Tim Hentschel, Co-Founder & CEO of HotelPlanner, is someone who lives and breaths travel. He launched HotelPlanner.com in 2003, at the peak of the dot-com era after a casual conversation over beers on what the biggest challenge to booking hotels was for travelers at the time.
Fast forward to today, the travel technology company is one of the world’s top facilitators of individual, group and corporate bookings, specializing in negotiated group hotel rates, extended stays and more for everything from weddings to sporting events. This booking empire offers a global portfolio of over 50,000 hotels, and continues to thrive, despite huge setbacks in the travel space due to Covid.
Though the world saw a decrease in travel, HotelPlanner surprisingly not only continued to receive customer calls, but more so than in years prior. In response, Hentschel decided to launch a global gig-based travel agent reservations platform where remote agents can take customer calls from anywhere, at any time. Thus allowing customers the ability to speak with actual people, rather than chatbots or pre-recordings.
Hentschel currently lives in Singapore, but has traveled extensively the past several months including extended stays in Manila for the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit and New York City for the NYU Hospitality Investment Conference, where he was a speaker.
“As we come out of the pandemic, the biggest barrier to travel now remains the ever-changing, complex and confusing Covid testing, vaccine documentation, and quarantine requirements between countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific,” explains Hentschel.
“When it comes to culinary travel, in Asia-Pacific, Covid is still negatively affecting restaurants and bars the most, given that they are about a year behind in their recovery compared with rest of the world. However, in Europe and the Americas, most people have returned to crowded bars and restaurants without masks. In a room of 100 people, you may see just a few still wearing masks.”
Based on all of his recent trips, we chatted with Tim Hentschel, Co-Founder & CEO of HotelPlanner, on all things travel, including how it’s been affected by Covid and practical advice for the average traveler; how the travel and food industries can strengthen one another in a recovering post-pandemic world; silver linings and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Do you think that variances in Covid restrictions is a deterrent? What do you see as discouraging for the average traveler to travel abroad right now?
Absolutely. There are many citizens in Asia-Pacific who simply aren’t traveling until it becomes much easier between countries. Europe is now starting to really take off with EU travel, and is likely to have a strong summer travel and August holiday season. Besides 40-year high inflation and about 20% higher costs for flights and hotels, the #1 disincentive for inbound travelers to the U.S. is the 24-hour Covid testing requirement that the U.S. government still has in effect.
The U.S. service industry is losing millions a day in unrealized revenue from inbound travelers who are still holding off on their U.S. trips. Hopefully the U.S. government will remove that testing requirement. When they do, it will be a huge catalyst for inbound travel to American shores.
Now that we’re getting past the worst of the pandemic (hopefully), what do you see as the new norm of international travel?
The new norm for international travel will probably include having to download various apps to upload your vaccine documentation and Covid test, and the confusing and complex process of traveling country to country with disparate policies. I think things will smooth out so there is parity and predictability between countries, but probably not until 2025.
My advice is to research the latest Covid policies for each country along your itinerary. Figure out what documentation or app you need to use. Get your paperwork in order. Besides Covid, with so much pent-up demand, I advise all travelers to book their trips as far in advance as possible to ensure availability, but also to lock in a lower rate.
In terms of planning a major trip my top three recommendations include booking early, researching each country’s Covid protocols (but checking for any last-minute changes) and considering travel insurance, but read the fine print.
Do you find that Covid restrictions and protocol have put a damper on leisurely activities for the traveler?
The answer depends on what country you’re talking about, but in general, the last two years have been very tough on leisure travel. Most everything in the leisure space was cancelled or made virtual. The good news is that leisure travel is leading the globe’s recovery as millions are now traveling to go on that epic or exotic vacation they’ve always dreamed about, or to get married or attend a wedding, or just to attend a live event like a Broadway show in NYC, or to finally take their kids to Disney World.
When it comes to drinking and dining specifically, what are the differences amongst various countries and cities you see?
People still want to drink and dine in groups, not alone. We are social beings. But what I have noticed along my international travels is a lack of transparency and consistency with Covid protocols. For example, masks may be optional in the hotel lobby, but you still have to show proof of vaccine to get into the hotel restaurant. That doesn’t make sense. Or maybe it’s a hospitality conference I’m attending and the city has already removed its indoor mask or vaccination policy, but the conference organizers or the conference venue are still requiring proof of vaccine.
Has culinary travel taken a hit?
Culinary travel was impacted just as much as any other leisure activity. During Covid, if a foodie wanted to experience exotic cuisine, they probably had to order it for local delivery or cook it themselves at home.
In the U.S., I’ve noticed a significant uptick in marketing and events for Brewery and Winery tours, Food tours, and Food and Wine and Beer Festivals. Culinary events are all returning strong. Both the restaurant and travel industries have really been disrupted with Covid.
Is there a silver lining anywhere?
If there is any silver lining with Covid, it forced restaurants and travel companies to innovate and evolve, work with skeleton crews, and hire and fire more quickly and smartly. Hopefully, the permanent change is much cleaner restaurants, hotels and event spaces. The permanent changes are: Enhanced cleaning, better air filtration systems, and hand sanitizer stations everywhere.
What are some ways you see the two industries of food and travel coming together in new, fruitful ways because of what has happened?
Restaurants and hotels and live events are three pillars of the service industry, the fourth pillar being the airlines. They have to work more closely together now because they depend on each other for survival. For example, a hotel or restaurant may need to rent out its event space more often to remain profitable. And the event organizers need more unique and flexible hotels and restaurants to host their events. It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial, interdependent relationship.
Has Covid become a catalyst for positive change in any way that you see?
The positive change for the entire service industry, which was hit the hardest, is that they are now leading the globe’s post-pandemic recovery. And I think a lot of industry executives are realizing that ‘we are all in this together.’ I think this will result in more company partnerships that the world has never seen before. Hotels partnering with restaurants. Restaurants partnering with airlines. Live event organizers partnering with hotels, etc.
What have been some of your favorite dining experiences around the globe?
The cuisine in Singapore is legendary and my family and I have really enjoyed expanding our culinary palettes the past two years while we lived there. Now that I’ve relocated my family back to London, I’m looking forward to authentic British pub fare like Fish & Chips; Bangers N’ Mash, or Sheperd’s Pie. And the Indian cuisine in London is world famous too. But to answer your question directly, some of my favorite dining experiences around the globe had nothing to do with the food, and had more to do with the friends or family or business partners I was with. Who you dine with can make all the difference.
What are your current favorite restaurants?
Current favorite restaurant for date night is the Quilon at the Taj Buckingham Gate in London and with the kids, it’s Benihana’s.