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For our Viewpoint series, Skift invites thought leaders, some from the less obvious corners of travel, to join in the conversation. We know that these independent voices are important to the dialogue within the industry. Our guest columnists will identify and shape what global trends and through lines will define the future of travel.
Will travelers think and behave the same post-Covid-19 as before?
Some degree of change is likely, certainly in the short term and likely for some time to come. We might expect to see greater concern for personal health, fear of getting stranded, newfound focus on payment and cancellation policies, reduced travel budgets, and who knows what other attitudes may form — “is that product really right for me after what I’ve seen on TV?”
Tourism is resilient. All of us say it because it’s true. Sometimes we say it three weeks after a volcano resumes its normal slumber. Other times we say it three years after a massive earthquake or a terrorist attack. The timelines vary, but resilience prevails. But once-in-102-year pandemics are different. Travelers will travel again because they always do, but the industry has much to adjust for. The fragility of tourism is now on display.
Fragility in terms of the speed at which the traveler can change their minds faster than businesses can manage forward contracts and other fixed expenses.
Fragility in terms of uncertainty and false restarts. We’ll likely be thinking about two distinct post-Covid 19s — several false starts where society and some leaders can’t stay home any longer and create new waves of infection and paralysis in those places; then later the true post-Covid 19 period when vaccines and effective treatment are widely in place.
The flood of discussions on “why can’t I get a refund” in March will lead to more questioning in the future. The fine print might need larger font. Bookings and payments, refunds and cancelation fees and policies will likely be scrutinized more than before. Many travelers just had a strong personal experience, and mainstream media told them about others. The “look before book” stage of the sales cycle might be the next curve to need flattening.
Perceptions may change about certain industry segments being more hygienic, or easier to escape from in a crisis. That dream island paradise? Hmm, how do I get home if flights shut down? I love cruising, but what about germs? Disinfection procedures just might become more important than the cool climbing wall or the beverage packages.
Market research about attitudes for certain types of travel providers may need refreshing post-Covid 19.
Will there be a cry for more consumer protection by government policy? The UK’s Package Travel Regulations took a hit not so long ago with repatriating stranded Thomas Cook travelers; what is the future of this program? The California Seller of Travel law was created decades ago after too many school trip providers went belly up and parents lost money. Will USTOA’s $1million Travelers Assistance Program gain more attention? A class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. demanding full refunds from canceled flights while expressing anger that taxpayers are bailing out the airlines while passengers aren’t getting refunded.
Tour operators that succeed in convincing travelers to accept future credits in lieu of full refunds today are doing so by making a plea from the heart to their loyal customers. These businesses rely on customer loyalty, so they have honed their skills at listening to their clients. Many businesses don’t rely on that degree of loyalty; will there now be reason to change?
Sustainable tourism is really just another term for good management of tourism. If brands want to sustain themselves for the long term, they need to manage for the long term. That includes building cash reserves. Listening to customers. Preparing for the next crisis. Choosing responsible suppliers. Protecting their assets which includes the destinations they visit, and that includes responding to residents’ concerns about too many visitors in certain parts of their cities.
The good news is the near certainty of pent-up demand and escape from isolation and lockdown-induced cabin fever. But reading the minds of customers based on new realities and not the usual assumptions will be helpful with newly-refreshed survey data to decide what to say to their customers and when to restart their engines.
Randy Durband is the CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.