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Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: Liz Gilbert

“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.

These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that Shackman Associates is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.

In today’s episode; New York Hospitality Professionals Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates talks to Liz Gilbert, Senior Director of National Sales at Hornblower Cruises and Events.

Karen: Hello Liz. I am so delighted that you agreed to participate in our series. We go back many years in this industry in the city and it is always a pleasure to spend time chatting to you. Now, it is even more important to connect under these very trying circumstances. Please introduce yourself to our readers and provide a little background as to your role at HCE.

Liz: Thank you Karen I am happy to be a part of this interview series of our industry. I’m Liz Gilbert, Sr. Director, National Sales for Hornblower Cruises and Events (HCE). I lead National Sales efforts with a significant focus on Third Party and Corporate Planners as well as large Travel Trade Accounts. As a twenty-year veteran of the company, I am incredibly fortunate to work for an organization that highly values industry partnerships and the importance they play in driving business.

Karen: Please tell us a bit about your current work situation and how the current situation is affecting your colleagues.

Liz:In those locations where we have restarted operations, my front-line colleagues are working incredibly hard to get our businesses back up and running while delivering the great experiences we are known for. While for office-based roles like mine, we have adopted a flexible approach, in line with local regulations and enabling crew members to continue to work remotely should they wish. For someone who usually travels a lot, I’m already quite used to working on the go, and have adapted to the ‘new normal’ by alternating working from my home with spending one or two days each week in our Chicago head office. I’ve also become a huge fan of Zoom video calls!

Karen: Clearly this seems to be the way of the future in the new work environment – combining both remote and in-office hours. What has changed now for the New York market since the city has transitioned in Phase 4 of the reopening last week?

Liz:It’s going as well as can be expected. We are thrilled to be back operating in one of our largest markets, where we typically operate a wide full range of dining, sightseeing and charter experiences in New York and New Jersey too. With the phased reopening of the city, we utilized our considerable assets as best we could, particularly over the last few weeks. For example, prior to restarting our dining cruises on July 24, we created a new product offering called Roof Top at the Dock – an exclusive, dockside pop up cocktail experience on the open deck of Spirit of New York. This initiative allowed us to tap into the pent-up demand for socially distanced, open-air activities in the local market.

Karen: I like the idea of the Roof Top at the Dock - and combined with a guaranteed water view and skyline view, it is a great concept. What is the norm for you these days?

Liz: I’ve accepted the unpredictability of the new ‘normal’! Personally, I’ve learned to be more flexible and adaptable in my role and its challenges. It’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in this and my fellow travel professionals are going through this too. At Hornblower, we already have an innovative mindset, and, in line with our entrepreneurial beginnings have continued to focus on being fluid and nimble when it comes to operating in this increasingly ambiguous environment.

Karen: Innovation and flexibility are certainly key these days as we all try to “pivot” to accommodate this “new normal”. I know HCE has many operations around the country. How do you keep connected with your team?

Liz: I work directly with colleagues across North America, so while I may not be meeting face to face, we use a variety of methods to stay in touch throughout the day. I particularly love video Team calls… and have been having fun with the variety of backdrops you can use!

Karen: The backgrounds are fun! We just had our own team challenge where each person had to use a location in New York as their background – and we all had to guess where it was. It was a fun diversion for a meeting.

What are you doing from wellbeing, mental health perspective in order to keep sane during this time? 

Liz: In these stressful times, it’s critical to take care of yourself, and those around you. For me, nothing clears the head and sets me up for the day ahead than my one-hour walk along the Chicago Lakefront with my two mini-golden doodles every morning before I start working. And in my downtime, I have a ridiculously guilty pleasure of watching trash TV- especially TLC programs!

Karen: Nothing to feel guilty about. We have all had to find some sort of escape from the reality of this situation and TV watching is very high on the list of most people – especially when we were all in lockdown. As long as I have known you, you have been on planes to various tradeshows and meetings around the world, and I am sure you are feeling the travel restrictions quite keenly. Once the restrictions have eased, what are your plans?

Liz: First thing is I plan to do is take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The second is a trip to New York. Having lived in the city for 20 years, being a New Yorker is very much part of my identity. It’s been amazing to watch from afar the strength and resiliency that the city and its people have displayed these last few months and I can’t wait to come back and embrace all that makes New York great! #AllinNYC

Karen: I love to hear you say that! New York has done a great job and, hopefully will be up to strength soon. I know the world has watched the city work through its darkest hours and I am so proud of how the city has handled the crisis to emerge in a much better place. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of uncertainty, specifically from corporate clients. I know you have just reopened for business, which is great. However, is your team still dealing with cancelations and rebookings?

Liz: This is a constantly evolving situation, so yes, we are still experiencing this to some extent. Thankfully, many of our guests really want to cruise with us and simply want to shift to a new date and rebook. This can be challenging for key life events – such as weddings – that may be years in the planning, but we are seeing this business return as guests look to the future, albeit that group sizes may be smaller depending on the restrictions that apply to each particular city.

Karen:  Smaller groups might be the key formula for now together with possible outdoor space, a feature HCE can definitely provide. Are any of your clients considering virtual or hybrid events?  If so, how would that work on a boat?

Liz: As expected, our Special Occasions business continues to be one of our strongest segments, and an area we are looking to develop considering current restrictions around group sizes. We are exploring how we can introduce virtual aspects to events like weddings, anniversary celebrations and other milestone events to accommodate those guests that are not able to attend. Stay tuned!

Karen:  We will stay tuned! It is interesting to see how other companies shift as we are also launching a series of virtual and hybrid experiences in August. I imagine you are developing new protocols for social distancing and health and safety measures?

Liz: We believe the pandemic will force consumers to factor health concerns into their travel choices even more than before, so we have taken steps and measures to address this. To provide reassurance in the current pandemic environment, Hornblower has expanded its industry defining SafeCruise by Hornblower program, building on already stringent sanitation processes, to incorporate further health-driven measures to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Mandatory daily crew member health screening, and wearing of appropriate PPE

  • Revising boarding and ticketing procedures to allow for social distancing and touchless entry

  • Requiring guests to wear face masks while cruising, except while eating and drinking

  • Reducing the number of guests on board, and adapting all seating and table spacing to allow for a minimum 6-foot distance between guests while they cruise

  • Implementing enhanced sanitation and disinfection procedures, with hand sanitizing stations available throughout

Karen:  It is good to see that you are taking this measures. What will your pricing structure look like going forward?  How flexible are you being with regard to booked/postponed events, and, hopefully, new bookings?

Liz: We don’t anticipate any significant changes to our pricing structure moving forward. Our success over the last 20+ has been built on a strong understanding of the markets in which operate and the guests who cruise with us – we plan to use those insights, and the deep personal relationships that come with them, to ensure we chart a course that sets all parties up for future success.

Karen:  I am glad to hear that and our clients will certainly be as well. But is there any area where you do anticipate an increase in costs ?

Liz: There is an opportunity in every crisis. While we wouldn’t have wished what has happened on anybody, the current situation has given us the opportunity to look at all aspects of our business and identify opportunities to tweak our products, improve our processes, innovate and try new things. We look forward to sharing more soon!

Karen: And we certainly look forward to that too.  What are the priorities you were focusing on in order to get back to business?

Liz: As always, the health and safety of our guests and crew members continues to be our top priority. During the shutdown, our special projects team of operational experts used this time review every aspect of our business both from an internal operational and a guest perspective. This ensured we were poised for rapid ramp up and opening when we got the ok to restart in a specific port. We left no stone unturned. Now that many of our ports are open, we continue to adapt to ensure our cruises, tours and transportation services so that they are safe, reflect current CDC guidance and local regulations, while delivering an exceptional experience for our guests too.

Karen: Thank you Liz!  Any parting words or insights you want to share?

Liz: Some months ago, I came across a quote from Catherine Plano that really resonated with me: “Make the Comeback Greater than the Setback”. I still find this inspiring and relevant for many of us as we look to do what it takes to get through these challenging times.

Karen: I really like this quote. And it suites the city of New York which had come back greater every time there was a Setback!  I appreciate you are sharing this with me and our readers and we can’t wait to learn more about all the things that are in the pipeline. Keep us posted!

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