Eight reflections from Keith Barr, after the 2021 WTTC World Summit

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Eight reflections from Keith Barr, after the 2021 WTTC World Summit
Keith Barr, IHG
Thu April 29, 2021

The Global CEO of IHG Hotels & Resorts shares with us a column where he expresses his vision on the future of the tourism market


By Keith Barr, Global CEO of IHG Hotels & Resorts

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) held its Global Summit this week and the big topic was the lessons learned from the pandemic. I was not able to be in person in Cancun, which, after a long confinement in the UK, was particularly difficult! - but I was delighted to be able to virtually join together with many others and share some of my thoughts with the audience.

Participating was great, especially since the WTTC is a very important partner for IHG and our industry, as we all work towards a safe and responsible recovery. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on a challenging year, what they have taught us, and how they make us better leaders, organizations and industry.

A key lesson for me has been the importance of having a strong purpose to help guide our actions as an organization. IHG's goal is to provide true hospitality for the good, and that means that even in the most difficult situations, we put people and communities at the center of every decision. It sounds simple enough, but it can be much more difficult in practice. There is no instruction book for a global pandemic, there is no amount of preparation we can have, and there is intense pressure to act quickly and deal with what is in front of us. Having a purpose for our actions forces us to stop and consider the short- and long-term impact of decisions; particularly in people and, ultimately, in our reputation and values ​​as an organization.

As a leader, I believe this pandemic has also made me appreciate the power to remove complexity. For example, I have placed more emphasis on participating in global calls so that I can hear from all colleagues first-hand, understand what they are thinking, and offer a personal perspective that puts us all on the same page.  

Regular contact points are now more important than ever. I have seen how this has galvanized us as an organization, particularly with so many people working remotely. There is greater openness within the company to speak and what is equally important, to listen to each other, and a greater recognition that we are at our best when we feel supported and confident.

The huge challenges related to dealing with Covid-19 have also helped me use my time more wisely. I have always tried to empower those around me as experts in their fields, but I have taken a close look at how and where I get involved now. I'm much more mindful of making sure to focus on where I can make the biggest difference, whether it's offering strategic clarity, helping to overcome obstacles, reorganizing priorities, or focusing on the people involved and the support they need.  

If I look back, from the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, it couldn't be said that everything was done perfectly well, but I'm proud of how we handle big decisions, and I think the biggest lesson from that is the importance of having clear priorities and willingness to move forward, but with conviction, responsibility and sensitivity.

The above has different faces. For IHG, it involved the launch of improved IHG Way of Clean security protocols for colleagues and hotel guests, flexible booking options, and flexibility within the loyalty program. For our hotel owners, many of whom are small business operators facing great challenges, it was all about cutting costs, negotiating with suppliers, new payment terms and access to government support where available. And for our communities, it materialized by using our kitchens to provide meals to those in need, house front-line workers, or have travelers and homeless people quarantine with us.

Evolution, or rather the rate at which we can evolve, has also been an important theme in this pandemic. Industries of all kinds have been reminded of our collective ability to make great strides in a short time. The miracle of vaccines is the greatest example, of course, but our own hospitality industry has demonstrated innovation, ingenuity and determination - qualities vital to meeting the changing expectations of stakeholders.

Accelerating things like digital check-in and hybrid meetings are two examples, while the pandemic has rapidly accelerated issues on a much broader scale, such as the environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda and expectations that organizations take the initiative. At IHG, we've challenged ourselves to do more to create a more equitable society and address climate change, and this year we launched our responsible 10-year business plan, Journey to Tomorrow, to help us achieve this. During the Summit, we also endorsed the WTTC Women's Initiative Statement, to help ensure that women have equal opportunities to thrive in the workplace.

Never stopping requires strength and endurance, and the pandemic makes me realize that these are perhaps our greatest qualities as an industry. Of course, none of us would have chosen to experience this pandemic, but I believe there are still opportunities to emerge stronger as leaders, organizations, and as an industry.

Hospitality is a rich mosaic of businesses, people, and places, and its absence or restricted presence in this pandemic has emphasized what it means to all of us and how it is woven into our daily lives, jobs, economies, and communities. Across the travel and tourism industry, from cruise companies to hotel groups to airlines, we are partnering as peers and with governments and commercial bodies to reopen travel safely. And it's vital that we do so: Demand is increasing with each dose of vaccine delivered, and while challenges still exist in some parts of the world, many markets feel much closer to the return of better times.  

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