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Staycationers Behaving Badly

21 Nov 2022

21 November 2022

Staycationers Behaving Badly

COVID-19 has changed how we holiday: out with crowding into airports to fly to distant resorts;in with staying close to home. Although this might seem an effective way to support localtourism while containing the virus, research by Ph.D. student Mr Wilson Au, Dr Nelson Tsangand Dr Clare Fung of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management (SHTM) at The Hong KongPolytechnic University reveals a downside of “staycationing”. In Hong Kong, manyholidaymakers confined to local hotels during the pandemic have begun to behave badly, taking atoll on staff’s mental health. This timely study highlights the need for hotels to remove incentivesfor staycationers to cause trouble and create an environment that brings out the best in guests.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, staycationing was a growing trend. “Since the early1900s,” the authors note, “many Americans have taken short trips to enjoy summer vacations within their usual place of residence”. Once ignored by tourism researchers, staycationing is nowrecognised as an important market segment. Framing a short-distance trip as a special kind ofvacation can help people see familiar places in a new light. Moreover, in uncertain times,holidaying in your hometown is less vulnerable to disruption and more environmentallysustainable than travelling abroad.

As in the West, staycationing has surged in Hong Kong since 2020 because of pandemic-relatedrestrictions on travel and leisure. However, the researchers warn of a dark side to the tourismindustry’s home-grown pandemic solution. Focusing on the Hong Kong hotel sector, theyexplored the interaction between the recent staycation boom and an old problem in hospitality:“jaycustomer” behaviour.“

The term ‘jaycustomer’ is a customer-specific form of ‘jaywalker’”, the researchers explain. Itrefers to customers who act antisocially in service settings such as hotels, bars, and airports,making life difficult for staff. Jaycustomer behaviour ranges from the boorish to the criminal,encompassing everything from breaking rules, rudeness to staff, and refusing to settle the bill totheft and even vandalism. Hotels are especially vulnerable to jaycustomer behaviour, say theresearchers, because they are “characterised by a close but short-term service provider–customerrelationship”.

Combine a jaycustomer and a staycationer and you get a toxic visitor whom the researchers dub a“jaystaycationer”. While staying at hotels in their own cities, jaystaycationers abuse thehospitality of their hosts and cause physical and/or emotional damage. The SHTM team wasinspired by a local example of disorderly guests in 2020. “One large group of staycationers heldwhat was described as ‘a wild birthday party’ at the Peninsula Hong Kong,” report theresearchers, “with stains on every electric device in the room”.

Jaycustomer issues have intensified during the pandemic, partly because travel restrictions haveput businesses in a perilous position. Those who continue to patronise local establishments mayfeel like saviours, giving them the sense of a licence to misbehave. “With such strong perceived bargaining power in the marketplace,” say the researchers, “individuals are less likely to complywith organisational regulations and social norms, which stimulates their jaycustomer behaviors”.Recognising the harm that such hotel guests can cause to other customers, staff and businessoperations, the researchers set out to classify jaystaycationer problems and identify their causesand how staff react.

The authors conducted individual telephone interviews with 10 staff members from four- andfive-star hotels in Hong Kong. Had they experienced trouble with staycationers? Under COVID-19 restrictions, the city’s luxury hotels have seen a surge in bookings from Hong Kongers unableor unwilling to travel abroad. However, whilst a foreign guest in normal times would spend mostof their time roaming the city, pandemic staycationers are confined to their hotels almost 24/7.Had staff noticed anything unusually demanding about these guests, the researchers asked, and ifso, what did they think of it?

Staff responses to guest behaviours are subjective and dependent on the individual. Hence, theauthors were concerned with capturing both their interviewees’ unique personal experiences andthe broader context of social disruption in which these events occurred. Their approach needed tobe objective and rooted in established theory. To meet these demands, they settled onconstructivist grounded theory, a popular framework for obtaining qualitative insights in tourismstudies. This approach enabled them to “highlight the existence of multiple realities and elicit theviews of each participant’s ‘subjective world’”.

Analysis of the interviews revealed four types of jaystaycationer. “Attention seekers” and“benefit seekers” were defined by their underlying need to get something from hotel staff.Attention seekers attempted to meet intangible emotional needs by, for example, emphasisinghow virtuous it was for them to support local hotels despite the risk of catching COVID-19.Benefit seekers, taking things further, sought tangible rewards by exploiting hotels’ weakposition during the pandemic to demand free upgrades and special services. A similar distinctionbetween tangible and intangible separated “rule breakers”, who transgressed when theopportunity arose, e.g. by holding large parties, and “property abusers”, who progressed tophysically damaging property by, for example, cooking in their rooms and setting off thesprinkler system.

Predictably, the spread of COVID-19 was a recurring theme of the interviews. Hotel guests foundways to belittle staff through both under- and over-compliance with safety rules. One interviewee– a housekeeper at a five-star hotel – was made to fear for their safety by the carelessness ofjaystaycationers around face masks: “Staycationers refused to follow our hotel’s policies. Theydid not wear masks and argued with me without their masks on.” In contrast, a front desk officerat another hotel felt dehumanised by the hygiene obsessions of guests checking in:“Jaystaycationers kept using disinfectant spray to clean everything on my desk, such as my pen.It’s so disrespectful; I am not the virus.”

The staff responded to these unpleasant guests in several ways, which the researchers categorisedas practical and psychological. In practical terms, they could either stand up to thejaystaycationers or acquiesce, while their emotional reactions ranged from trying to thoughtfully understand their guests’ positions to simply giving up hope or avoiding contact. These findings offer novel insights into the psychological effects of dealing with jaystaycationers. “Threeemotional responses (i.e. sense of thoughtfulness, sense of powerlessness, and self-isolation)”, the researchers report, “may bridge the relationship between jaycustomer behaviors and hotelworkers’ negative responses”.

Finally, the interviews revealed two types of causes of jaystaycationer behaviour: personal andenvironmental. Jaystaycationers could be motivated by a triad of negative emotions: fear ofCOVID-19, arrogance and greed. Conflict could also arise from three environmental causes: thenature of staycationing (confinement in a hotel almost 24/7), the rules around infection safety(which were new to both guests and staff), and the ambiguity and complexity of the holidaypackages offered to staycationers, which jaystaycationers tried to take advantage of.

This last point suggests a possible way to combat the problem. “Instead of just recordingstaycationers’ dining credits internally,” the researchers suggest, “hotel operators could considermaking them transparent for staycationers to monitor on the hotel’s website”.

Although irresponsible customers are nothing new, this is the first study to analyse thejaycustomer problem in the specific context of staycationing. The findings offer actionableinsights for hotels into avoiding environmental triggers of jaystaycationer behaviour. By payingattention, for the first time, to the psychological as well as practical strategies that beleagueredstaff use to cope with this problem, the study may also help hotel owners take better care of theiremployees during stressful periods such as pandemics. This preliminary study points the way to adeeper understanding of the causes and consequences of a crucial emerging problem inhospitality.

Au, Wai Ching Wilson, Tsang, Nelson K. F., and Fung, Clare (2021). ExploringJaystaycationer Behaviors: Cause, Typology, and Hotel Workers’ Responses. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 26, Issue 11, pp. 1207-1224.

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