Hospitality in Crisis (V) – The Zuri Zanzibar

Despite most of us feeling as if there is nowhere in the world that isn’t suffering from the Covid Pandemic, and that no-one is feeling the pain more than those in the hospitality industry, there are, surprisingly, a few places and hotels that are relatively unaffected. One destination, in particular, is proving very popular at the moment, and that is the African island of Zanzibar, where the wonderful Zuri Zanzibar resort can be found.

I have been involved with the Zuri pretty much since it was a dream in the owner’s head (and heart). In fact, I wrote the text for the ‘pre-opening website’ based, mostly, on his ideas and drawings (and my own imagination of what is, essentially, some form of paradise). Incidentally, and funnily enough, when lock-down first loosened in Marbella, we visited an art gallery opening (our first ‘social’ event for three months) where a series of photos was on show, all looking very familiar – it turned out they were a series of photos from Zanzibar, some of which had been used on that first, long superseded, website! A small world, as usual.

I have been wondering how the Zuri has been fairing, since we haven’t spoken for a while, but as we hear so little about Africa (or other countries, generally, since every country’s media is so wrapped up in what is happening at home), it is hard to know how each region is coping (other than, in my case, pretty depressing news coming from my former client in South Africa). I therefore thought it would be interesting to talk to the Zuri’s Marketing Director, Andrew Knorova, to find out how things have been going (sadly this had to be by email rather than in person!):

JW: We don’t know too much about the Covid situation in Africa here in Europe, so it would be interesting to know how affected you have been generally in Zanzibar – were there many cases, did the island go into lockdown, and what was the effect of it all on the Zuri – especially in the early, tough days of March-June?  

The beach

AK: The Spring was tough – the entire island was closed to all visitors for around 2 months, and then, once it opened up a bit, we had a very slow start, with just 5% occupancy throughout the island.   We were very lucky to be able to sell our most exclusive villas to our very high-net-worth VIPs, who are usually travelling by private jet (and who could still access the island, whilst the regular airlines were not yet sending any planes to Zanzibar).    The fact is, though, that Zanzibar was not really affected by Covid-19; it had only a minimum number of cases (as far as we are aware) and the official statistics say that only 6 people died in total.   Who knows why; maybe a combination of the local weather, the humidity, and the locals’ strong immune system which enabled them to put up a good fight against the disease.

JW: I know that the whole team came back to Europe for a while in the Spring. Was that as usual (i.e. the closed season) or because you had to close for much longer? I know you were doing a lot of marketing around the fact that Zuri is already suitable for ‘social distancing’ – could you just explain a bit?

AK: Zuri has been running on very high occupancy since day one, so we used the early Covid situation to send all of the possible staff back home to rest and spend some time with their families.   The timing was actually good for us as in May we were supposed to close anyway for our regular maintenance works.  However, by the third month, business had already started to pick up, but it was difficult to get everyone back due to the various lockdown situations around Europe – limited flights, border closures, etc.   And yes, the natural ‘socially distanced’ layout of the resort turned out to be a fantastic benefit for us in this very difficult situation, especially when hotels in other tropical destinations had to close.  The Zuri’s whole design is based on an open-space concept (i.e. everything is outside, in the super-fresh air), and the distance between each accommodation unit, plus the 300 m beach and the other outdoor facilities all combine to make the resort the ideal destination in these Covid times, and we became very popular with guests who knew that they would feel safe in the Zuri, especially with our new ‘Covid-safe’ concept. 

JW: As we are now in winter in Europe, how have you changed your marketing strategy (i.e. are you pushing different things, going after different markets, etc?)

AK: Our traditional markets, such as the UK, Germany, France or Spain, are literally frozen at the moment.  Instead we are experiencing a huge demand from elsewhere; obviously the Czech Republic, but also Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and some of the Arab countries.  But the trends are changing pretty much every month, depending on each country’s own situation and what airline/charter is able to fly.

Zuri pool

The resort has been sold out for 5 months in a row now – and we believe the reason for this is our new marketing strategy, which gives bookers absolute flexibility (in 2020 we introduced a 1 day cancellation policy, and even if a guest did not arrive on their expected day, they could still rebook within the next 365 days without any need to prove their reason for not coming).  We think that this is the most important issue for all clients, ie to know that they wont lose their money if they can’t fly – it has a much bigger value than the massive price undercutting but non-refundable conditions that some other hotels are using.  Of course it is quite risky for us and brings a massive workload for the reservations team as bookings are changing all the time, but the result is very positive – 90% + occupancy.

JW: Have you had to slash prices and what sort of occupancy did you have throughout the last nine months, especially compared to normal?  And what are you expecting over the next few months?

AK: Prices have stayed pretty stable, even though our competitors reduced theirs by up to 50%. We decided to keep our rates, but, as mentioned above, we adjusted our cancellation policies to make them more flexible.  Our usual 90% occupancy during January and February dropped to 0% in 2020 due to the island closure, but as soon as the government opened the borders again, we went back up to 90% within 3 months.  It’s very difficult to predict how long this trend will last, but even future months looks very promising at the moment.  But, you know, nowadays nobody knows what will happen from day to day!

JW: How do you personally feel about the whole situation?  Do you think it will benefit Zuri and maybe Africa generally? Do you have any thoughts about Africa/Asia versus Europe as potential holiday destinations for the future, etc?

AK: Having worked in the travel industry for almost 20 years,  I feel very sad and worry about the future for Europe, where I know that the hospitality situation is critical and taking far too long for it to be able to recover easily.   Even though Zuri is doing very well right now, such situations are generally very dangerous for countries such as those in Africa, where the local people are already quite poor and, in many cases, fully dependent on income from tourism.  When I see how the pandemic is affecting usually economically strong countries such as the UK, USA and others, it is very worrying to imagine how damaging the effect of a loss of tourism can be for third world countries, not just for hotels, but also the locals and the various NGOs and charities in Africa who have ended up without any income.

JW: I know most of your marketing is carried out centrally and through various agencies.   Also that in the past you have been targeting the European and US markets.   Will you be/are you changing your strategy as to your general marketing?  

AK: Just now, the main focus is on direct bookers, and for us, Instagram has turned out to be the new strong supplier of direct enquiries.  We are also seeing that Whatsapp is being used for instant direct booking confirmations.  Right now, we can’t be too selective about which market we should focus on, as we have to go with the flow and follow any trend.  Generally, though, we will continue to focus on the same markets that have worked for us in the past – actually Zuri has welcomed guests from about 70 different countries already, and even though the majority of our top 10 markets are frozen now,  there will be a day when they will wake up again and we will be ready to welcome them back 🙂

JW: Have you had to get rid of many people?  How are you keeping your staff morale going?

Zuri Garden

AK: Unfortunately even @ Zuri we had to reduce our staff during the critical months of spring 2020.  Nobody knew how long the situation would last and we could not allow “the boat to start to sink”.  However, we managed to bring a significant number of staff back as a reaction to our growing occupancy.   Staff morale, though, is extremely difficult to keep up, especially in Europe, where we were all working for some months on our home-office system.  Then in Zanzibar, the staff is extremely busy with a full resort, and even though they see each other daily,  there is not much time left for fun. 

JW: Have you ever felt like just closing the doors and giving up?

AK: NEVER!  I have to admit to a few “spring tears”, but, as we keep on saying, there must be some way to get our clients back, and even during the closure we were running communication campaigns for our regular clients and social media followers,  creating some relaxing playlists, offering online yoga and meditation classes, and sharing various recipes from our chefs. The positive and supporting responses we received were absolutely priceless battery charges, that kept us all going. Guests wanted so much to come back soon, and we were determined to find ways to make it happen. The creation of our ‘Covid-safe concept’, the flexible conditions we offered, and the fair flexible/no problem refund approach towards existing reservations brought a lot of them back earlier than we could have expected, and we are extremely grateful to them for their support.

JW: What special things do you, personally, do to keep ‘positive’?

AK: I believe that the travel industry will never die,  and people did, are and WILL travel, regardless of any issues. We have all had a bit of a longer break than usual, but the travel world will come back, sooner or later.   I repeat to my team every single week that we are probably the busiest hotel reservation office in Prague (booking for Zanzibar) and even though we work 24/7 and our ‘festive period’ looked like some extra long, super crazy day,  we are happy to be busy and for the demand we are experiencing right now.

JW: Is there anything else that you think people could find useful?

AK: Stay positive, and focus on the good things that the current difficult situation might bring – for example, I have never spent as much time with my family and children as I am now. And its fantastic!

JW: And do you have any offers that you can include for readers of the blog?  

AK: Due to our high occupancy, we can’t really offer any special discounts, but at least anyone that books directly via my Whatsapp (+420730815843) and quotes the “JWA” code,  will receive our famous and complimentary romantic ‘sundowner on the beach’, plus I will try my best to find them a nice room 🙂