How a Hotelier Has Navigated the Coronavirus Crisis

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Business Elevation Tribe

We profiled lawyer-turned-hotelier Michelle Ifill in the Wellness issue of Elevation Tribe. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic brought tourism worldwide to a standstill, with many countries issuing quarantines and closing their borders to visitors. Ifill, the owner of La Maison Michelle in Barbados, has been in New York patiently waiting for the time when she can reopen her property. Below, she tells us how she’s been fairing through the pandemic, and how she thinks travel will change once the world reopens again:

ET: First, how are you doing? 

MI: All things considered, I am actually doing well.  My family remains primarily healthy and we have shelter, food, and each other. My heart aches for so many out there who are ill and who have lost loved ones.  It has been amazing to see the outpouring of support and humanness during this tragic time.

ET: How has the coronavirus response in Barbados compared to other countries? And how have you managed La Maison Michelle during this time?  

MI:  The virus has impacted life on the island quite dramatically. Like many Caribbean islands, the number one economic driver in Barbados is tourism. Prime Minister Mia Mottely and her cabinet were laser-focused on containing the pandemic from the very first news of the Wuhan outbreak.  This early vigilance allowed for the island to be prepared when the first case was identified.  Organized testing and contact tracing were immediately put into effect and with an island of nearly 300,000, Barbados has only identified 97 cases (note: number of COVID-19 cases as of June 16).

The airport has been closed to tourists since the end of March, but the plans are soon to be rolled out for the safe reopening of businesses and eventually to once again welcoming tourists, with the appropriate health and safety precautions in place.

ET: Once Barbados reopens, how are you planning to welcome guests back to La Maison Michelle? Are you worried people will be hesitant to travel? 

MI: It will be of the utmost importance for all tourists to feel safe before returning to travel.  I do expect that there will be some portion of the international traveling public who will be slower to make the move, but many people that we speak with and receive data analytics about, are itching to get out of their homes and back into the world. They are tired of Zoom meetups and want to run, swim, jump, and breathe in the open air safely.  Given Barbados’  aggressive tackling of COVID-19, La Maison Michelle is perfectly situated to be a safe, private, and pristine haven for those who want to minimize exposure to others. There are no elevators to deal with, buffet lines to stand on, or crowded restaurants to contend with.  Secluded villas such as ours, allow guests to vacation while continuing to social distance as the open-air design, with seven uniquely designed en suite bedrooms, each with private decks, multiple expansive patios, and a sweeping rooftop, create the perfect atmosphere for space, safety, security, and serenity. Which we all so need right now!

ET: Long term, how do you think the current pandemic and fallout will impact how you run La Maison Michelle in the future?

MI: Cleanliness and the health and safety of our guests have always been of paramount importance to me and therefore, our staff at La Maison Michelle. Before now, we preferred that our housekeepers operate ‘behind the scenes’ working diligently as unnoticed as possible by our guests. I believe that mode of operation will have to change in a post-COVID world.  Guests are going to want, at least for a time, to actually see when the pool chairs are wiped down between each use, when the tables and handrails are sanitized and how often the throw pillows are sprayed with disinfectant. Or they may not want any decorative pillows to be out at all.  It will, indeed, be a new world focused not only on keeping our resort sparkling clean – but on giving our guests the extra comfort of actually seeing what goes into making it so and remaining flexible.

ET: What business lessons do you think you’ve taken from it, and what do you think the travel industry as a whole will learn?

MI: Business owners’ success is inextricably tied to the people that help to make it all work, and during tough times like these, it is important that this sense of mutual reliance is recognized and celebrated.  While it’s always lovely to visit a resort, what keeps our guests coming back is the impeccable, personalized service.  If our staff feel cared for, it’s easier for them to want to go out of their way for our guests.   

As for the broader travel industry lessons:  before the pandemic, tourism supported roughly 10 percent of the global GDP. That is an enormous number. It is hard to predict how quickly the recovery will be, but there is no doubt that several airlines have had preventable foot-faults.  Airline crowding and cleanliness had been an issue in the early days of the re-opening of certain flight paths.  Cruise lines will also have a challenging recovery due to the severity of the virus outbreaks onboard notable and respected brands. There is no doubt that the cruise industry will have to put more emphasis on sanitation procedures and on allowing for cancellations for passengers who fall ill before traveling. The significant penalty for cancellations disincentives sick people from staying home in bed where they belong. Hotels also have some work to do before occupancy rates will begin to rise again:  visible sanitizing, reductions in numbers of guests per floor, staggered elevator use, reduction on buffet reliance and sparser dining reservations are the quick ones that come to mind.

ET: Finally, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned for yourself during the pandemic?

MI: My biggest personal lesson is an affirmation of the importance of grace.  The importance of being grateful for family.  The importance of helping others.  My biggest business lesson is the importance of the pivot. There is no way that I could have anticipated the severe impact and upheaval that would come to our global way of life as a result of a microscopic virus. As a small business owner, it was important to be creative and quick in addressing the shutdown and moving our clients’ reservations to later in 2020 and 2021. We had to be innovative in creating situational offerings while being careful not to be tone-deaf to the serious challenges so many are facing.  This is a delicate balance, which caused me quite a bit of discomfort if I am to be transparent.  But we had to make sure that our clients knew that we are here for them and for the Bajan community.