An invitation to innovate

As the coronavirus knocked on doors, alumni in the hospitality industry answered with ingenuity

The travel industry saw a glimmer of normalcy last summer when virus rates dropped and domestic travel grew. According to Karen Xie, associate professor in the Knoebel School, this was particularly beneficial for short-term rental companies like Airbnb. 

“There’s a trend called a ‘staycation’ or a ‘nearcation,’ and short-term rentals caught that trend very quickly,” Xie says. “They encouraged their hosts to offer longer-term rentals and to cater to peoples’ needs. They definitely shifted much faster than hotels in order to embrace the challenge of COVID-19.”

Xie expects Airbnb to bounce back quickly as increasing vaccination rates boost comfort with traveling, but both Xie and Corsun see a slightly longer road ahead for hotels, which are more dependent on business travel for revenue. 

Although many prognosticators (among them Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who declared more than 50% of business travel forever dead) see only cloudy skies ahead, Corsun expects a return to 2019 numbers, by 2023. 

Alumnus Dave Johnstone (MBA ’87), chief investment officer for hospitality at Colorado real estate investment company McWhinney, agrees. “I just happen to believe if you’re trying to connect with someone, sell them, convince them, people won’t be using video conferencing,” Johnstone says. “We’ve had this video conferencing capability for 30 years and we are now being forced to use it. Will some people continue? Yes. But not 50%.”

Another plus, as Johnstone sees it, is the investment potential possible once the pandemic subsides. Both banks and private equity funds have been sitting on the sidelines, and post-COVID, he expects they’ll be ready to pounce and create new projects to fill the holes left behind by COVID closures. 

For hospitality pros like Wong, and a host of fellow DU alums, hanging on through COVID’s numerous curveballs has been an exhausting grind, and business on the other side will certainly look different. But not all of the changes will be for the worse. 

Placing added importance on communication has been the key for Navin Dimond (MBA ’86), CEO and chairman of Stonebridge Companies, a Denver-based hotel development and hospitality management organization. Back in March, Dimond, a DU trustee, began meeting with his team every single day, and he hasn’t looked back.

“What has that really done? We realized, boy, this is really beneficial. The rate at which things are changing is so fast, which means the rate of our communication must change with it,” Dimond says. “Communication is vitally important, always, but in these times, it has become even more important.”

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