Nothing like a world-shattering crisis to force companies to look into the mirror and contemplate a makeover. Will consumer travel preferences change forever because of coronavirus? Forever is a very long time.
You already know about the massive layoffs and furloughs, the hacksaw that eviscerated budgets, the borrowing and the lockdowns that generated massive cancellations, but many travel brands and tourism boards also used the coronavirus crisis to remake their businesses.
That was just one of the key takeaways of the fourth annual Skift Forum Europe on Tuesday. Here are others.
1. An Opportunity to Reboot businesses
From online travel companies to tour operators and tourism boards, the Covid-19 shutdown presented an unusual opportunity — a time for brands to rethink their core missions, and to refashion their businesses.
Tripadvisor CEO Steve Kaufer said the company will downplay flights, put less emphasis on optimizing the hotel-booking process, and will hone trip-planning functionality for crafting what he labeled “the considered trip.” He said this might lead to a reduction in the company’s sometimes global-leading unique visitor numbers in favor of enticing customers to use Tripadvisor again and again.
Cyril Ranque, Expedia Group’s president of its travel partners group, took up a similar theme, arguing that the company used the crisis to simplify — meaning reduce — its brand portfolio. Arnaud Champenois, Belmond’s senior vice president of brand and marketing, said the chain was “democratizing” its brand by using Instagram to connect with its audience.
The idea of reinventing operations was likewise closely tied to the overtourism issue.
2. Better Destination Management to Counter Overtourism
Several tourism entities and an online travel company indicated that the coronavirus travel stoppage enabled them to craft protections against overtourism, and to promote under-touristed destinations.
Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland at Promote Iceland, said the destination hit a tourism reset button, and expanded tourism capacity indicators to the entire country. The destination will promote under-visited localities. Luis Araujo, president of Turism de Portugal, said there is a risk of restarting tourism too quickly to compensate for a terrible tourism year.
“Of course this crisis has softened the worries surrounding overtourism, but this doesn’t mean the problem is over yet,” said Jennifer Iduh, head of research and development at the European Travel Commission. “We’re now given an opportunity to do a better job in terms of destination management and carrying capacity.”
Ranque of Expedia Group said the fact that tourists are currently visiting less-visited destinations, often within driving distance, means search engines will build up this content, and enable Expedia to market them for the first time.
Janicke Hansen, co-founder of NordicTB, noted that destinations have turned inward, with boards trying to promote their places in their own countries to their citizenry, but the boards are having a difficult time. She said many of these boards are clueless about how best to do it because they usually target international visitors.
3. Recovery Programs/Refunds are a Flash Point
Richard Clarke, Bernstein’s senior analyst for global hotels and leisure, argued that packages may not be a natural winner as the coronavirus crisis ebbs because tour operator TUI was slow to provide refunds. He said Airbnb and Booking.com were fairly swift in providing refunds.
In a one-on-one interview with Skift Corporate Travel Editor Matt Parsons, TUI Group Chief Marketing Officer Erik Friemuth countered that the company’s customers understood that the refund issue was a special situation, and that it was tour operators who repatriated stranded passengers. He noted that tourists who vacationed without booking through tour operators often had to resort to flights home from their governments, and in Germany, for example, they got invoices for the the lift.
Ranque of Expedia Group touted its recovery program — in the form of marketing credits — for travel partners, adding that the price tag will likely grow higher than the initially announced $275 million because so many hotels have applied and qualified. Ranque said he was disappointed that Google didn’t do more to aid small businesses.
Johannes Reck, co-founder and CEO of GetYourGuide, likewise criticized Google’s efforts. “You could see for yourself during the pandemic when the shit hit the fan, who was refunding the customers, who was manning the customer service centers,” Reck said. “That was GetYourGuide, that was not Google, right?”
Referring to the fact that Airbnb and Expedia Group launched recovery programs, Arjan Dijk, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Booking.com, said these programs are mostly fluff. Booking.com is focusing on providing data insights to partners rather than delivering checks, he said.
“The big question marks around these aid programs are that they’re complex, unclear, and kind of PR (public relations) programs to make companies look good,” Dijk said. “But is the aid really good for the partners?”
4. Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness
Speakers at Skift Forum Europe largely agreed that sanitization efforts will be decisive in establishing traveler trust and bookings in the post-Covid-19 era, but they often disagreed whether it would be hotels or vacation rentals leading the charge.
Frank Gervais, CEO Europe at Accor, said the brand can “turn a constraint into an asset” in the battle against the vacation rentals sector. “You will find clean, safe hotels,” he said. “It’s state of the art. This is the beauty of our industry, and we should be in zero, zero, zero doubt about that. But we need also to keep this caring approach, this warmth. We need to reinvent together.”
Karin Sheppard, IHG senior vice president and managing director, Europe, said safety and cleanliness will be vital in restoring the hotel industry. Sheppard added that it isn’t just consumers focused on the trust issue — investors are seeking out trusted brands, as well. She expects a flurry of independent hotels converting to flags in the short term.
While Oyo Vacation Homes’ outgoing CEO Tobias Wann said he’s convinced that vacation rentals are a “far superior” product than other hospitality types right now, Dijk of Booking.com said he doesn’t believe vacation rentals will edge hotels on the safety issue.
5. When, When, When?
There is very little consensus — meaning none — on when the travel industry will recover, and how the travel might resemble or differ from its prior incarnation. Of course, much depends on second waves, coronavirus treatments, and the potential efficacy of vaccines.
Of course, much of the trajectory depends on what country you operate in and whether your business is tied to vacation rentals, hotels, or flights, which seem to be bouncing back in precisely that order in many parts of the world.
KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said the Dutch airline does not envision a full recovery until “2023-ish.” While Elbers said KlM is experiencing a “challenging” environment for long-haul flights while short-haul flights are bouncing back modestly.
Clarke of Bernstein said the research company began to see a travel recovery 12 weeks ago in China, eight weeks ago in the United States, and Germany has been coming on strong recently. Clarke said he expects some normality for the global travel industry midway in 2021.
TUI’s Friemuth pegged a full rebound as occurring in the summer of 2021.
6. Will Travel Be Forever Changed?
Various speakers differed on whether consumer behavior and the travel industry are “forever” changed.
Reck of GetYourGuide said the company’s biggest challenge pre-crisis was that consumers would wait before arriving in a destination before deciding to reserve a tour. But he said now travelers will pre-book their tours because no one today would risk having to stand in line with crowds of people to gain admittance to the Vatican. He predicted this behavior will stick at least for 12-24 months.
Champenois of Belmond contended that luxury travelers will take trips less frequently, but they will stay in destinations longer. The trip, or experiences, have to be worth it, he said.
Dijk of Booking.com said he doesn’t share Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s view that travel will permanently be redistributed to smaller destinations in vacation rentals so travelers can avoid congested cities and packed hotels.
“It makes a good headline,” Dijk said. “So I give Brian credit because good headlines matter.”
As far as rentals besting hotels in the future, Dijk said, “I’m not buying it. It’s not what I believe is true.”
Correction: The article was changed to reflect what Arnaud Champenois, Belmond’s senior vice president of brand and marketing, meant by democratizing its brand.
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Photo credit: Travel business got a chance to look themselves in the mirror and to redesign their operations during the coronavirus crisis. A sideview mirror as pictured on December 5, 2015. Sam / Flickr.com