As we all know, the global Travel, Hospitality & Leisure (THL) sector had a hell of a 2020.  Safe to say no one in living memory that works in the sector has ever experienced anything like the level of disruption caused by COVID-19.

At Blenheim, we anticipate a much different year as confidence is slowly restored.  In 2021, the sector will pick itself up, dust itself off and look to the return of the new normal.  The market for the early part of the calendar year is already busy with a number of organisations undertaking senior executive searches or succession planning processes in the THL sector. The degree this number will vary will be in line with market confidence heavily influenced by the management of COVID-19 and borders.

Overall, a few trends are emerging. The promotion of home-grown, on-the-ground talent for one.  The opportunity to introduce offshore talent simply remains limited due to the threats of ongoing COVID-19 relapses.  As a consequence, we see a tight senior executive market.

Whilst we conduct global searches and identify the appropriate international candidates for each assignment, we anticipate it will be highly unlikely that those based offshore will leave their country, family, friends and networks.  It will certainly be less than usual.  This, therefore, places the emphasis on the domestic market and will stimulate appointments of those coming through the ranks.

Second, whilst global confidence is still shaky depending on region, Australia and New Zealand have been global standouts in containment leading to cautious confidence.  Globally, since the start of 2021, the US and the UK have seen COVID-19 infection rates decline in line with the vaccination rollouts.  Meanwhile, India is seeing some of the sharpest increases since mid-2020.

Not surprisingly, those who believe the virus to be in its later stage are more optimistic about the potential of emerging from the pandemic this year.  Post pandemic optimism is reflected in most markets including Australia.  Central to this confidence is vaccination rates and in particular the pace of the rollout. Despite the recent surge, India has experienced a tremendous turnaround in economic sentiment after its first positive quarter of growth since the beginnings of COVID-19.  The UAE and Australia are on track for a V-shaped recovery.  On the other side of the global ledger, Hong Kong will continue to face economic challenges in 2021 and pessimism is high in the UK with extensive lockdown periods taking a toll.

When it comes to travel, several countries have already outlined their intention to reopen borders for those who have received both injections.  Some countries including Australia are also developing vaccine passports in preparation to have customers fly again.

Data illustrates that contrary to expectations of consumer spending exploding, most people are not yet filled with enormous confidence and as such are remaining disciplined and financially prudent given elements of uncertainty.  Australia, however, is arguably better placed than most and positivity is returning with low unemployment numbers and a belief that the impact of the end of JobKeeper will be short and markets will step up.

More broadly when it comes to the greater economy for the country and the THL sector, is the enormous opportunity that is being lost due to lack of forward-thinking policy.  With no significant reform in tax and industrial relations policies being undertaken, there is a growing sentiment of concern toward what is perceived as indifferent or, at best, unfocused leadership across the business and political landscapes when it comes to future growth.

The Morrison government has seen more than a 10% decline in support since last year which is in danger of increasing as the vaccine rollout continues at a slower pace than had originally been forecast.

The State Premiers remain difficult to predict and whilst arguing for the good of their state many have argued they have lost sight of the bigger picture for the nation.  According to many business heads, the Federal Government has also failed to influence the Premiers to act in a more coherent manner leaving investment on the sideline despite the appeals of the THL sector for some clarity that would lead to booking interstate travel with confidence.

Whilst other countries position themselves as “open for business”, we arrive at well-meaning but short-term band-aid solutions of cheap flights around the country.  No doubt, this is a great move for a number of industries, including THL, but it isn’t enough.

JobKeeper and JobSeeker have been terrific life support mechanisms. Now that JobKeeper has run its course, we have the opportunity to really get moving and seize the initiative. Instead, it seems we limit ourselves to the same old, frustrating, red-taped, bureaucratic methodology of doing business.

Recently we saw the American Chamber of Commerce, PwC Australia and representatives of American companies with a combined market value of c. $4.5 trillion put forth the report “Attracting US Investors to Australia: The Opportunity Is Now”, highlighting this very point and bringing home the short-termism and lack of vision for the Australian economy.  We rely on our natural resources industry and dig more holes as opposed to taking this moment in time to apply the necessary pressure and deliver some needed reform to business regulation in an effort to achieve international competitiveness and stimulate entrepreneurship.

Business leadership has a role to play in turning this perception around and THL executives have an outsized influence in projecting the message, as the collective PR agents for the country and by extension, the Australian economy.

Another trend, digital transformation continues at an accelerated pace.  For the THL market, the emphasis has been on the domestic market and in many cases the local state customers.  Organisations have taken the opportunity, to accelerate their digital strategy in parallel with the focus on efficiencies.  For many, digital has been the lifeline, prominent in the creation of the ecosystem. The question companies continue to grapple with is how this can be extended to deliver value and capture the broader customer.

Yet, behind the chatter, there is disappointment and exhaustion.  Truly successful digital transformations are surprisingly rare.  Research shows that 70% of them fail and this has not been lost on the THL market.  Secondly, the landscape is fierce. Local THL is caught defending against the local competition without the influx of international travellers supporting their market.  Further, with interest rates low and some organisations struggling, the opportunity for market consolidation looms.  Recent research suggests cross-industry partnerships will be a significant driver for further growth in 2021, but such strategies remain largely untested.

Much of this change has shone the light on the composition of both the Executive and Board in terms of the necessary future skills which has highlighted gaps in technology and a general need for accelerated decision making.  Just take the recent events at Channel 9, which suffered one of the worst cyber attacks in the nation’s history.  As highlighted, COVID-19 has fast-tracked much of the planned digital strategy to a period of rapid implementation, a streamlining of roles, and an examination of outsourcing.  In the Boardroom, there has been further questioning around technology capability and understanding as well as experienced leadership.

Blenheim Partners’ dedicated Tourism, Hospitality and Leisure Practice has built and will continue to gather intelligence on a pool of current and future senior executives.  We have also invested heavily in our Technology and Digital Transformation Practice and continue to occupy a lead position promoting diversity in the Executive and Board as an essential characteristic of the most effective and successful teams.  We believe diversity is a multivariate attribute that includes gender, ethnicity, experience, culture, language and other factors.

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