The COVID-19 crisis: studying the future

Everyone in the hospitality profession and research world is concerned with one single question: how will this crisis evolve? Even though there is no science that enables us to predict the future, there are scientific methods that allow us to systematically analyse trends and formulate “if this, then that” hypotheses about the future.

Strategic Foresight is a method to study how we envision the future: what do we know, what do we assume, what do we expect from the future based on those ideas; and more importantly, what happens if something unexpected occurs? The objective is not to make accurate predictions about the future, but to prepare ourselves strategically for not only the expected (or so-called baseline) future, but also for the surprises that the future always holds. Graphically, this is represented in the following model from a paper by two Future Foresight researchers from the University of Houston where this method is taught:

Fig. 1 "Cone of plausibility". Source: Hines & Bishop (2013)

What can we say with this method about the current COVID-19 crisis? In the attached study, Jeroen Oskam analysed the assumptions, plans, and the current policies deployed in the crisis. One of the things the study shows is that, although we had been preparing for a pandemic crisis, the assumptions in those preparations were totally different from what actually has happened, and that therefore most plans were immediately tossed aside.

Will we have a V-shaped (quick recovery), a U-shaped (slow recovery) or maybe even an L-shaped recovery (permanent economic slowdown) after the crisis? Of course we cannot tell yet, but when we analyse the different factors in play, the conclusions are that the driver for a recovery are weak, and that therefore a pessimistic scenario seems more likely. As for the duration of the crisis, even if we are not sure that there will be subsequent waves, this is a serious scenario we have to incorporate into our recovery plans. The tourist industry will certainly be hard hit, but the consequences will most probably be devastating for long-haul destinations that cannot fall back on domestic tourism. Finally, small independent businesses are more vulnerable to the effects of a prolonged crisis, which means that with recovery we will probably see a consolidation in the hospitality industry, with winners and losers.

The Research Centre of Hotelschool The Hague is currently conducting multiple studies into the effects of the crisis on the industry. Strategic Foresight is one of the subjects that will be included in the new master the school is currently planning.

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