As my team and I banded together for Alma’s debut on December 29, 2019, we were so proud of the effort we had invested into the 30-hectare resort’s pre-opening, that was years in the making. Our enthusiasm for welcoming our very first guests was unbridled and we were certain 2020 would be the best year of our careers.
Less than a month later, Vietnam reported its first case of COVID-19 on January 23 last year. As the global pandemic took hold, Vietnam closed its borders to international arrivals from March 22 last year and, from April 1, implemented anti-COVID restrictions nationwide. Businesses deemed non-essential were shuttered in a bid to stem the threat of the virus. Just over three months after opening our 580-room resort on Vietnam’s scenic Cam Ranh peninsula, we temporarily closed on April 12 last year.
Despite the mountains of research you do before a hotel opening, there are always things you think will appeal to the guests that don’t and vice versa. It’s so much harder to change, for example, your culinary landscape when you’re busy attending to the daily operations of a resort. There were so many things we had to do and it was exciting, in a surreal way, as I never shy away from a challenge. In the long-term, we were determined to win based on how we handled the short-term.
Our team worked tirelessly on improving the guest experience. For example, we not only combed through all of our menu items, looking at what dishes were selling and what were not, but we also overhauled entire dining concepts at numerous restaurants. Our beachfront restaurant Atlantis’s specialty morphed from Mediterranean cuisine to fresh, local seafood and excellent cuts of meat, and Asiana changed from a purely Japanese theme to modern Asian cuisine. Staff training has also been a major priority, particularly COVID-19 training to ensure our staff is fully versed in all of our host of stringent health and safety procedures. We think of our whole team as housekeepers and cleaners to combat the threat of the virus.
When we reopened on May 31 last year, we were yet again full of hope. Vietnam has been hailed a success story the world over for its excellent handling of the pandemic, due to the authorities’ proactive containment strategy based on comprehensive testing, tracing, and quarantining. We had already notched up several thousand room nights on the books before our reopening. In June and July last year, we reported an average occupancy rate of 57 percent and 60 percent respectively across our 196 pavilions and 384 suites. However, after 99 days straight of no community transmission of COVID-19 in Vietnam, and zero deaths from the virus, there was a flare-up of the virus in Danang in late July during the school holidays. Alma’s winning streak with solid occupancy ended abruptly, as mass testing began nationwide and restrictions were implemented in August in provinces throughout the country, including our province of Khanh Hoa before the authorities eased social distancing restrictions in our province and across Vietnam in early September.
Life began returning to normal before another COVID-19 outbreak emerged in Vietnam’s north in late January this year that has since been brought under control, thanks yet again to the authorities’ swift implementation of tight screening, contact tracing, quarantining, and, where necessary, lockdowns.
The Vietnamese authorities are to be commended for putting lives first, above all else. Despite its population of 96.46 million, Vietnam has had some of the world’s lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. At the time of writing, there have been 2572 cases and 35 deaths. The authorities have also launched a successful app called Bluezone that alerts users if they have had close contact with people infected with COVID-19.
With the borders in Vietnam still closed to international travel, we can’t believe the high demand for travel in Vietnam by the Vietnamese. After so much dour news worldwide, to see the resort fill up the way it did upon Alma’s reopening was more than encouraging as optimistic locals and expats wanted to explore their own backyard, albeit with a newfound appreciation for travel in light of the restriction. In addition to keeping a lid on COVID-19, the Vietnamese authorities also launched a “Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam” campaign to help boost domestic tourism. Our resort’s guest numbers were buoyed by a huge demand for multigenerational travel, with our oversized accommodations, including our three-bedroom pavilions with their own private pools, catering to families of up to four generations.
Admittedly tackling COVID-19 and the utter devastation it has wreaked upon tourism and hospitality is not just a matter of donning rose-coloured glasses; we have learned big lessons as a result.
Lesson One: Whatever we did in the past — that was always based on steady growth, with more ups than downs — has to go out the window. As the era of COVID-19 is just so unusual, and so immense a problem, you can only think big and only think completely out of the box if you want to survive this era. If you think as you did during the “old normal” you just cannot cope with the “new normal”. You have to challenge all of the things you have learned in the past and reinvent your knowledge, and then some.
Lesson Two: We can never take anything for granted anymore. The industry as a whole has been forced to live with ongoing insecurity and instability. There are effective vaccines but how long will it take before people get them globally? If you have a family and you have to go on unpaid leave for a long time, it’s a dire situation. I really empathise with the many talented people who have dedicated their lives to the tourism industry and have now lost everything.
Lesson Three: For major hospitality players in Vietnam or those looking to invest in Vietnam, you can no longer say: “I will build a resort in Vietnam for international tourists”. As the global pandemic has taught the industry here the hard way, foreigners may not always be able to visit. There could be other issues other than a global pandemic that exposes the fragility of rampant globalisation, such as a key international market’s economy collapsing or a dispute between different countries.
Lesson Four: It’s crucial Vietnamese hotels and resorts are resilient by focusing primarily on the domestic market; it’s all we have, with Vietnam’s borders still closed. You have to truly appeal to the domestic market and I believe we do so at Alma due to our facilities, ranging from our 580 oversized suites and pavilions, 14 food and beverage outlets, and a cascade of 12 beachfront swimming pools to other drawing cards including a science museum, 6000 square metre waterpark, 13-treatment room spa, art gallery, cinema, convention centre, amphitheatre, youth centre with virtual reality games, kid’s club, water sports centre, gymnasium and yoga room, and an 18-hole putting green. I genuinely believe Alma is an open house for everyone, particularly our local community. From the beginning, we are the only resort in our location that doesn’t have a wall around us; everything is open.
Lesson Five: The hospitality industry is in desperate need of a different investment model. Alma is based on an excellent timeshare model, a first for Vietnam, that has helped seriously underscore our long-term survival. Our timeshare model doing relatively well in the current climate compared to the more traditional hotels and resorts as we have a loyal pool of customers who will return year after year.
Lesson Six: We need to provide technical solutions where possible yet still provide good hospitality. We’ve launched our very own Alma App, opening the door to contactless communication with guests and staff in real-time. The ‘Alma Resort’ app offers menus, promotions, and vouchers as well as live stream broadcasts and information about events and COVID-19 health and safety tips. The app is a game-changer for Vietnam’s hospitality landscape, and all the more remarkable because Alma has muscled its way into the realm of mobile app technology alongside predominantly major global hotel brands. Yet I believe it’ll soon be incumbent for five-star resorts across Vietnam to offer the same technology.
This rollercoaster ride of a year makes me think of the proverb “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors”. COVID-19 is akin to not only rough seas but a tsunami; a tsunami that has unleashed its fury on the tourism industry and brought it to its knees. The pandemic has irretrievably changed the hospitality landscape; there is “Before COVID-19” (BC) and “After COVID-19” (AC) and this has all sorts of implications we must learn from, some of which I have outlined above. Yet despite everything, tourism will recover. And I know that the hard lessons my team and I have learned are making Alma stronger and all the more innovative “AC”.
About the author
Herbert Laubichler-Pichler is a hospitality veteran with life-long experience making guests feel welcome at hotels and resorts in Europe and Asia.
Austrian-born Mr. Laubichler-Pichler is currently the General Manager of Alma, a new 30-hectare resort overlooking Long Beach on Vietnam’s Cam Ranh peninsula, with 14 food and beverage outlets and a cascade of 12 beachfront swimming pools.
Mr. Laubichler-Pichler’s work in Vietnam includes management of some of the country’s most acclaimed properties such as Anam, which also fronts Long Beach, Ho Chi Minh City’s Reverie Saigon, and Nam Hai in Danang.