Accommodation Industry

Will COVID-19 have a lasting impact?

The scale and impact of the novel coronavirus and subsequent quarantine measures have led us all into uncharted territory. As the pandemic continues to evolve, our serviced apartment providers have been working hard to ensure they are able to provide tenants and staff with a safe and hygienic environment. We wanted to find out how our accommodation providers have experienced the past eight months and how they are coping now that we are back in lockdown. Our thanks go out to everyone who responded to our informal callout for feedback.

Together with the Antwerp Hotel Association we gave away 500 free nights to doctors, nurses and caregivers from hospitals in Antwerp when bookings went down.

Lockdown 1.0

All of the respondents reported experiencing major changes to bookings and occupancy rates as soon as the first lockdown was announced. From tenants abruptly returning to their home countries to last-minute cancellations of newly expected arrivals, the industry was thrown into disarray from one day to the next. However, the sudden drop in new bookings was mostly balanced out by residents who found their assignments extended due to travel restrictions.

“Many of our residents left abruptly to return to their respective home countries when the first lockdown was announced. From having been fully booked, we were almost empty overnight. During that same period, we received requests from people stranded in Waterloo and in need of temporary housing as a result of hotels shutting down and/or not being able to secure a flight back home. Strangers became grateful guests.”
Marijke Gilmore, DVM Furnished Housing

“Together with the Antwerp Hotel Association we gave away 500 free nights to doctors, nurses and caregivers from hospitals in Antwerp when bookings went down. This way essential workers could stay closer to work when doing double shifts or rest during the day when working night shifts.”
Filip Goorden, Arass Hotel & Business Flats

“Lockdown was very strange, as everything ground to a halt from one day to the next. Thankfully, our property management and trustee services kept us busy. Once the borders opened up again things slowly went back to normal, but bookings can change at an instant depending on home countries’ latest COVID rules.”
Guillaume Dubucq, Skyline Renting

Addressing Concerns

Unsurprisingly, health and safety came out as the number one concern. From ensuring social distancing can be maintained throughout the communal areas to daily disinfection and hygienic collection systems for linens, serviced accommodation providers have been careful to implement all WHO and government guidelines. Cancellation policies and flexibility of bookings were the second most popular demand with clients.

“Daily cleaning of all communal areas with efficient products, clear signposting regarding the importance of hand washing and maintaining a social distance, staff wearing protective gloves and masks whilst working, asking tenants to leave their apartments during cleaning if they can… All the measures we have implemented are designed to keep our guests safe and offer them peace of mind.”
Filip W, Belsquare Residence

“We have found that many customers use our apartments for quarantine purposes and working from home and shopping for food has been a concern. To assist we have been adapting our services and spaces to ensure they can comfortably work from home in safety. We have delivered food welcome packs to tenants who are unable to shop on arrival and our technicians have helped a number of tenants rearrange furnishings in their apartments to configure remote working office spaces.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF

“We created adapted policies related to cancellations and early departures in response to client concerns. We also offer solutions for guests in quarantine, so they can live with the necessary comfort without leaving their studio or apartment. Most importantly, we created a Safety Charter together with our local teams and suppliers that takes into account feedback from clients as well as government and WHO advice into consideration.”
Wendy Croes, Premier Suites Plus

Service as Usual?

It isn’t just tenants who are expected to work from home during the lockdown; accommodation providers too have to limit the number of workers on site. From having just one staff member and a single housekeeper on site per shift, to closing down breakfast bars and communal areas, on the whole, service does not continue as usual for our members during lockdown.

Instead, creative solutions such as breakfast bags and linen drop offs are popular ways of providing guests with as much comfort as possible. Feedback on such measures is positive as guests feel their safety concerns are being heard.

“We have chosen to limit our services as much as possible as guests’ main concern is staying safely within their bubble. As all our apartments are fully equipped with all necessary white goods, guests are fully self-sufficient. We ensure they have spare sets of bed linens and towels and provide ample sanitizing products. Service is not quite as usual, instead we adjust our rates accordingly, and we all prefer it this way. That said, the utility costs will increase for us as people spend more time at home.”
Marijke Gilmore, DVM Furnished Housing

“Although we have had to temporarily halt our cleaning services, our technical support remains assured at all times with the team handling all requests for technical support. In the commercial field, we work with virtual tours and 3D videos of our apartments and residences. The safest way during this pandemic to show our apartments to prospective tenants.”
Robbie Vercarre, RentMore

For the accommodation providers with shared amenities on offer, hygiene and booking systems take centre stage in the fight against COVID-19. Tenants are able to book hourly timeslots in gyms, which are disinfected after every use. Communal areas where guests can meet up have become significantly less popular since the start of the pandemic, even if guests do report missing human interaction. Thankfully spacious living rooms means guests are able to exercise in their apartments during times of restricted movement.

Expectations & Assignments

The fact that serviced apartments come fully equipped has proven to be a major draw for companies sending staff overseas. Uncertainty on the future of travel meant a lot companies waited to see what actions others were taking with regards to foreign assignments, but as the months rolled on, mobility picked up again as confidence in the sector grew. Being able to cook in your own kitchen, do your own laundry and work from home in a spacious environment with high speed internet means sheltering in place is comfortable and safe. Especially for guests coming from countries that require a quarantine, a serviced apartment is the perfect solution.

“In Antwerp the projects that started up again first, were mainly in the Port of Antwerp. People that travel for work stay longer, but also demand flexibility as their stay can change at once if rules change again. I do believe guests chose places where they feel safe and apartments that offer more space offer more comfort.”
Filip Goorden, Arass Hotel & Business Flats

“We noticed that expats who were at the end of their assignments had their assignments extended as their employers or embassies were unable to fly in their successors. Instead, they extended the work contracts for the people already in Belgium.”
Guillaume Dubucq, Skyline Renting

“Guests have become more approachable and are hugely understanding of any changes or restrictions to our services in line with government advice. Bookings are often made at the very last minute and others stay longer than initially expected. In general companies expect more flexibility in terms of operations and bookings or cancellations.”
Laura Temmerman, Residence Inn Ghent

Lasting Impact

Without a doubt, COVID has had an impact on the housing industry. Heightened health and safety protocols, a flexible approach to changes and last-minute bookings, virtual tours and more are changes that are likely to stay. Now more than ever, a frictionless experience has become a must, even if this does complicate matters from an operational point of view. The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties for the economy and taking an agile approach has become the norm for organisations in all sectors.

As companies discover work from home as a viable option in times of need, the benefits of a serviced apartment over a hotel room become even more obvious. Apartments with an outdoor space such as a terrace or garden are seeing increased demand as tenants find themselves spending more time in their apartment than usual.

“Technology plays a big part in how the client wants the booking process to be. They either choose whether it is tech-led with, for example, instant bookings, live availability or a more consultative approach with human interaction. This time also offers an opportunity to develop the business and look at new areas of the business.”
Yolanda Blomjous, SITU

“We have seen this as an incredible opportunity to really study the expat and travelling professional’s needs and ensure that our services are flexible enough to meet the needs of the full lifecycle of their relocation requirements. For example, short stay apartments like Zilverhof Residence are a five minute drive from the international airport and available for weekly rentals, making them ideal for travellers needing to quarantine.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF

“Needs will always evolve, but we do not believe it will have a lasting impact on business. Brussels remains the European capital and international business people and Eurocrats will always have a home here.”
Robbie Vercarre, RentMore

And Finally

Respondents are unanimous in their positive outlook on the future. Yes, things have changed and yes, these remain trying times for everyone but members are committed to meeting all governmental and customer demands to ensure guests enjoy a safe and pleasurable stay in Belgium.

“It has been a great opportunity to adapt and strive to improve the services for our customers. We have seen the market begin to change and we are working hard to ensure that we are ready to continue meeting these changes as we head into 2021 with our flexible offerings and apartments for each stage of business professionals’ relocation lifecycle.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF

“A lot will depend on politics and the measures different countries implement, as well as medical advances. COVID has definitely had an impact on how we experience social life and how we work, and it will take years to back to where we were in the past.”
Laura Temmerman, Residence Inn Ghent

“Every struggle, every challenge, creates new experiences that we should embrace and use in our future business. This pandemic is one of a kind and made history, but it will never change the fact that the Hospitality Industry is a People Industry. Our daily goal is to welcome our residents in a healthy, safe and warm environment so that they feel at home…”
Wendy Croes, Premier Suites Plus

“With travel being put on hold and postponed, this is a good time to review temporary housing policies and to look at suppliers in a different light. A more personal approach seems to be the way forward, after all, we are in this together and nobody knows what the future holds but there will be a new normal!”
Yolanda Blomjous, SITU

For a complete overview of ABRA members that provide serviced accommodation, please visit
www.abra-relocation.com/member-by-business/

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