Our employees make it possible

22 September 2020
Interview with Swe Yi and Jens-Uwe Parkitny, owners, Loikaw Lodge Myanmar

Myanmar reported its first case of COVID-19 on 23 March. The government responded with restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading: banning mass gatherings, suspending visas, issuing stay-at-home orders, quarantining, promoting social distancing and imposing legal actions against those who broke the new laws. It seems that thanks to these prompt actions, the case numbers remained low. But the economic impact for businesses, especially for restaurants and hotels, was devastating.

Myanmar eco-lodge owners Swe Yi and Jens-Uwe Parkitny tell Evelyn Seltier of International Trade Forum how they survived the country’s lockdown and were able to welcome guests again.

What did the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences mean for your business?

We had to close our lodge. Our last guests left on 25 March and at the time, we did not know when we would be able to receive guests again. We felt the financial impact immediately. The high season lasts until the end of April and every week without guests meant losing several thousand US dollars in revenue.

Nevertheless, we decided to keep our staff and continue to pay them their full salaries, using our personal savings. We felt a moral obligation to do so and show our appreciation for their commitment.

We also introduced reduced working hours and weekly shifts with no more than four to five staff members at a time. We focused on renovation, maintenance, cleaning and sanitization of our property in the weeks that followed the closure of our lodge.

How was your business going before the lockdown and then during it?

Before the lockdown, our business was thriving. In fact, it was our strongest high season in terms of numbers of bookings and average length of stay since our opening in October 2016.

The situation that the pandemic created not only ruined our business momentum but also that of everyone we normally interact with: the community-based tourism programme, tour guides, drivers, restaurants and cafés, souvenir shops as well as the suppliers of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and beverages.

The impact on all our partners and suppliers was huge, since local and international guests stopped coming from one day to the next. Not being able to understand how long this situation would last and what the ‘new normal’ would look like was an uncertainty of a magnitude we never had to deal with before in our professional and personal lives.

How is the situation now?

On 26 June, we reopened our lodge after local authorities inspected our property and approved the health and safety protocols we implemented.

Thanks to having kept our employees, it was easy for us to reopen. Even before opening, we had inquiries from in-country guests who desperately wanted to escape Yangon. This was incredibly encouraging. Even though we have no guests from abroad now, we can still count on locals and expats who remained in Myanmar and are looking for opportunities to spend a weekend in tranquillity.

How did you attract these new guests?

People thought of us thanks to word-of-mouth, great TripAdvisor reviews and consistent marketing on Facebook and Instagram. In July, we luckily had a number of guests from Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw staying with us. That way we were able to cover our operational costs for the month. August and September still look uncertain, as we have not received any bookings yet. But we are confident about getting bookings at short notice as people seem to decide more spontaneously these days, rather than planning ahead.

Did you look into adapting your business?

Living in a town with rural character, we could not simply switch to another business model. We usually get excellent feedback for our food. However, there is no demand from locals in Loikaw for our type of Western food. Had we been in Yangon, we would have offered take-out-food and delivery. Many hotels in major cities are actually doing exactly that to survive.

So we decided to ride out the storm and focus on projects that will help us to recover fast once the situation swings back to normal: updating our website and positioning us not only as an accommodation provider but as an ‘experience provider’ with special ethnographic knowledge on the region’s tribes, that supports the community. With the first guests returning, we strongly feel that we have made the right decision so far.

Given possible future pandemics or restrictions, which measures are you taking to stay resilient?

As a service provider in the travel industry, we will always be very vulnerable to this kind of situation. The only way to become more resilient is to diversify. There is a saying that in order to survive in Myanmar, you need more than one leg to stand on. That is why we are looking into other business opportunities to build or to invest in, so we become less dependent on a single source of income. Many other business people we know are having the same thoughts.

But we are confident that new opportunities will unfold post-COVID-19. We have created a successful business model and we can imagine expanding into consulting. This could be either for private investors or for existing, smaller hotels that survived the pandemic and need marketing consultancy to maximize existing channels or build new ones to resume their business quickly.

Would you share some advice with fellow lodge owners?

Our first advice would be to keep your team, if you can afford it. It will allow you to resume operations quickly and provide the same quality service as before, simply because your team knows your business and will be very loyal to you if you keep them. To gain customer confidence, it is crucial to invest in health and safety protocols, train staff accordingly and clearly communicate to guests the kind of measures you implemented.

The downtime during business closure allowed us to think about our strategy. We suggest that fellow lodge owners do the same: think about how you can position yourselves in a post-COVID-19 environment, what differentiates you from your immediate competitors, and what you might need to change to compete successfully in the future.

In our opinion, there will be a significant shift in customer behaviour post-COVID-19. Price consciousness, bargain hunting and value-for-money-seeking will prevail among those with lower or temporarily no income. People in the affluent or high-income bracket will travel again, driven by backlog demand. They will most probably look for upscale or luxury treats, for unique and authentic stays, dining, tours and special experiences.

Our Loikaw Lodge story has always been about providing a holistic experience that includes local communities. We consistently made community-based tourism and our knowledge about different ethnicities the core of our brand – which makes us unique in the area.

Now is a good time to think about your story and whether it still works for you. If guests can only be enticed through deep discounts, then something is wrong with your brand – and your business recovery will not be sustainable.

What exactly makes your brand special?

We strongly believe in tourism as a catalyst for economic and social development and change, specifically in former conflict areas.

We were aware that it is challenging and risky to develop even a small-scale project in a region that conflict had ravaged for so long. But we went ahead with our vision: a small but charming lodge that could serve as a role model for similar small hotel projects, not only for Kayah State but the wider region. After all, the majority of visitors to Myanmar are looking for hotels that reflect local architecture and artisanship as well as respecting tradition and fitting nicely into the landscape. Sustainable development principles guided us during the planning and after we became operational.