It hasn’t been a good year for hospitality and events, with the pandemic shutting down travel, large gatherings, venues and the desire to be physically close to other people.
Burning Man has been canceled, Coachella was delayed and then canceled, there will be no Iowa State Fair and the $300 billion global wedding industry is almost entirely stalled.
“All of my weddings have all been moved to next year,” Cowie told Karen Webster in a recent conversation. “Our corporate work is moved to next year. We have one or two things on the calendar for this year, but I think it's much smarter now to figure out how to do things in the future when, hopefully, we're in a much better situation.”
Cowie told Webster that with no events for him to plan, he’s working on a book about hospitality, developing a new TV program and launching a hospitality consulting business that has been back-burnered for years. Cowie said one bright side of a global pandemic is that it’s forced him to innovate and diversify his business.
“No matter how dark it gets, it is always possible to find a way to switch on a light if you look,” he said.
Cowie said he truly believes the world will one day get back to normal and people will go to large weddings and corporate events again. But he said he expects that to only happen in phases over the next two years — meaning there’s never been a better moment to diversity and tap into new revenue streams. It isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary — and will ultimately improve the event industry.
“I think that as an industry, we’re just going to have to navigate our way through this on a case-by-case basis until we get to [a] certain state where we can move around with more confidence and style than ever before,” he said.
Social Before Business — The Long Walk Back
Cowie said he believes that weddings and social gatherings will make their return long before corporate events do.
Business travel, he noted, is going to be on hold for quite some time as corporate life has found a lot of ways to carry on remotely in the last 12 weeks. With that hold comes the big pause in large-scale corporate events. A Zoom call — or otherwise virtually managed meeting — can recreate a lot of what is valuable about a large corporate event for participants dialing in remotely.
Moreover, he noted, when he sees the physical designs going into socially distanced conferences — with floors heavily taped up to show people where to social distance and small groups being seated “together” at massively oversized tables — the remote version isn’t just a reasonable substitute, it is arguably a huge improvement.
Social events, he noted, are a different animal entirely. Much of what is beloved about the physical experience can’t be easily recreated online — the eating, drinking, dancing, hugging, cheek kissing and pats on the back that are all part and parcel to social gatherings like weddings. These are what people are going to push to return to as soon as possible.
Cowie said he believes that people will be back to traditional weddings by next year, although they may be smaller and more controlled and include mandatory testing for invitees before the event kicks off to make sure it is safe for all involved.
A Three-Phase Return
However, Cowie said he thinks the reopening will come in phases. The first wave will consist of “pioneers” like Cowie himself, who recently flew to Florida and also ate his first restaurant meal in some time.
“This group of us will go, and we will be the first ones out there — we'll be the pioneers,” he said. “If we can show it's safe, and if we can be entertained with confidence and have a little bit of style while doing it, Group Two will follow us. They will come back out into the world and start Phase Two.”
Cowie said Group Three will be those “who just aren’t doing anything until such time as there is a vaccination.”
What Hospitality Firms Must Do Now
What will the hospitality industry look like in the end?
Cowie said there’s lots of talk of price increases as hoteliers look to pass the costs of safety upgrades on to consumers, but he said he thinks that’s a dreadful idea. After all, businesses have to lure customers back, and jacking up prices while their customers face economic uncertainty isn’t how to do that.
“How many people do we know have lost their jobs?” he asked. “I think cost … is going to be a big factor for consumers in the near future.”
Add in the fact that hotels are limiting amenities like spas and restaurants as part of safety protocols and Cowie said he thinks charging more for less isn’t the right way forward. Instead, he said he believes businesses should think proactively about the customer experience and find safe ways to add to it.
“As they're taking all these services away — and charging the same amount — they have to ask themselves, ‘What are they giving back?’” Cowie asked. “So, when the customer enters the property, you offer two-pump disinfectants [and] give me a gorgeous chilled lavender-scented towel with a moisturizer afterward. [And] when we hear, ‘We can’t have any minibars,’ I understand, [but] get me a gorgeous clear plastic tray with a fruit that is certified sterilized and clean. Or tell the customer: ‘We know the minibar is empty. We know that you're with us for three nights. Which items would you like stocked?’ You can start to do these things in a very cool, sexy way.”
All in all, Cowie said he thinks the future of hospitality will involve what he calls “hospitainment” — the meeting point between hospitality that makes people comfortable and entertainment that makes a person engage. It is a topic he will be taking up more fully in a book he has set to come out next year. Because for all the difficulties that the pandemic has created for the hospitality and event industry, it’s also presented a rare opportunity for brands to rethink what their customers want — and what the best ways to make lasting connections will be.