Hotels and guesthouses in Cambodia, which were forced to close due to a slowdown in tourists amid the pandemic, are once again opening their doors in a bid to recoup their losses. Even though the pandemic appears to be under control in the Kingdom, it is estimated the hospitality sector will not recover quickly. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Charles-Henri Chevet, general manager at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, outlines how hotels and other lodging businesses can come out stronger from the pandemic.
KT: It has been six months since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It has brought one of the worst financial calamities the world has ever faced and businesses across all sectors are feeling its impact. What is the situation in Sofitel?
Mr Chevet: If you look at it further, the problem actually started in August last year, when we noticed the slowdown in our business for different reasons: new competitions and less footfall, especially in Chinese visitors. I believe this was because of the government ban on online gambling as there were no COVID-19 concerns at the time.
This year, we observed a big, big slowdown. First of all, for leisure destinations like Siem Reap, the market has always been sensitive to an international crisis, such as the outbreak.
Let’s be straightforward: we lost all our portfolio; all bookings on rooms have been cancelled. Events, such as weddings and conferences, which are very important for this hotel are also gone. We went from having a good number of dealings to having almost none at all.
KT: How has this abrupt change affected your decisions regarding hotel operations, given that it requires a huge budget to run such a big hotel?
Mr Chevet: At first, we were confident that it [pandemic] would only last for a couple of weeks or months. But now, we believe this situation will continue. It is very unfortunate and difficult and it will take a lot of time for us to recover.
For our hotel in Siem Reap, I think it will be very difficult to see the business back on track before next year. Phnom Penh, being a business city and the capital, will be a bit better.
Until the end of the year, we don’t expect to see hope or signs for a quick recovery. When running a hotel of this size, a lot of decisions have to be made to ensure exceptional experience, products and services for our customers while also managing our costs.
We have been advising our teams to provide the best services, as is expected of a hospitality business while taking on some difficult decisions and reorganising ourselves to cut down on expenses in the most viable way. We have stopped recruiting and employees who are leaving will not be replaced at the moment. Regarding the work organisation, we have asked our team to only work part-time, except for a few sections inside the hotel, which is about 13 days a month.
It will be difficult to say how the business will fare in the next few months. While Cambodia is entitled to its own decisions, we also have to consider the decisions taken by our neighbours such as Thailand, Vietnam and China, which have impacts on Cambodia’s economy.
KT: What measures have you set to ensure the safety of your clients and customers amid the pandemic?
Mr Chevet: With advice from the WHO, the Cambodian authorities and our company, we have set out 16 key actions to ensure the safety of our clients and employees.
Starting from the entrance of the hotels, guests and employees will have their body temperatures checked. We also have sanitisers all over the place – in the restrooms, catering area and each hotel room. We have limited the meeting rooms’ and ballrooms’ capacity and implemented a health tracker, where we follow up on any of our staffers’ health issues and asked our team to tell us where they go.
In case something happens, at least we can track it. For guests coming to the restaurants, we have asked them to complete forms with their phone numbers and their names so that if someone does test positive for the virus, we’ll be able to identify who has come into contact with them.
KT: Supposing COVID-19 abates one day, how do you think this public health crisis will change the way we view hospitality and travel?
Mr Chevet: This may be the only positive thing that we have got out of COVID-19: it has reinforced the need for awareness and practice of hygienic measures. I think nowadays Cambodians in general have become more conscious of basic hygiene such as regular handwashing, social distancing and checking one’s body temperature.
However, in terms of tourism, I think it will take probably a couple of years before people start travelling again. If you look back, travelling used to be a privilege because it was expensive and there were few affordable hotel and airlines. However this has changed in the past few years where people were able to travel around the world with much ease.
It’s going to take some time to get back to this level. At the same time, people will probably start travelling in their own countries and rediscover the exceptional wonders on their doorstep. This will obviously affect businesses in hospitality. However, in Cambodia, where the population is small and dominated by the middle class, it is going to be quite a challenge for a big hotel like ours.
KT: While the pandemic is ongoing and businesses are trying to rebound, what do Sofitel and other hospitality businesses need from the government?
Mr Chevet: I think the Cambodian government has been very active in supporting the economy by providing tax exemptions, compensation and a monthly allowance to suspended employees and workers. That is already great support.
I’m only thinking about – and maybe this applies more to the Ministry of Tourism – a real marketing plan to promote Cambodian destinations in a very comprehensive and efficient way.
Our neighbours in the region are very strong and are well-known for some key marketing. Maybe we are a bit too shy on that. Of course, everybody knows about the temples of Angkor but today other activities should be promoted for tourists. Phnom Penh can be promoted as a nice destination; it has a good airport and facilities. Efforts are needed in the push for this, not only to attract the Chinese but also other higher-spending visitors.