Skift Take

The travel industry needed a new reason to believe after months of enduring the body blows from coronavirus, coming on top of four bizarro years of a president who seemed to have little regard for his former industry. Read what executives had to say about the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

For months, U.S. travel executives have hung on to words like reset, pivot, and redo to put the best face on a pandemic that has decimated their businesses and employees since March. They hoped these expressions were more than just bromides. But one large cloud remained: the lack of direction and a plan from the White House that many felt delayed any meaningful recovery from the crisis.

That’s why the history-making election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, confirmed on Saturday, and Kamala Harris as vice president elicited renewed feelings of optimism from travel leaders, not just here in the U.S. but across the globe.

That was not the case four years ago when the surprise victory of Donald Trump left the travel industry less than enthused with deep worries over immigration, which of course played out later with a Muslim travel ban and other policies.

Executives over the weekend seemed glad the Trump era will be behind them.

Tripadvisor co-founder and CEO Steve Kaufer, who spoke out in recent years about Trump’s anti-refugee policies and bans, tweeted this Saturday: “My personal thanks to everyone who worked so hard and passionately to restore decency to our democracy. Agree or disagree with Trump’s policies (and I disagreed with most) the world deserves an honorable occupant in the White House. Phew!”

Expedia Group cited the need to heal divisions within the United States, the requirement of tackling coronavirus, and was effusive about the landmark election of Harris, the country’s vice president-elect who’s a woman, black, Indian, and the offspring of immigrant parents.

“While we know this has been a stressful time for our country, we are thrilled to see so many Americans and so many of our own employees participate in the election process,” CEO Peter Kern told Skift.

“It is clear from the results that we live in an ideologically divided country and very likely will have a divided government. We look forward to coming together with leaders on both sides of the aisle to help us move forward as a country to support people and businesses that are suffering, including in the travel and hospitality industry. Of course, there remains much work to do to conquer the virus and work our country back to more civil discourse. But as a company that is in the business of bringing people together, we have faith in humanity and America to put people ahead of politics and come together for our collective good.

“Finally, regardless of your political affiliation, there is no denying that the prospect of our nation’s first woman, first African American, and first South-Asian American in the Vice Presidency is a true step forward towards equality in our country.”

Kern’s boss, Barry Diller, Expedia’s chairman and senior executive, has not been shy in his criticisms of President Trump.

Glenn Fogel, the CEO of Booking Holdings, told Skift: “We look forward to swift progress being made on the most important issues: stopping the pandemic and reviving our damaged travel and hospitality industries.”

Steve Hafner, CEO of Kayak and a top executive at sister brand OpenTable, is hopeful about a new era.

“Like everyone else, we’re hopeful post-election politics are less divisive,” Hafner told Skift. “We’d welcome rapid progress on issues like Covid-19, economic stimulus, and especially travel and dining industry support.”

Harsha L’Acqua, founder and CEO of Saira Hospitality, said “it does feel like the world can breathe a little more and we finally got a break in 2020. Travel and tourism I don’t think will be affected until we have a vaccine that people can trust. Sadly, we’re also entering a recession and without jobs and therefore without funds, travel is going to be very limited. Business travel too, where everyone is going digital and budgets are very tight, I don’t think will increase for a very long time.

“While this may all sound very discouraging, the election has given me hope again that at least we can move in the right direction and there’s a light at the end of a long tunnel,” she added.

The hope was not limited to the U.S.

Schuyler Vorster, founder and CEO of Ideas Cartel, a South Africa co-working and boutique hotelier, told Skift: “(President-elect) Biden has quite a bit of work ahead of him; to rebuild foreign relations left in the shadow of Trump’s neglect of U.S.-Africa ties. Yet, the foresight of improved trading tariffs, support for Africa’s economic growth and the promise of a strengthened alliance with developing countries, shows potential to get Africa back on the map and boost business-focussed tourism, even in the ‘new norm’ of CV-19 conscience co-living.”

United on Being United

Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, said he sent a letter of congratulations to Biden on Saturday.

“Over the next four years there will certainly be challenges on which we can collaborate. We are ready to work with leaders in Washington in support of our nation, our economy and our environment.

“Over the last several days, you have spoken about the importance of uniting the country and working  together to restore public health, revitalize the economy, and promote sustainable growth. At United,  we could not agree more.

“While there will always be differences in any country as large and diverse as ours, I continue to believe that there is far more that unites us than divides us,” Kirby wrote. (See full letter below).

Hotel Industry Looks to Relief Bill

The hospitality industry has plenty of reasons to be hopeful with a President-elect Biden, but it isn’t yet clear how much his bipartisan message of unity can deliver.

Unite Here, one of the largest U.S. hospitality labor unions, endorsed Biden and ran a door-to-door canvassing initiative to knock on 3 million doors — including 575,000 in the Philadelphia area, where votes for the president-elect delivered him the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania.

The coronavirus pandemic left most of the labor union without a job, and the organization’s congratulatory message to Biden and Vice President-elect Harris extended to its own members.

“I’m incredibly proud of Unite Here and our members,” said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, in a statement. “It was clear that we needed to take back our country, and even more clear how to do it: through face-to-face conversations and the type of in-person organizing that our union does best. With Take Back 2020 we built a program that made a critical difference in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona, and we thank the other labor unions, progressive allies, and individual donors that worked with us to accomplish that goal.”

The American Hotel & Lodging Association isn’t expected to make a public statement on the Biden victory until sometime later this week. The industry trade group noted in an internal memo to members that, while President Donald Trump had yet to concede, the AHLA will continue to press for another round of coronavirus relief once Congress reconvenes in mid-November.

“In the coming weeks, we will update you on the latest developments for the new Biden Administration, and what it means for our industry,” AHLA CEO Chip Rogers wrote in the memo. “AHLA looks forward to working with President-elect Biden and both parties in Congress in the weeks and months ahead to advance the needs of our industry at this critical time for you, our members, our employees, and our businesses.”

While there may be a new occupant in the White House come January 20, the hospitality industry may not want to get too hopeful for a sweeping round of coronavirus relief. Divided government was largely the reason for legislative gridlock before the election, and that is likely to continue.

While there is a chance Democrats could still gain control of the Senate, that hinges on winning two runoff elections in Georgia. Should the Republicans maintain control, the fate of coronavirus relief remains essentially the same: in the hands of a Democratic House in favor of a multi-trillion-dollar bill and a Republican Senate favoring something much smaller.

“I think getting a relief bill would be a priority for both parties, but — obviously — if we’re in divided government, we’re kind of where we were before, where talks between Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration were not making great progress,” said Teresa Goebel, a partner at Goodwin and chair of the law firm’s hospitality and leisure practice. “I’m hopeful, as we move toward the end of the year, they’re able to reach an agreement. But, because we have a divided government, it will probably be an agreement nobody is happy with, which is the definition of a good compromise.”

But even Biden can deliver some campaign promises without Congress, including a coronavirus task force expected to be announced early this week. A national testing program, heightened safety protocols, and revised employee protections through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are possible through executive action.

“What people in the industry think is, before the hospitality industry can recover, we have to get Covid under control,” Goebel said. “There are levers he will have as president that do not require getting permission from Congress.”

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow echoed concerns for jobs.

“We applaud President-elect Biden’s objective of helping the industries most heavily impacted by the pandemic. The travel industry accounts for more than a third of overall U.S. unemployment, and policies to promote relief, recovery, and stimulus for travel businesses are integral to a U.S. economic turnaround.

“We share the emphasis on combatting the spread of Covid-19 expressed by the president-elect while building economic growth. The right combination of technologies and behaviors already exists to allow the restart of travel without compromising health and safety, and making rapid and reliable testing more widely available will be a key element of an even broader economic reopening.

“There is a dire need to protect and sustain jobs in every single congressional district, and enacting the policies to do that will require the political parties to come together. We stand ready to work closely with the Biden administration and both chambers of Congress to achieve policy goals that revive our economy and bring our country together—a hallmark of the travel industry.”

Amtrak Joe

That “Amtrak Joe,” perhaps the railway’s most famous rider, has clinched the presidency must come as a relief to Bill Flynn, the president and CEO of Amtrak. He quickly released a statement calling for Covid relief funds for America’s passenger rail system. Biden had famously been a commuter for decades on Amtrak from Washington, DC, to his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

With a Biden administration, Flynn is trying a new tack, appealing not just to the jobs that Amtrak creates, but to its environmental impact. He called Amtrak, “essential to decarbonizing our transportation network” citing the greenhouse benefits of taking mass transit over cars and trucks. In his acceptance speech Saturday night, Biden spoke of “the battle to save our planet by getting [the] climate under control.”

The statement re-upped Amtrak’s ongoing request to Congress and the Administration for emergency funding. Amtrak received $1.018 billion of pandemic relief funds as part of the initial CARES act passed by Congress in March. But by late May it needed more help. It addressed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi requesting a further $1.475 billion in supplemental funding for FY 2021, on top of its outstanding pre-pandemic request for $2.040 billion in that year. With no action taken by October, Amtrak sent another letter to the government warning that without supplemental funding it was likely lay off a further 2,400 employees.

Amtrak has been hard hit by the Coronavirus. At its worse in April, ridership was down 95 percent from normal levels. Performance has improved little, today it is still down 75 percent from pre-COVID levels and Amtrak expects ridership will remain 60 percent below its baseline through 2021. The railway has announced a workforce restructuring and cuts to service, especially on its long-distance routes. The company says it will save $500 million from these initiatives, though some critics, including those in congress, are skeptical that it is trying to sneak through cuts it has long wanted to make anyways.

No More Doom Scrolling

Jeff Glueck, former CEO of Foursquare and ex-chief marketing officer of Travelocity, tweeted: “After 5 years of doom scrolling I find myself joy scrolling.” He added that Biden was the first presidential candidate to win 51 percent of the popular vote against a sitting president.

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from Harsha L’Acqua, founder of Saira Hospitality, and Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings.

Scott Kirby letter to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris

Download (PDF, 100KB)


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Tags: amtrak, expedia, kayak, tourism, travel, tripadvisor, united airlines

Photo credit: A Biden-Harris Administration has travel executives excited for new opportunities. Adam Schultz

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