The before and after of the tourism sector after the pandemic (part I)

Two years after the first confinement, which forced Spain and the rest of the world to stop a large part of its economic activities, the sectors most affected by the pandemic are gradually recovering the optimism of returning to pre-pandemic levels. Of all these sectors, the tourism sector has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19, and rightly so, the stoppage of travel until May 2021 -when the state of alarm was lifted- and the rapid outbreak of infections by the sixth wave in November meant that 2021 witnessed a recovery full of ups and downs.

Creative District hotels are no exception and have also suffered greatly during these two years of uncertainty and sporadic downtime. We have interviewed the directors of the Creative District hotels: Santiago Hernandez of Barcelona Princess, Josep Aguilar of Twentytú Hi-Tech Hostel, Sonia Gil-Gibernau of Novotel Barcelona City and Joachim Hartl of Hilton Diagonal Mar to talk to us about their current situation, their future aspirations and also their vision of the tourism sector and its evolution after the pandemic.

Here you will find the first part of a report that gathers different opinions and points of view of the professionals interviewed to discuss the subject in depth. In this first part we talk about the effects that the pandemic has had on the hotels of the Creative District.


Tourism in Spain and Catalonia, before and after the pandemic

Tourism is one of the most important economic sectors in Spain. Before the pandemic this sector represented around 12% of GDP and 12.8% of employment, according to the INE, with Spain being the second most visited country in the world (after France) by receiving around 80 million tourists annually. Between 2017 and 2019, the annual number of international tourists visiting Catalonia increased exponentially, exceeding 19 million annually.

Faced with travel restrictions imposed in the vast majority of countries around the world, Catalonia saw the number of foreign tourists drop drastically. In 2020, the autonomous community received 80% fewer foreign visitors, with a number of 3.8 million visitors, levels almost three times lower than in 2001. Not surprisingly, in the hotel sector, the consequences were irrevocable. Indeed, around 2.1 million tourists stayed in hotels in Barcelona in 2020, compared to 9.5 in 2019.

Today, one can witness a certain optimism on the part of the various players in the tourism sector as to the evolution of the situation since in 2021 Spain has received 30 million foreign tourists.


The consequences of the pandemic for the hotels of the Creative District

When we asked the managers of the hotels of the Creative District how they had been affected by these two years of pandemic, the answer was unanimous: for all of them it was certainly one of the most difficult periods their hotel had to face.

Barcelona Princess Hotel

For Santiago Hernandez, director of the Hotel Barcelona Princess, the beginning of the pandemic was a very particular moment since they had to close for the first time in 18 years of activity. A few days later they reopened to transform it into a hospital hotel where they welcomed more than 360 patients. But once the first wave had passed and this need of the Generalitat to welcome patients was fulfilled, in June 2020 they closed completely until June 2021, being closed for more than a year.

Having a customer profile that comes to Barcelona, especially to attend conventions/congresses or for work, the hotel had to get used to the cancellation of corporate travel during these two years of pandemic. Indeed, they have gradually welcomed a new type of client: holiday tourists who came to Barcelona for a couple of days and for its gastronomic offer, culture, leisure and beach. With its two swimming pools, its tapas menu, its proximity to the sea and its parking, the Hotel Barcelona Princess was able to attract this new profile without great difficulty.

However, companies are starting to relax their restrictions and it is assumed that the typical Barcelona Princess profile will return to the pre- pandemic level.


Twentytú Hi-Tech Hostel

As Josep Aguilar, director of Twentytú Hi-Tech, told us, the pandemic affected the hostel on two levels. On the one hand, being a hostel, they have a mostly foreign clientele (more than 70% of their occupancy), so the travel restrictions greatly affected the number of bookings at Twentytú. On the other hand, more than 58% of their bookings are from groups, which tend to book well in advance: in 2022 it was impossible for the hotel to make forecasts.

In terms of the profile of Twentytú Hi-Tech‘s current clientele, they mainly count on individual bookings from travelers who come to Barcelona without having planned their trip in advance. A particularity of the hotel is its strong involvement in meeting sustainable development goals: out of the 17 Sustainable Tourism Goals they are working on all of them and are already meeting 14.

To ensure the health and safety of their customers, the hostel invested in an air filtration system with UV lamp and adapted their service to meet the capacity limits.


Novotel Barcelona City

For the Hotel Novotel Barcelona City, the pandemic was also very difficult: after a splendid 2019 in which they broke all records, the hotel’s activities slowed to a halt. Being part of Accor, three months after closing they were able to reopen again as the chain bet on reopening when it was allowed. However, for Sonia Gil-Gibernau, director of Novotel Barcelona City, it has been two years of constant uncertainty, with changes in the restrictions and with different waves of covid that have caused increases and decreases in occupancy, cancellations of reservations, changes in the capacity of its meeting rooms, openings and closings in its bars and restaurants.

Like the Barcelona Princess and the Twentytú Hi-Tech, the Hotel Novotel Barcelona City also had an international clientele and the mobility restrictions forced them to rethink their entire customer acquisition strategy. In the last two years they have received mostly local clients: couples who needed a getaway, Barcelona families who wanted to get away from their routine, friends who wanted to enjoy a massage or the hammam… They have been readapting their offer to the circumstances of each moment, from making take away Christmas menus, creating a new concept of meetings “Open Air Meetings” on their rooftop or making our rate policies more flexible, always betting on personalization and customer loyalty.

Little by little it seems that international tourism is coming back as well as congresses and conventions, so they hope to return to pre-pandemic levels in terms of clients.


Hilton Diagonal Mar

According to Joachim Hartl, manager of the Hotel Hilton Diagonal Mar, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the operating standards of the hospitality and tourism industry. They took decisive steps in advance to reassure their guests and ensure a safe workplace for their staff and in June 2020 Hilton introduced a new cleaning program in all their hotels worldwide.

Throughout the difficult times of the pandemic, they have focused on staying very close to their associates and customers, listening to what the customer wants and needs. Prior to the pandemic, Hilton invested heavily in technology, launching innovations such as Digital Key. This service was really needed during the pandemic, seeing increased demand for seamless digital experiences and the touchless customer journey.

During COVID’s peak, the Hilton Diagonal Mar Barcelona also supported the local community by donating food and toys to families in need.

While the pandemic brought the tourism sector to a standstill for two years, now, in the “post pandemic” they can see an increase in demand for corporate events with a special focus on outdoor events, to maintain security. This year, they also expect growth in leisure tourism, driven by pent-up demand for travel.