COVID-19 knocked the world out almost overnight, giving us little to no warning, which could have somehow prepared us for its cruel impact. The movement protocols and lockdowns, which have gotten tighter as new waves of infections arise, are crippling industries and economies.
In Vietnam, a country that enjoyed impressive economic growth over the last few years, has imposed strict measures to contain local outbreaks. The bold measures obviously worked, with Vietnam becoming sort of a virus-free haven on an otherwise infected world. Even as the country currently battles a third wave of infections, there’s so much confidence among locals and the international community that the outbreak’s not going to last long.
But while the restrictions were proven effective, they also forced the travel and hotel sector into virtual hibernation mode. As city streets get deserted and flights get banned, hotels also saw their occupancy rates sliding down. In the first quarter of 2020, RevPar (revenue per available room) went down significantly by 56% year-over-year for Hanoi, while Ho Chi Minh City hotels suffered worse with 64%. Occupancy rates reached the lowest point in April, when the government imposed nationwide social isolation. Major four- and five-star hotels in big cities are recovering at a much slower pace, as they strongly rely on inbound foreign holidaymakers, which at the moment are not allowed to enter the borders.
As hoteliers patiently wait for Vietnam (and the rest of the world) to fully heal, recover and allow leisure travel to resume, there are things they need to prepare right now to be fully ready – and be capable – to meet the demands of their future guests: high cleanliness and safety standards, wide in-room services, touchless experience, multifunctional open spaces, high-caliber air filtration systems, private dining options (this may be the end of all-inclusive buffets) and more flexible bookings.
Vietcetera gets the insights of master architect and interior designer Bill Bensley on the future of the luxury hotel industry, and on the pandemic’s influence on how hotels and resorts will be designed in the future for travelers who would opt for more open spaces and lesser person-to-person contact. Bill, known for the whimsical flair and ultra-glamorous styles he incorporates into each hotel he designs, is the genius behind the newly opened Capella Hanoi, Hotel de la Coupole MGallery Sapa, Yen Tu MGallery, JW Marriott Phu Quoc and InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort.
What is the future of Vietnam hospitality, architecture and design-wise, after the pandemic? What architectural trends do you see sprouting after this rather gloomy time?
When the pandemic first began we were all convinced that it would be the death of buffet-style dining and so on. Now I think a lot of hotel companies are operating with the idea that one day we will all be inoculated and life will go on, if not normally, in a semblance of it. Vietnam, being one of the countries which has best controlled the virus, like Thailand up til not so long ago, might not change their designs all that much, but hopefully there will be some sort of renaissance of freedom and expression, and far more time outdoors. At BENSLEY, we are definitely taking the approach of villas which are self contained – this we showed best on our Antigua project, where each and every villa is standalone, with abundant private outdoor space, private pools, private outdoor dining in our designs, but also adding features like several outdoor lounging as well as dining areas, and an expansive in-villa bar, so that the party can be right at home!
Will there be changes in the way hotels are designed to cater those who would still prefer "social distancing"?
With the above in mind, the one thing operators have asked us to abide by is contactless aspects: doors, taps locks all operated by touch-free systems. There will be more open spaces, more potential for open air, non-AC planning, and more designs which seek to reduce contact. Handrails, lift buttons, etc. have become a thing of quasi danger and we need to find out how to make them safe again or find their alternative. In general, I think that we are going to see a rise in hotels tucked away in the depths of the jungle, forest, WILDERNESS. People are longing for their own space, their own fresh air, their own COVID-free zone; and hotels will need to cater to that.
What have you learned from COVID-19 in terms of designing a luxury property?
A great deal. I imagine we will look at design with fresh eyes following the era of COVID-19, and in more ways than just adding space for social distancing, and eliminating buffets from our plans (hooray!). We are looking at a world which has been turned upside down, and wants nothing more than to escape into places full of fresh air, greenery and beauty. Escapism at its best – there is nothing I enjoy more! We have also been seeing a triumph of nature as it reclaimed our cities – while simultaneously masks, medical wastes and single-use plastic have their resurgence as we try and kill this bug. I hope from now on we all think twice as hard, and do five times more than we did before in terms of sustainability, for we are in dire need of it.
Can you name a positive way in which the current coronavirus pandemic has affected traveling?
Pre-COVID, I traveled 30 weeks a year – 60% of my life! I would jump on a plane at the drop of a hat – new play in London, check on a resort in South Africa, present a project in Vietnam with 200kilos of drawings. But now I am grounded and realised: I was flying too much and didn’t need to. Normally I would hop on a plane with drawings and fill up a ballroom to make a presentation. Now I realised, after a few months of Zoom, all the props might have been an unnecessary crutch.
In addition to that, I think this has made us all think about travel more deeply - with all the travel restrictions we will surely travel less, but also be more selective with where we go, and invest in holidays that are more environmentally friendly and experience driven. That, I think, will be a plus for our world.
When inbound luxury travel resumes in Vietnam, which of the properties you designed in the country would you most recommend for travelers to visit first?
Without a shadow of a doubt the Capella Hanoi! It is one of my favorite projects in that we imagined what a small but fabulous 5 star hotel of great taste would have looked like at the turn of the century, had it been steps from the Opera. This little palace tells the story of the actors, opera singers, composers, stage and costume designers, and spectators who supposedly passed through Hanoi over the last 150 years. Each suite trumpets the wonderful stories of the mischievous high society which passed through its doors - a story that we told with over a thousand pieces of original memorabilia, costumes, theatre programs, photographs, set, opera spectacles, and original portraiture art by the incredible Kate Spencer. The Art Deco architecture and interiors are detailed to infinity - it is so special. Because of COVI-19 we haven't been able to go to the site in over a year, and I can't wait til we can!
Will we be seeing more of your works post-pandemic?
Absolutely! There are quite a few projects in the pipeline right now. The latest is of course the Capella Hanoi, but also opening this year there is the Indigo Jakarta, a 32-floor skyscraper where we used the traditional art of batik, nowadays thought of as a bit old fashioned and matronly, and bring it back to life, with a pop art twist. The idea game from antique books of batik patterns, collected by a Dutch trader who developed batik wax cloth to sell in Europe. It is buckets of fun and full of upcycled pieces and craftsmanship, both of which are always favorites. Other projects include one on Thom Island in Vietnam, a few in Saudi Arabia and the Intercontinental Khao Yai National Park which is opening in October. There we upcycled abandoned train carriages and converted them into sumptuous guest rooms, and even a spa – all telling the story of a train conductor and his love for train travel, in Thailand and beyond to neighbouring Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore. It's going to be the new standard in eco-friendly hotels.