Hospitality pioneer Loh Lik Peng says we should remember the lessons from the pandemic: stay local, prioritise mental wellness and push for greater sustainability

Around this time in 2020, an unknown novel coronavirus started taking over social media feeds, the news, and ultimately, our lives. Life as we knew it changed abruptly, and it’s only recently that many of us have settled into the new normal. The last three years have been particularly tough on the travel and hospitality industry, which has faced the disproportionate brunt of the pandemic’s impact bringing even the most storied businesses to their knees.

So what can we expect for hotels, restaurants and travel as a whole in 2023? The “post-pandemic” landscape is not devoid of bumps. It has been mired by record inflation, a war in Europe, and an escalating climate crisis. There is, however, reason to be optimistic, especially with the expected rebound that comes with the return of Chinese travellers. Loh Lik Peng, founder of Unlisted Collection—a hospitality group operating award-winning restaurants and hotels in Singapore, Sydney, London and more—shares his thoughts on the future of the industry and what can be done to shape it for the better.

Read more: Loh Lik Peng's full profile on Asia's Most Influential

The world is small and united in its love of travel.

What I realised over the last three years is how in sync the world is. When the pandemic started, every market shut within weeks of each other; by and large the shutdowns were fast and total. When vaccinations began to penetrate deeply into society, virtually all those markets opened up resulting in a rapid resumption in travel and consumption in general.

I noticed that the world moved in lockstep, not necessarily coordinated but certainly driven by momentum from consumers who all had a lot of the same motivations. That was striking because I thought it would be an uneven and bumpy ride, but travel exploded everywhere in the world that borders opened. That proves to me that fundamentally everyone loves to travel—and will, if given the opportunity to do so.

China will take the travel rebound into overdrive.

Everyone who thinks travel right now is expensive and disruptive better get used to it as China opens up. This year is likely to be worse than 2022 because when the Chinese travel in large numbers, they flood every market. It is likely that we will face supply constraints all along the travel and hospitality chain for much of the year—possibly even into 2024. The disruptions caused by the pandemic will be long-lasting and profound—we may not find equilibrium for another four to five years.

Businesses need to continually value the local traveller.

One of the changes we made during the pandemic that had the most lasting impact was related to our business model. Pre-pandemic, most hotels aimed to have as large an international footprint as possible. Businesses wanted to maximise inbound traffic from markets like the US and China because those were the guests that paid the best room rates. When travel disappeared overnight, the only market we had was domestic—a long-neglected niche. 

Today I think of the domestic traveller as the base of our market, a fundamentally important segment we should satisfy and cater to. Very few hospitality businesses paid attention to their domestic guests before but that has definitely changed. This can only be a good thing for both the business as well as local customers, who should now feel that they are not taken for granted.

Employee well-being must be a priority of the hospitality industry.

There are several post-pandemic movements that we can be grateful for, and the most obvious one for me is awareness with regards to mental health, self-care and work-life balance. This has always been an issue in the hospitality industry but it’s only now that there is a greater understanding of it.

During the pandemic we really had to turn to our teams to continue operations in the face of an unseen virus. It was a tremendous lesson in how valuable our staff are and also how much of an impact the pandemic had on them. By and large, hospitality employees cannot work from home so we have to make sure we can keep them healthy and engaged…all the more so when the labour market is so tight and travel is returning so strongly. We simply have to work in a more sustainable way to prevent total burnout.

Restaurants have to strive for sustainability in all aspects.

Sustainability will be an even bigger topic in the next decade. Restaurants will need to find a solution to long supply chains, unsustainable harvesting and farming, expensive ingredients—issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. It is going to be a tough couple of years with inflation, supply chain issues, labour shocks and environmental degradation contributing to a situation of restaurants being out of step with society.

Three wishes for the travel industry in 2023

What I wish for the future of this sector is a healthy and sustainable supply of labour—staff who are passionate about the hospitality industry. The second is a deeper and more profound way to manage the environmental costs of travel. We have to get better at it and we have to do it at a much quicker pace. Finally, I would like to see an industry that is more embedded in their local society. The travel trade is by its nature outward-looking, but I think the year has come when we must look at our domestic markets more. They are close by, they have money to spend, and they’re supportive of local businesses. It’s time to reorient inwards a little.

Tatler Asia
Loh Lik Peng
Above Loh Lik Peng is an Asia's Most Influential honouree from Singapore. He is the CEO the Unlisted Collection, which has under its belt five hotels and more than 20 restaurants in Singapore, China, Australia, Ireland and the UK. These include the culinary brands Meatsmith, Burnt Ends, Nouri and Kotuwa; and hotel properties Trinity —embody an eclectic, cosmopolitan vibe, rooted in iconic heritage buildings. The five-star Castlemartyr Resort in Cork County, Ireland opened in 2021, followed by the modern restaurant Terre on the property in 2022.

Tatler Asia's Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping our world today. Asia's Most Influential brings together the region's most innovative changemakers, industry titans and thought leaders who are driving positive impact in Asia and beyond. View the full list here.

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