhelmed. In the hospitality sector, countless accommodation establishments, restaurants, bars and cafés have had to close their doors.
Now, as the sector inches closer to full recovery, reaching pre-pandemic figures, HOTREC, the umbrella association for European hospitality, held its 87th General Assembly in Brussels on 26 October, to discuss not only with its members, but also legislators, the state of the industry and the way forward.
The biggest challenge the sector is facing right now is the illusion that everything is going well, HOTREC President, Alexandros Vassilikos, told Travel Tomorrow. In a year that has largely seen the recovery of business to pre-pandemic levels, worries are still present across the association’s members as the future remains uncertain in an increasingly changing world, marked by climate change and the exponential development of digital tools like AI. As Ludo Geurden, President of Horeca Flanders pointed out, in Belgium, even though turnover in the hospitality sector exceeded pre-pandemic levels, reaching about €20 billion, profitability heavily lags behind other sectors.
The way forward through this turmoil is agreed by stakeholders and legislators alike – a twin transition of sustainability and digitalisation. However, as with other sectors, the matter is easier said than done.
We have proven our capability of adapting, so we will adapt. But this is not a matter only of professionals. This is a matter of states. This is a matter of regions. This is a matter of Europe.Alexandros Vassilikos, HOTREC President
“We all need to work together in order to find the models for the transition, first of all, to do what we are required to do as businesses in terms of green transition, of the digital transition, everything that is dictated to us and that we need to do. But, on the other hand, what needs to be done for us? It’s a two-way street and it is very clear that it is not something that is dependant only on hotels and restaurants. It is something that is for the whole ecosystem that needs to keep the equilibrium between all the players involved in the hospitality scheme”, Vassilikos said.
The resilience of the hospitality industry was also recognised and commended by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “In testing times, you have shown consistency and that is needed more than ever”, the De Croo said, highlighting how 99% of the businesses in the sector are small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and it is the personal touch of these SMEs that bring innovation and “create the identity of our continent”.
Indeed the “European identity” has made Schengen the most visited region in the world, welcoming 65% of international tourists, according to European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas. “The tourism and hospitality ecosystem is therefore important not only because it accounts for 10% of our GDP, but because it offers a window to the outside world to our way of life, to the model and vision of society”, Schinas praised.
At the same time, the Commissioner acknowledged the challenges of transitioning are more difficult for SMEs and promised the European Commission is standing behind the sector. More concretely, European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, explained afterwards that HOTREC plays an active part in the decision-making process of the Commission, providing essential guidance and feedback voicing the needs and concerns of entrepreneurs.
“We try to align the national consumer agenda with the European consumer agenda and thanks to the support of organisations like HOTREC, this is possible and it ensures that we are able to work for 5 years on the same priorities at national and European level”, Commissioner Reynders explained. “This recent decision [of blocking the Booking – eTraveli merger] is the best example of the success of this collaboration. (…) We made sure that consumers will not have limited access in options when booking their trips, as well as ensuring a level playing field for businesses.”
Looking forward, Reynders mentioned the consumer agenda contains 23 concrete actions, most of which are finalised or underway, including the Package Travel Directive, which covers pre-arranged package holidays, but also self-customised packages, where the traveller chooses different elements from a single point of sale online or offline. Moreover, the Commission is supporting the digital and green transition of the hospitality industry, especially by being “particularly attentive to OTAs [online travel agencies] and their impact on the sector”, on the one hand, and ensuring “consumers are as protected online as they are offline”, on the other.
Ahead of Belgium taking the presidency of the European Council in January, Valérie de Bue, Tourism Minister of Wallonia, further confirmed tourism and hospitality are among the priorities of European institutions. The future Belgian presidency intends to facilitate the twin transition of the sector, not only by supporting digitalisation though strengthening the use of connected tools by SMEs, but also supporting sustainability by creating synergies within the tourism industry and promoting tourism as an ecosystem.