In a year when the pandemic defined our coverage for its devastation to travel and, yes, at times, its opportunities, we asked Skift’s tireless reporters and editors to pick their favorite stories from 2020. Here’s an inside look at how those stories came to be, how they were reported, and what it was like to chronicle a year that none of us will ever forget.
In a year like no other, the Skift team of reporters and editors rose to the occasion to cover a pandemic that left unparalleled damage to the travel industry. When readers needed answers more than ever, Skift delivered in droves with smart insights and analysis. The team did it all in difficult circumstances, working remotely across the globe.
I am proud every year of what we accomplish through reporting and the words that follow, but this year I am exceptionally proud of the team and its journalism. As is our tradition, I asked the reporters and editors to pick their favorite story of the year, and to explain why it was, and how it came to be.
We hope you find that our favorites are yours, too.
The Future of Short-Term Rental After the Pandemic and an Airbnb IPO The Backstory: Caveat: I didn’t write it, Executive Editor Dennis Schaal did. But for me it’s part of a continuum of the coverage we’ve been doing on Airbnb over the past eight years. Our stories have asked hard question of the brand, praised smart things its leaders have done, and even a request from the New York State Attorney General (which we declined to assist with). Throughout it all, we’ve asked the hard questions before others and put its growth into perspective like no other news operation. Its IPO this month is especially exciting because now we’ll be able at last to dive into SEC filings.
Why This Is a Seminal Moment for Asia’s Domestic Travel Market The Backstory: I love this article, which I wrote in July as Asia woke up to need to appeal to its own tourists better. There are exceptions such as China, Japan, India and South Korea, but by and large, Asia is heavily dependent on overseas tourists as they stay longer and spend more than domestic travelers. Its tourism supply chain, from hotels and tours to attractions and food production, is therefore all geared for foreign visitors. But the big migration to domestic is seminal because it forces Asian countries to stop giving a lip service to foster among locals a love for their country through leisure travel. In the private sector, it has spawned partnerships, say, between hotels and local companies, to work together in creating unique experiences for a customer set that’s their hardest to please. This of course will strengthen the “Go Local” proposition for international visitors later. An amusing but important change is how, instead of the pre-pandemic trend of international travelers going local, some Asian tourist boards are educating local travelers to “go international.” Tourism Australia, for one, is encouraging locals to travel like internationals, for example, by going beyond their favorite domestic destinations to those that are popular with foreign visitors. Hotels and travel agencies meanwhile have pivoted to new channels used by Asians, such as social media and superapps, to inspire them to book stays and trips,Without doubt, Covid-19 has padded up domestic business which, along with international, will form a Tolstoyan travel market for the region in the next decade.
Brian Sumers, Editor-at-Large
Remembering Hope Is Not a Strategy: Who United Airlines Needs Right Now The Backstory: In May, as his competitors tried to explain to journalists and travelers that a travel recovery had begun, Scott Kirby, then president of United Airlines, wasn’t much interested in happy talk. Kirby long has been obsessed with data, and he understood what other U.S. airlines seemed unwilling to comprehend. While states were lifting stay-at-home orders, United’s Kirby knew the United States was far from beating Covid-19. As a result, as other airlines added capacity and spent money on advertising, United remained conservative. The second-half of 2020 proved Kirby right.
Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor
Oracle Hospitality Takes Hotel and Vendor Gripes Seriously At Last The Backstory: I have a couple of reasons why I call this my fave. First, it’s rare for an established tech giant like Oracle Hospitality to revamp its technical and commercial models in a positive response to sector upheaval. Yet Oracle Hospitality showed signs of doing just that in early 2020. The makeover came in response to the rise of cloud-based technology and hotelier demands for better-priced, easier integrations with other vendors.
Since February, I’ve heard from several industry professionals who said they had been skeptical but that their interactions with Oracle Hospitality this year suggested the tiger truly had changed its stripes for the better.
My other reason for liking the article is that it also contained a secret code for Metallica fans. All the sub-headlines breaking up the article text refer to Metallica songs and albums. For months after publication, industry professionals in multiple countries told me they had spotted the references. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Metallica would strike a chord, but I was glad to bring some brief smiles during a year when the travel sector seemed hardwired to self-destruct.
Madhu Unnikrishnan, Editor, Airline Weekly
Are Airlines Ready to Transport Vaccines? The Backstory: By the end of the summer, the front-runners in the Covid vaccine race were emerging, and it became increasingly clear the airline industry would be a key vector in the transportation and distribution of the vaccines. But this surfaced enormous logistical challenges for the industry. How many airlines could maintain the “cold chain” required to transport medicines that had to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius? Would regulators allow more dry ice on aircraft? Would governments streamline customs procedures to avoid a precious shipment of vaccines from spoiling on the tarmac or in warehouses while the paperwork went through? Who would secure what arguably would be the world’s most valuable commodity? Cargo is the least sexy part of the airline industry, often covered as an afterthought or only if a remarkable number pops out during an earnings call. But vaccine transport brought cargo into the spotlight for me, where it will likely stay as the airline industry rises to the challenge of transporting enough doses to inoculate seven billion people.
Matthew Parsons, Corporate Travel Editor
What Does Zoom Really Think About the Future of Corporate Travel? The Backstory: Everyone was Zooming when the lockdowns began. They still are. And when I was reporting on corporate travel, everyone was discussing (mostly via Zoom) the impact of video conferencing on business travel and face-to-face meetings.
But had anyone asked Zoom what they thought?
Scheduling an interview with them was tough, but after three weeks of going back and forth with Zoom’s public relations company, I managed to pin down a date to speak to their UK and Ireland chief, Phil Perry. A Zoom call (of course) was scheduled. I had three objectives. It seemed only fair they should be given a chance to share their views on the future of travel, meetings and events.
Second, these types of platforms were a rare breed, in that business for them was positively booming. How can a company expand rapidly without being able to travel?
Finally, part of me was hoping to see behind the curtain, to get some expert insight from our video conferencing overlords. One tip I liked was the open door concept, where the camera stays on for colleagues to pop their heads round a virtual open door. But I was surprised to hear they’re also trying to crack digital camaraderie, and even more surprised by Perry’s admission he can have 10 to 15 Zoom meetings a day. “Generally back to back,” he said. “I need to be better at scheduling gaps.”
This was a firm favorite to write because in doing so, I discover even Zoom execs are only human.
Lebawit Lily Girma, Global Tourism Reporter
Key West’s Big Ship Ban Signals Major
Shift Ahead for Cruise Tourism: The Backstory When I started digging into the referendum vote, what made me sit up is when I saw that Key West voters hadn’t just limited big ships by size and crowd but more importantly, over 80 percent had voted to protect their marine environment. That’s when I sensed it was a story worth telling well and that this signaled a potential industry change post Covid.
I also loved working on this piece because it’s a story of people who grew up in a place and decided to save their home when they saw that nature was bouncing back in the absence of crowds and mega-ships, in addition to protecting it from potential Covid crowds. It’s an inspiring reminder that in an age of overtourism concerns pre-pandemic, it’s citizens who are standing up and defending what’s theirs in the absence of corporate or government solutions, even if they’re not as powerful as the big cruise lines.
Researching and speaking to sustainability experts who specialize in the cruise industry also opened my eyes further to the cruises’ model of maximizing revenue through scale at the expense of destinations and locals, and the environment. I already knew this, but this story took me down a deeper rabbit hole. Showing the other side of the coin too, was important — that smaller businesses in Key West might not have had time to find alternative streams of revenue and are now faced with finding other solutions.
Overall, it’s an important story on the impact of mass tourism and the need for residents to hold tourism corporations accountable. It’s also an alarm of sorts to the mass cruise industry that they’ll have a tough time on the other side of Covid unless they rethink their revenue models and decide to integrate communities while conserving the environment.
Tom Lowry, Editor-in-Chief
This Stationary Life … The Backstory: Like Jason, I will claim caveat status here in that I did not write the story I selected. I have had the privilege of editing each and every Skift story this year, but I was particularly taken back by the burst of writing energy from our founder Rafat Ali with pandemic-inspired essay after essay. “This Stationary Life” is among my favorites of his from this year, not just for how all of the world’s travel fanatics could relate to being at standstill, but for what it said about what we had been missing in the frenetic lives we lived before. For Skift’s anniversary every year, we try to offer some special coverage so I was particularly happy this essay anchored that celebration in July. Enjoy it. I know it’s one we will come back to in the future when we need that psychic grounding.
Cameron Sperance, Hospitality Reporter
Jacksonville’s Struggles Reveal the Pandemic Hardship for Travel’s Small Businesses The Backstory: The worst year on record for the travel industry also spurred a firehose of news stories for us at Skift to report. Breaking news, often about the biggest companies and largest global cities, typically ruled the homepages at most news outlets. But the pandemic was impacting more than gateway markets and Fortune 500 companies.
We started mapping out a story series that would focus on the so-called “second cities” of the world and smaller businesses within each to give faces to the pandemic’s economic havoc. Thus, the Second City Survival Diaries was born.
I pitched Jacksonville, Florida, as the launch city since it has a little bit of everything for the hotel industry: massive convention hotels, beach resorts, and the roadside hotels essential workers were still utilizing throughout the worst of the crisis. It was also touted briefly as a back-up plan for the Republican National Convention, so I figured there would be plenty of opinions on both sides of the aisle with respect to that event as a potential life raft for occupancy rates.
But the story ended up becoming much more than reporting on hotel performance. I met (virtually, of course) people like Lisa West, owner of the Addison on Amelia Island bed and breakfast, who navigated with lenders through economic relief measures to form a survival strategy for the inn she owns with her husband.
Restaurant owners like Mary Jane Culhane and Chad Munsey grappled with a new normal of operating kitchens when a huge part of business — people who worked in nearby offices — stayed home.
These and other voices in the story showed we shouldn’t count out small businesses, even though they face stronger headwinds in the pandemic recovery than bigger corporations. If anything, we should be listening to the mom-and-pop operators more.
Dennis Schaal, Executive Editor
Booking.com’s Challenges With Tours and Activities Leads to Musement Partnership: The Backstory There are few things more satisfying as a journalist than to get ahold of confidential documents from a major company about a key strategic issue, and that’s what happened with this exclusive story. In fact, after Skift published the story in March — three months before Booking.com made the official announcement — a source told me that its vice president of attractions, Lawrence Hester, conducted an all-hands-on-deck meeting of his staff to vent his anger about the story, and to try and identify the leaker. The story used those internal documents to break the news that Booking.com was shifting its strategy and outsourcing some of its attractions business to TUI’s Musement because Booking.com had found it too difficult to build its own tours and activities business from scratch. The article even identified the company’s list of potential merger and acquisition targets in the sector. This is the kind of original, breaking news story that I strive to deliver as often as possible, and it’s one important reason that people read Skift.
Julius Solaris, Editor, EventMB
Coronavirus and Events: Outlook and Recovery Timeline The Backstory: The top story of 2020 for EventMB was our comprehensive timeline. We gambled a lot in writing this story as it was released in the early days of the pandemic. The level of uncertainty was at an all-time high. Events were being canceled, countries were entering strict lockdowns. Making sense of all the information flowing in without upsetting or scaring an industry facing the toughest challenge of its history has been among the most challenging tasks for the editorial team. Hours and hours of research that ended up guiding the industry for many months.
Colin Nagy, On Experience Columnist
Our Columnist Flew to Dubai — This Is What He Learned About a Reopening The Backstory: I loved writing this piece on Dubai, the global hub being open to tourists. It really opened my eyes to what a smart, coordinated and thoughtful response to Covid looks like. Also, all too often, it is easy to just read and speculate based on industry chatter but the power of getting on a plane and seeing for yourself (while taking the necessary precautions) will never stop being important. Also, it was my first border crossing during the pandemic, and that plus the optimistic hue of light in the Middle East was just nice to experience again.
Jay Shabat, Former Senior Analyst, Airline Weekly
The Covid-19 Crisis The Backstory: By early March, it was clear that airlines had a major problem on their hands. How major? Already in this year’s March 2 issue of Airline Weekly, the writing was on the wall. Indeed, the writing from that issue captured the gravity of the crisis in retrospect: “Is the world falling apart? It feels that way for airlines.” To say that was my favorite story to write wouldn’t quite be accurate. There’s no joy in chronicling destruction. But intellectually thrilling? Absolutely. As I ended that cover story: “Might 2020 (gulp) be the worst year ever?” (Shabat left Airline Weekly earlier this month to pursue new opportunities)
Ruthy Munoz, Contributor
Meet the Intrepid Biz Traveler Who’s Taken 42 Trips Since Pandemic’s Start The Backstory: Being new to Skift’s airline team and the beat in general, I was scrambling one night to come up with interesting and newsworthy stories to pitch. I jumped on LinkedIn and searched airlines, looking through post until Abdol Moabery’s post of having completed 36 flights in 10 during a raging pandemic caught my eye. I pitched the story, which my editor immediately approved. Next up was trying to reach out to Moabery. I looked up his company info and sent in an email requesting a Zoom interview, Moabery was traveling, but we managed with the help of his assistant to set it up the afternoon of his return flight. He gave me so much it was difficult to decide what to leave out, I only had so many words I could write. But the beauty of his story is the hope it provides for our audience and for the storyteller. Hope is something we all needed this year and Moabery showed us it could be done with grace and empathy.
Edward Russell, Airlines Reporter
More Airline Worker Furloughs Likely Even With Additional Coronavirus Aid The Backstory: After covering the worst crisis the airline industry has ever faced from the beginning, I am eager to see carriers recover. But that recovery requires flyers to return and few are likely to as long as the risk of Covid-19 remains high. Reporting on the long-sought payroll support extension was a reminder that, even with government support, the industry is still a long way from getting back on its feet.
Rosie Spinks, Former Global Tourism Reporter
Opening Closed Doors: Can Hotels Do More to Fight Human Trafficking? The Backstory In many ways, a story about what the hotel industry has done to fight human trafficking could have been a pretty simple story: Here’s the problem, here’s the seemingly high-level intervention the hospitality industry has taken. But the more I reported this story, the more I realized that this is anything but simple. Human trafficking is not the hidden problem we think it is; it’s more a function of how our society works. It’s less about extreme cases of coercive control and more about the economic, racial, and gender inequality that pervades our society and systematically makes certain groups vulnerable to exploitation, from the extended stay motel on the corner to the five star luxury hotel in Manhattan. When that overwhelming reality intersects with the global travel industry, the results are messy. I worked hard to convey the nuance and complexity of this issue in the story, rather than framing it as a bad guy versus good guy narrative. Nothing, as we know, is ever that simple. (Spinks left Skift in October to pursue a book project.)
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Photo credit: Empty resorts, empty airlines, empty dreams defined the travel industry in 2020, and our coverage. Skift's team of editors and reporters pick their favorite stories of the year. Richard Walker / Flickr