Opinion: The blueprint for post-COVID travel and tourism

 

By infecting almost seven million people and claiming over 400,000 lives across the globe thus far, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the whole world hard. With almost half of the global population still operating under restrictions of one kind or the other, and the The Asian Development Bank predicting the pandemic to cost the world economy upwards of US$8 trillion; seems like we are already into a long drawn recession.

It’s a source of great distress to me as I am sure it is to everyone following the news about the pandemic, the economy and the world. The combination of social distancing and additional stress caused by this unprecedented and uncertain situation is taking its toll on everyone. Everyone is tired of this situation and wants a release. Previously, it was so easy to leave this kind of stress behind - just pack your bags and take a relaxing trip to the hills or to the beach. But now we have to live with it, day in and day out. There’s no escape. I am sure everyone misses the simple joys of travel – planned and unplanned.

As I daydream about the snow-clad slopes and the calm seas, my heart goes out to the travel industry and the people associated with it. Everyone from the travel app guys to the cab driver at the airport to the fisherman selling his fresh catch at the beach shack. Travel and tourism are amongst the worst affected sectors, having acted as the primary conduit aiding the spread of the virus across the world. Estimating the financial losses of the industry is difficult, as the data changes as quickly as the virus spreads, but if the current situation continues for several more months, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the trade group representing major global travel companies, predicts a loss of around 100 million jobs and US$2.7 trillion in revenue.

As an avid traveller and an industry enthusiast, I cannot help myself from analysing the reams of information and opinions on the pandemic and form some of my own. Amidst all this gloom it is easy to forget that this is not the first time the global economy and the travel industry has gone through serious challenges. Let’s take the example of the Global Financial Crises of 2008. The travel industry was one of the worst hit as people had cut back on spending in non-essential categories. Airline stocks declined more than 60% and accommodation declined more than 70%.

The significantly troubled market forced major hotel chains and the aviation industry to consolidate and restructure. As a result, both industries grew exponentially in the coming decade with better margins and increased consumer demand. Emerging markets became the new champions of the travel world post the Global Financial Crises. Prior to theGlobal Financial Crises , China, India and Latin America made up just 21% of outbound travellers. As of 2016, this became 41%. The disruption gave rise to a new set of travellers who were more frugal in nature and who paved the way for a booming online travel industry. Guess when AirBnB was born!

Things could get better sooner rather than later this time as well. And as restrictions are lifted, markets will rebound, fast. China is an example. As restrictions are being gradually lifted, there are early signs of recovery. More than 50 million people travelled across the country during the extended May day holiday. This could be the story the world over as more and more markets learn to live with the pandemic.

Worldwide, governments are earmarking billions of dollars as stimulus packages. These should be spread out for maximum relief and should include loan repayment relaxation to business players in the sector, especially small and medium enterprises, and wherever possible give cash assistance to employees from the sector.

As I write this and take a momentary mental break, I imagine the rice fields of East Bali with Mount Agung in the distance. I immediately find peace and hope that this will soon be over. That’s the power of travel, even if it’s only in the mind, even if it’s only for a moment. I believe that my friends, clients and everyone related to this industry - whether online, offline, a chain or a standalone business unit, will soon overcome this present situation.

Here are few suggestions based on my discussions with peers, travel business owners and industry experts, as we wait for restrictions to ebb across the world and for the travellers to return:

1. First of all, believe that the worst will soon be over. Consumers might not be booking or planning travel now but they are surely searching. Like myself, most people are saving their travel budgets for this year and almost half of them are saving it for future travel.

2. Continue to engage with your fans. Don’t let your long-earned loyalty go to waste. Keep your audiences motivated. You don’t need to sell packages now but stories of what awaits at the end of this gloomy phase can certainly inspire customers and give them something to look forward to. The brand experiences I’ve enjoyed most recently are from brands who write to me about how they’re preparing for my arrival when the world is ready to move forward.

3. Consumers will look for guidance and reassurance once the markets open. When and where to travel and what safety guidelines to follow, and which places to avoid. Be proactive and ready with the knowledge. Many industry bodies such as World Travel and Tourism Council have already started formulating such guidelines. 

4. Use this time to re-evaluate and upgrade your offering. Reassess its functionality in the new world where safety and hygiene will be paramount. It inspires me to know that my favourite hospitality chains are taking hygiene seriously, and that the beach shack I visit most often in Bali plans to reopen for business with social distancing precautions in mind.

5. Connect with your partners and suppliers. They need your support now more than ever. Strengthen your relationship. Together you will come out of this crisis stronger.

6. Review your website, your social media presence and your marketing strategy. Think about all the new destinations and services that you can offer. Prepare for the post pandemic travel from now. Make sure your business is prepared for an increase in bookings once the crisis has passed.

7. Consumers will look for travel insurance more than ever. Make sure that you have partnered with the best in the business and the cover is comprehensive enough to reassure the consumer.

8. Discounts will work as further motivation as the demand will be low to start with. Be ready to work with the lowest of margins as the market opens up. Gradually build it up as demand soars.

9. The first travellers to return will most probably be from your own country, as internal travel restrictions would be the first to go. If your business was focused on international travellers, it’s wise to concentrate on the domestic market in the short-term.

10. Now is not the time to fight it out solo. Look towards your partners, your local associations, your government for support. It’s important to take everyone along as everyone has suffered equally if not more.

With reports that the vaccine for COVID-19 is expected to be ready by October, there is a potential end in sight for the pandemic. As more and more countries open up, travel will become possible and desirable again. People will again be able to reconnect with friends and family, scout new opportunities, and explore the world all over again. The travel industry needs to be engaged, eager and ready, with their masks and gloves on, when the travellers return.

The writer is Pranab Kumar, client solutions director, VMLY&R Indonesia.