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One thing that every single sector of the fragmented travel industry can agree on is that when international travel does resume, it needs to be done safely and conscientiously. Just how that is achieved, though, is a much more complicated question, bringing together a disjointed chorus of voices trying to face this new operational reality.
In recent weeks, a preponderance — some might say a glut — of guidelines and protocols have been released from trade organizations, industry groups, public health bodies, governments, as well as destinations and private companies themselves. All of these, we can be sure, share the good intention of keeping travelers and industry workers safe.
But some on the ground wonder if this is the best approach: With advice coming from every direction and level, how do travel industry professionals know who to listen to as they face this strange new reality? And how will consumers be convinced they are safe? These questions point to a recurring challenge for an industry that is a fragmented group of sectors seemingly operating as one monolith.
Here’s one example: Within 24 hours of each other last week, the UN World Tourism Organization and the World Travel and Tourism Council both released their own sets of guidelines, covering many of the same sectors of travel. Taken separately these documents provide useful advice sector by sector, but some argue this represented a missed opportunity for the two respectively public and private sector bodies — which are the best we have in terms of travel’s global voice — to come together in a unified fashion.
“My feeling is in times of crisis and when it comes to dealing with issues on a global scale — and this could be on climate change as well, for example — we need to break those silo barriers,” Jillian Blackbeard, head of the Victoria Falls Regional Association and former regional director for Africa at the WTTC, said. “It’s about communal adoption so that there is one standard that’s recognized across the world, specifically from the trade but even from the consumer.”
UNWTO told Skift it has spearheaded a cross-sector approach with its Global Tourism Crisis Committee, which has private and public sector members including the WTTC. A spokesperson said its release last week was guidelines, whereas the WTTC released more specific protocols. (While WTTC’s guidelines are indeed more specific, they cover much of the same terrain.) A spokesperson for UNWTO said the organization is not mandated to produce specific protocols, but rather is focused on guiding policy responses.
WTTC did not respond to a request for comment in time. Both bodies endorsed the other’s guidelines/protocols, but the close timing of the release did not appear to be intentional.
One Size Fits All
Some even question the logic of one-size-fits-all guidelines at such a top-down, global level. James Forbes, CEO of Asil, a luxury hospitality advisory that works with 62 hotel properties worldwide, said many of these guidelines are not practically feasible and their applicability varies hugely by property type, culture, and geography.
For example, simply advising the use of face coverings is a very different prospect in Asia — where this practice has long been normal — versus Europe or America, where a good majority of people might need education on how to properly wear a mask, covering one’s nose and mouth. Not to mention the fact that there are even political identities at play in the decision to wear a mask, or not, in some western nations.
“How many GMs (general managers) are sitting with whopping manuals landing on their desk and they’ve got to be chuckling saying ‘oh yeah, of course I’m going to be able to do that,’ Forbes said.
Instead, he suggested that from the top-down level, it would’ve been better to suggest five scientifically-backed principles governing things like spatial dynamics and touch and human interaction, and then leave “the leeway to trust your management to execute.”
“[Issuing] these blanket approaches to it I think will actually stymie it. It will confuse a lot of people in the industry,” Forbes said. “And actually they’re not going to be effective because they’re not functional. They can’t be interpreted and people can’t take them seriously.”
It’s worth noting that many of these guidelines overlap, and even have synergies — in many cases, they are advising the same things. For example, WTTC’s second round of protocols on airports and airlines released last week were developed in conjunction with IATA and ACI — both of which also have their own set of protocols. The American Hospitality and Lodging Association’s Safe Stay guidelines have some overlap with many of the individual initiatives take by hotel brands — such as partnerships with Mayo Clinic and Lysol — which will be up to franchise holders to implement.
Jonathan Elkoubi, a tourism and attractions strategist and founder of tours and activities online sales facilitator VisitorTix, argued that it’s not that guidelines aren’t helpful, but rather that they are most useful when they are hyper-specialized. He highlighted the 36 page guidelines put forth by the Global Association for the Attractions Industry as being useful.
“The closer you are to receiving those guidelines from the leadership of entities that really oversee your specialties, the higher the likelihood that what they recommend will befit your business,” Elkoubi said. “It makes more sense to look at those [industry-specific] guidelines versus the more generalized guidelines that you could get from for example the U.S. Travel Association or CDC.”
Elkoubi added that he thought the U.S. Travel Association, which released its “Travel in the New Normal” guidelines in May, might have been better served acting as a depository or curator of guidelines from all the different sectors in the U.S., rather than attempting to cover the entirety of the industry in one 10 page document.
Don’t Forget the Consumer
It’s a common refrain to hear from travel industry folk that the industry is too siloed or fragmented. One could argue it’s the same thing that prevents it from getting due billing in front of U.S. lawmakers — which left out parts of the travel industry in its initial recovery package.
The reopening process has laid that bare, but in many ways, it’s not the industry’s fault. Travel is, in actual fact, approximately six or seven industries operating as one big, not-so-happy family right now, with a handful multinationals and thousands of small and medium sized businesses who coattail on that might. And it is perhaps those smaller players who will suffer the most from this fragmented approach.
That’s because that while these guidelines are business-to-business focused, they end up making their way to the consumer, too. Proof of that is the fact that the WTTC guidelines come with a seal of approval known as the “Safe Travels” stamp, which will signal to consumers that this specific set of guidelines has been met. This initiative has been embraced by more than 200 CEOs and UNWTO told Skift it welcomes this initiative.
But some say there was an opportunity for something much more encompassing. As Jared Alster, co-founder Wildebeest, a digital strategy and brand marketing agency for travel and tourism brands, imagined back in March in a LinkedIn post, “What if the largest industry trade bodies came together with a unified, joint response? A massive, brand agnostic awareness campaign with the sole goal of telling the traveling public: it’s okay to dip your toes back in the water.”
That hasn’t really happened, and an especially nervous traveler may now have to read perhaps seven to 10 different PDFs of guidelines to assess how well they will be taken care of from airport to airline to hotel to destination to tour experience.
While Blackbeard said she and her private sector members would likely make use of the WTTC seal, she still worries that the sheer numbers of guidelines might create a situation where some people don’t feel certain about the safety of their trip.
“I always put myself in the shoes of the travel trade,” Blackbeard said. “If you’re sitting there booking an itinerary for someone who wants to travel to Africa, they’re going to ask you: ‘Is it safe to travel post Covid 19?’ And as a travel trade member, you’re gonna go, yeah? … But you don’t even know which set of protocols the destination or private sector has adopted so what are you going to tell your client? And the client might decide not to go because nobody can give them a single straight answer.”