A glimpse at the future of Covid-adapted hotels and restaurants

John O'Ceallaigh
hong kong

Hong Kong’s emerging Covid-19 leisure economy shows the new reality awaiting the world’s travel industry

It has been a challenging year for Hong Kong, but in terms of Covid-19 the city offers a success story. In total, there have been just 1,067 confirmed Covid-19 cases and four deaths; it has been a fortnight since a locally transmitted case was reported. 

It’s an impressive result, and one that has come without Hong Kong’s citizens enduring the extreme lockdowns that have crushed economic activity elsewhere. Although foreign tourists don’t yet have permission to holiday in Hong Kong, much of its hospitality sector remains operational and locals can visit hotels, bars, restaurants, museums, gyms and more.

Nightclubs, bathhouses and karaoke establishments will reopen from June 5. As other nations emerge from lockdown, Hong Kong’s leisure industry provides an indication of how they will adapt their tourism offerings in the months to come. 

Co-founder of Maximal Concepts, the Hong Kong F&B group best known for the upmarket restaurant Mott 32, Matt Reid has moved quickly to comply with updated health-and-safety legislation. For now restaurants operate at 50 per cent of their capacity, with tables separated by partitions or set at least 1.5 metres apart, but a liveliness is returning: previously only up to four diners could be seated at a table; that recently increased to eight.

Reid acknowledges that these parameters have presented “a challenge, but we’re getting into a rhythm; we’re learning how to ensure we’re still a viable business.” His group is now investigating new delivery services and cookery lessons; at Mott 32 a new ‘low-carbon menu’ uses ingredients sourced only throughout Hong Kong.

The crisis has also impacted future projects. Plans for a forthcoming restaurant have been completely revised - it will feature filtration systems almost equivalent to those found in ICUs; adjacent bar seats have been shelved; contactless delivery points will be created.  

The city’s hotels have also had to modify their offerings, but Langham Hospitality Group CEO Stefan Leser has good news: the buffet isn’t dead. Incorporating the Langham and Cordis hotel brands, his company is trialling a new buffet system that sees staff retrieve guests’ items for them - there has been an immediate reduction in food waste.

The Langham Hong Kong

While hygiene requirements at his properties have always been exceptionally high, visitors can expect to encounter new protocols. Guests’ temperatures are now checked before they enter the building, while diners might be presented with a suitably fancy container or envelope in which to securely store their mask while they eat.

This quiet time is also allowing for a reassessment of what does and doesn’t work in a modern-day luxury hotel. His team is mulling the long-term viability of the minibar, for example. A commitment to sustainability remains steadfast, however, with Leser adamant that Covid-19 won’t, for example, be used as an excuse to push back on efforts to eliminate single-use plastics. 

Still, locals remain economically cautious and Paul Hicks, CEO of lifestyle and travel PR agency GHC Asia has noticed sweeping discounting being used to entice customers. He expects locals to focus on domestic tourism for now but anticipates that those who can afford it will splurge on dream trips - perhaps that long-imagined expedition to Alaska or cruise to Antarctica - from 2021 onwards. Enticing Hong Kongers to destinations that have done a notoriously worse job of handling the crisis will be difficult, however.

That’s a challenge also being confronted by Chris Birt, director of service delivery at Hong Kong Airlines. The company has operated at a reduced capacity throughout the crisis and returning passengers will encounter numerous alterations on the ground and in air. Expect boarding to take longer, with small groups of passengers given ample time to find their seat and stow luggage before others board; wearing face masks will be mandatory during the flight. 

Birt believes there is pent-up demand among Hong Kongers for weekends away to the likes of Japan and Thailand, though for now there is a lack of clarity as to when that will be truly viable. With just a few exemptions, travellers arriving at Hong Kong International Airport must submit to compulsory quarantines. Inbound tourism is off the cards indefinitely too: Hong Kong’s tourism board still won’t commit to a date when leisure travellers will again be welcome to visit.

While Hong Kong may have done a commendable job in controlling the spread of the virus within its borders, its next task will be continuing to protect its population while tentatively opening up to the many cities and countries around the world that have been far more heavily impacted by the crisis.