March 2020 will go down in history as the month that travel screeched to a halt when a global pandemic was declared. This oral history is a collection of voices from across the travel industry of those sharing their personal stories of pain, shock — and of resilience.
Every March from here on, humanity will pause to remember what that month in 2020 started. And stopped. For those of us in travel, by many accounts the world’s largest industry in its most expansive manifestations, the fear of the virus traveling around the world meant the carriers of that virus — us humans traveling — had to stop. All at once. And all at once we did, in a global slamming of the brakes heard around the world and imprinted in our collective industry brains forever.
As I wrote in my essay published back then, March 14, 2020 was “the day we will always remember from here on out as The Day the World Stopped Traveling.” In that essay I also wrote about Skift’s role through the historic times that we were going through and documenting: ”We are covering the most consequential moment of our lifetime, and we aim to be the most consequential company deciphering this for the global travel industry and for the world to understand what is happening in travel right now, why, and what the path ahead is.”
Part of our role of deciphering history is also recording the history directly from the people who lived through it, beyond the daily stories, analysis and research our teams conduct. We did that previously through two seminal oral histories, one on online travel and another on boutique hotels, a look back spanning decades. What the travel industry – and indeed the world – lived through the last two years certainly felt like decades to so many of us, so many lessons learned and unlearned, so many yet to come.
In that spirit, we are presenting below the Oral History of March 2020, as lived by the travel industry. Straight from more than two dozen executives and employees from all sectors of the travel industry, the personal stories you will read are of collective pain, trauma — and of resilience.
We hope this becomes part of the permanent record of the times we went through, to pause and mourn those who didn’t make it, and to celebrate with humility those of us who did. The recounting of history is often difficult to confront so we extend our heartfelt thanks to the participants here for sharing your stories and for helping us all move forward to better days.
— Rafat Ali, Skift Founder and CEO
Skift interviewed more than two dozen travel professionals, from the C-suite to property managers and flight attendants from around the world. See a complete list of interview subjects here. These recollections have been edited for brevity.
Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago
“I do remember that we had a trip at the beginning of February to San Francisco, and what was weird is that the city was not as busy. And actually the hotel we were staying in, didn’t have any Japanese tourists, which usually is very popular with Japanese. So there (it) was actually very tangible. At a point in time where in Europe, we couldn’t really see anything. We were like, OK, this is actually real.
“And then it really started (in March). The whole world basically collapsed, from one day to the other. And I have to say, for probably two weeks we were a bit paralyzed, because everything was changing at the same time, and you don’t really know where to look. Because everything is all of a sudden red and negative. And the winning thought was then, I think in the second week of March where we just said, OK it will be zero. It’s not there yet, but this will go to zero and it will stay at zero for quite a while. And we then move everybody into a remote setup.”
Listen to Axel Hefer
China confirmed 573 new coronavirus cases; bringing the total number to 79,824. Deaths increased by 35 to a total of 2,870.
Global coronavirus cases: 88,411
Keith Barr, CEO of IHG
Denham, United Kingdom
“By March, we knew it was global and we knew it was going to be significant.
“I remember sitting down with our board and saying, there is absolutely not a playbook in the world written for this for our industry because we’ve always designed to pressure test these businesses as if we have another 9-11 or if we have another financial crisis: RevPAR is going to drop like this and it’s going to recover over like this. Nobody says RevPAR is going to fall 50 or 70 percent. No one is going to say the international borders are closed. No one’s going to have a plan for how to think about safety, security, health, and hygiene in your hotels in a way you’ve never thought about it before and then procure these things at scale.”
“What I said to our board was I think we have to look at this as a lens of time. Two years from now — I said two years back then. I didn’t say it far enough. I should have said three years — what are people going to say about IHG? We’ve got five sets of stakeholders: We’ve got customers, colleagues, owners, shareholders, and governments. We have to have each one of those constituents, each one of those stakeholders look at us and go, they actually did the right thing.”
“By March, we knew it was global and we knew it was going to be significant.”
-Keith Barr, CEO of IHG
Carol Fergus, Board Member of Global Business Travel Association and a Fidelity Director
“It was surreal because one day I was this global travel manager, coming into the office, working on large projects. The next day it was like the world stopped still. I remember coming into the office to collect my new laptop, having never had a laptop from the company before, empty my locker and feeling really lost. It was a bit of a shock. As I walked through the city, it was silence and emptiness. It did feel like the world had ended. Where do we go from here, if no one’s traveling. Do I even have a job? But mentally, I thought this is only going to be a couple of weeks and we’ll be back to normal.”
United Airlines President Scott Kirby, now CEO, speaking at an investor conference put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, offers a rare stark prediction compared to his fellow airline execs about the length and severity of the impact from coronavirus.
Mark Cuschieri, Vice President at the Global Business Travel Association
London, United Kingdom
“When this all kicked off in Asia, at the time we thought OK, they tend to have more dramatic situations in that region, like typhoons. I was getting involved and supporting my team in the region, and then we didn’t dismiss it, but we thought it’s regional, it’s not going to go further.
“But as soon as it hit Europe, and Italy, it became serious. We went into business continuity mode. Travel is always an area that’s being impacted in some shape or form, so we’re well prepared, and we have processes in place to do that. It automatically kicks in, actually.
“Once it hit Europe, it was about displacement. How do we repatriate people, that was the priority at the time. We had 700 people displaced from working locations, which were out in Asia. That was complex because overnight, countries were closing borders. We had to transport people through different methods to get them home.
British discount airline Flybe declares bankruptcy, the first of what will be a long list of airlines doing the same.
Sarah Kline, President of Time For Travel travel agency
“It was like time was standing still and there was no path forward. Everyone wanted answers from me on what to do, what was next. My brides wanted to know if their weddings were going to happen, my kids wanted to know when they’d go back to school. I just kept saying give it a few weeks and it will all be over. I’m still saying that.
“I had to break hearts daily telling people their trips were canceled, their weddings were off, islands were closed, and airlines weren’t flying. My business (that) I spent 25 years building was crumbling at my feet and I was powerless to stop it. March 2020 was a nightmare that I feel like I am just cautiously waking up from.”
“I had to break hearts daily telling people their trips were cancelled, their weddings were off, islands were closed, and airlines weren’t flying. My business (that) I spent 25 years building was crumbling at my feet and I was powerless to stop it.
-Sarah Kline, President of Time of Travel travel agency
Michael Deitemeyer, CEO of Aimbridge Hospitality
“We were bought by the owner of Aimbridge in October of 2019. So literally, we had just been acquired, and we were in the process of merging when you start to hear tidbits of, you know, Covid. Fast forward to the beginning of March 2020, and we’re knee deep in integration.
“It was the two largest third party management companies in the world merging. So I was head down, and all of a sudden you start hearing this and I’m thinking it’s like SARS. Candidly, I was naive and thinking it was overblown. Then, all of a sudden, you realize this is real.
“We went from modeling slight downturns and what that does to our newly formed business to running these scenarios in which our revenue is cut in half, cut 75 percent and how we respond and what we do. It was an eye-opening moment and incredibly stressful, as you can imagine. It kind of built as travel restrictions and lockdowns were happening.”
Twenty-one people tested positive for coronavirus aboard Carnival’s Grand Princess cruise ship near San Francisco, the start of a glaring exhibit of the impact of the virus on travel and the failures of the cruise lines and governments to get people off the ships.
Brian Znotins, Vice President of Network Planning at American Airlines
Fort Worth, TX
”I asked the team that we need to cut down our schedules. I told them the overall level of capacity we think we should hit and to maintain as much connectivity as they can. The team would be in here on a weekend, rewriting the schedule, I would come in on the weekend.
“I’m not a scheduler I don’t have the ability to get into the schedules. If I stood over their shoulder and tried to direct what they’re doing, it would just slow them down. I had to trust the team, that they would make the right decisions. If I tried to backseat drive, it would just make things slower, and ultimately American Airlines would suffer for that. It’s like a hospital administrator standing over the field medic in the middle of battle, trying to tell them you know best what scalpel they should use or what bandage, instead of letting the field medic do their job, because they’re going to save this person in a moment. You can get involved in that later.”
Sophia Botchway, a flight attendant who did not want the identity of her airline disclosed
“I feel like overnight, in the middle of March, there was a complete 180 where all of the flights on my schedule got removed and flights were completely empty. And then it just went from ‘this is something we should be alarmed about’ to ‘oh my gosh, this is really serious, this will probably change life completely.’ Especially in March, which is usually when spring break starts, you definitely see more traffic around March and April so to see it completely empty was a big change.”
Skift Editor-in-Chief Tom Lowry appears on MSBNBC to give an update on the state of the travel industry. He calls it bedlam.
Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group
Hove, United Kingdom
“Every hour felt like a day and every day felt like a week and every week felt like a month because so much happened. And, you were seeing the news and just changing so fast … I think the hardest thing at the end of that week was going between this, surely it’ll be okay in 10 weeks time. It would be crazy to cancel. Now everything’s looking good. You know, like the show is on, it’s good, it’s normal. And if we cancel now for 10 weeks, isn’t that odd too. There’s no way this is gonna happen.
“I think one of the hardest things is uncertainty and indecision, actually.
“On that Friday (March 6) we spoke to some of the senior members of the team and said,’Look, you need to understand that this might actually be what’s happening and we’ll talk again on Monday, but I wanna give you the weekend to process this.’
“Then we said, well, why don’t we talk to the industry? So Monday and Tuesday, Ray (IMEX Chairman Ray Bloom), and I had every half an hour when we were speaking to somebody in the industry to try to get a feel for what was out there. And it was perfectly clear to us that by mid-Monday that a cancellation was really the only responsible thing to. We suddenly started to understand this isn’t just about us and our business or the meetings industry. This is a major health issue and we wouldn’t want to put people in harm’s way. So that flipped as well, very quickly.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) declares the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. Skift closes its offices at the end of this day and everyone is ordered to work from home.
Elliott Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC
“I was here in Washington D.C., literally in my office, preparing for my next trip and making plans for a productive convention year. I think the night before, watching the Dallas Mavericks and the Mark Cuban response to things being shut down.
“So as were so many people, between watching the news and seeing what was happening internationally and thinking, “oh this won’t happen in Washington or this won’t happen in the U.S., unfortunately it took lives but won’t be disruptive.
“When you really think about what happened, it happened quickly, all of the month of March. We went from the World Health Organization giving insight as to what was going to happen next to the first person in Washington D.C. that tested positive for Covid. The first death in Washington D.C. is someone who knew because I served on his board, and he had cancer sadly and he passed away. I was thinking, OK in three months we’ll be able to rebound and we’ll get beyond this and we’ll be able to get back on track.”
“Every hour felt like a day and every day felt like a week and every week felt like a month because so much happened. And, you were seeing the news and just changing so fast.”
-Carina Bauer, CEO, IMEX Group
Jamie Pherous, CEO of Corporate Travel Management
“We had two fortunes that many of our competitors didn’t have. We’ve seen a few of these before, with avian flu, and secondly Asia went first, and we had people on the ground there saying this is getting bad. It was around the end of January when we started to look at it, but by March we knew it was real. I remember the date we got our teams together and said: ‘Look, we have to survive.’ Survival meant the most difficult thing was eliminating people, and we lost some good people. That was emotionally the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do, as a leader, and all of our leaders would say the same.
IMEX Frankfurt 2020 announces it is canceling its large event planned for May.
Paul Van Deventer, CEO of Meeting Professionals International
New York City, NY
“In early March I went to New York City. I woke up Thursday (March 12) morning, and it was clear we had reached a situation where there were global panic now around what was going on with Covid.
“I’m in my hotel room, a place called the Refinery in midtown New York City, and my wife went out to lunch with our friends and I’m now on a series of calls as the chair of the Event Industry Council and trying to gather together the council members and talk about how the industry should be reacting to this and I’m talking to them from the side of my eye I’m watching the Big East basketball tournament and everything’s going on as normal in Madison Square Garden, but the rest of the world seemed to be starting to burn down. There’s clearly panic ensuing and the U.S. was talking about shutting their borders.
“On a personal note, amidst all of this, my daughter is at school in Rome and now she’s texting and emailing saying, I don’t know if I can get home. What should I be doing?
“So I’m now in these sort of various modes and a personal mode worried about my my daughter in Europe and how can I get her home and what do I need to do, my business hat of what do I need to be thinking about for MPI, our business, our community and then my volunteer leadership role and a really broad role for our industry with the Event Industry Council, what do we need to be doing as an overall council and how do we get together to support each other industry. So those three variant points were all kind of coming together.
The Trump administration issues a travel ban on non-Americans who visited 26 European countries within 14 days of coming to the United States. People traveling from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are exempt.
Lebawit Lily Girma, global tourism reporter for Skift who was a freelance travel writer at the time
“I was enjoying a dreamy tour of northern Ethiopia, my birthplace. It was my first time back in 19 years and I had spent months planning that trip. About 10 days in, after coming back from breathtaking hiking in the Simien Mountains, I started realizing that more countries would shut their borders and that I could get stuck there. So I cut my trip short and booked an earlier flight back to my home in the Dominican Republic, connecting in JFK.
“I remember that moment like it was yesterday: standing steps away from boarding my flight home and my phone buzzing just as I was about to hand over my boarding pass to the flight attendant. It was my husband Luis saying, ‘You’re not going to believe this but the border (of the Dominican Republic) is closing tomorrow at 6 a.m.’ My heart sank — I was a day late. I felt so powerless and confused at the same time. The worst was not knowing how long it would be before I could return.”
“So I got on that 15-hour Ethiopian Airlines flight — no access to Wi-Fi, no one to talk to, no ability to reroute before my next flight. I wasn’t even thinking yet about the fact that my livelihood would take a hit as a consumer travel journalist. Miraculously, it wasn’t as bad on the work front, but on the personal front I didn’t get back to the Dominican Republic or see Luis for three months. I spent that time with my parents stateside, which in hindsight was also a blessing.”
Italians start to sing from their balconies in an act of solidarity with their fellow citizens stricken by coronavirus. The daily routine will go global.
Naledi Khabo, CEO of the Africa Tourism Association
New York City, NY
“I was actually preparing to travel from New York to Ghana and Senegal for work. The news was picking up just in terms of flights being canceled and the like, but it was still something happening in the background in my mind. Because literally up to the day before I was going to leave, I was still intending to leave. I was just going to travel safely. I was fully prepared to sanitize, and then my flight was canceled. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, all the flights were canceled on Tuesday.
“There was probably some partial denial that wasn’t as serious as it was going to be. And even after that cancellation, I think that there was a belief that this was a temporary pause as far as it pertains to travel whether it was personally or professionally, and it took months to realize that ‘oh this is going to take a while.’”
“I think what struck me personally the most wasn’t even anything work related. It was just the panic — the runs for toilet paper, the hoarding that took place and so for me, there was this sense of desperation that was around us all and I wasn’t ready for that. That startled me personally the most. Oh my God, all these people are so desperate and so scared. People at the store fighting over hand sanitizer. I felt like it was the beginning of a movie that I’d seen, like the end of the world movies. That gave me anxiety, that everyone was in this heightened panic state.
CDC issues a “no sail order” to all cruise ships. The order calls for all cruise ships in waters that the U.S. has jurisdiction over to cease activity.
Oscar Cerezales, Chief Strategy Officer of MCI Group
“I was based in Singapore, so I went back to Singapore and that is when we all heard about, the major restrictions, the cancellations, the government is stopping, the schools closing and everything. And back then personally, my two kids studying in Melbourne. Um, I remember like it was yesterday when I got that call about the closing of the country. Now Melbourne is seven hours away, so you’re in that situation that you’re thinking about your kids. I think, what do we do? Is that gonna be temporary? Or that’s gonna be something more complicated? So I decided to ask them to come back to Singapore, and literally 24 hours after they landed in Singapore, Australia closed (20 March 2020) and airlines and everything stopped. I remember I called my son, ‘where are you?’ ‘I’m playing tennis.’ ‘Where?’ ‘An hour from, from Melbourne, with a friend.’ ‘Okay. Park everything. I got a plane for you in four hours.’
“Europe and America in general were slower to react, but Asia Pacific was really, really fast and everything was happening in a matter of hours or days. And so you realized that it was something we never experienced before that was impacting the profession, because of course there were cancellations of events and projects with association and corporations and governments stopping this and that.”
The United States border with Canada is “temporarily” closed to “non-essential traffic.” The Mexico border was closed two days later.
Greg Webb, CEO of Travelport
“At the point when things went off a cliff, I had been in the job eight months. I was still in the process of fully relocating from Dallas to the UK.
“I remember sitting in the boardroom with our CFO [chief financial officer] and some other leaders in our UK headquarters. Those of us at the table who weren’t permanent UK residents were advised we needed to leave immediately because they were about to shut the border. And so that was kind of my realization moment of, wow, this is different from any crisis in the past. We need to get out of town.
“March 2020 required us to be decisive and act quickly. There were things we had to do to make sure we could weather the storm associated with the crisis, because at that point it became very obvious it was not going to have a short-term impact.”
“There was probably some partial denial that wasn’t as serious as it was going to be. And even after that cancellation, I think that there was a belief that this was a temporary pause as far as it pertains to travel whether it was personally or professionally, and it took months to realize that ‘oh this is going to take awhile.”
-Naledi Khabo, CEO of the Africa Tourism Association
Niles Harris, General Manager, Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown
Los Angeles, CA
“It was the most incredible transformation I’ve ever seen, from this vibrant place with people everywhere to suddenly somewhere that’s largely dark apart from auxiliary lighting to guide what people we did have through.
“All the furniture at La Boucherie, our fine dining steakhouse, was covered with sheets. It looked like a haunted house. Spire 73, which is a [73rd floor] rooftop lounge — the tallest open-air bar in the the Western Hemisphere — was dark. So, I would walk the property just to make sure there were no water leaks or anything happening. Crows were the only life up there. We have these crows in L.A., and they had taken over the lounge. So, I would have to turn on the music. I had to disturb them because they were nesting. It was reminiscent of The Birds.
“The hotel was essentially closed. No one could come into the hotel unless you were a guest or an employee. It was very eerie. It was difficult to digest that, just a short time ago, this was a place where people were having cocktails, people were proposing, and people were having fun“We isolated floors. We condensed everyone to probably four floors. The property has a lot of floors [the hotel occupies the 31st to the 73rd floors of the tower]. So, we consolidated everything to conserve energy and also to reduce what we call travel time for our housekeepers. We provided really limited service at that time because there were so many shifting Covid mandates and protocols, and they were changing what seemed like by the day, perhaps even by the hour … Just watching the sunset and going to a park, those are the things that we probably took for granted. Now? Not so much anymore.”
California becomes the first state to issue a stay-at-home order, mandating all residents to stay at home except to go to an essential job or shop for essential needs.
Lola Akerstrom, multi-award winning visual storyteller, author, and travel entrepreneur
“It just felt like the rug was kind of pulled just under your feet, like wait a minute, what’s going on, did this industry actually exist? It was a very shocking moment when all the borders shut and then all the assignments just either got canceled or postponed. And for me in that moment, I realized that we’d been moving too fast as an industry, we’d been moving so fast that it actually forced us to just stop to see if our foundations were still stable.
“I think you know, we weren’t all prepared for it. You know, it really shook because most of us have built careers on travel and being physically in a different location. And so being forced to stop and then reassess, OK, how long is this shutdown going to take, we don’t even understand this virus. You know, people are dying left and right, what’s going on? So it was just a very uncertain period.”
Leeny Oberg, Chief Financial Officer at Marriott
“At the beginning of March, there still was just so little known. I distinctly remember a picture that I took leaving the office on March 23. I still was coming to the office, and they were kind enough to let me in because I just had so much going on. And that day, I was the only car in the Marriott parking lot. I just remember recognizing how surreal and how long lasting this was going to potentially be instead of those bets of, ‘This will be a month or so or two months, and by year end, we’ll be back to minus 10 percent RevPAR.’
“By the end of March, we were working on a model that assumed that 2020 would reflect something like a 60 percent decline in RevPAR. It took probably a couple weeks for it to settle in.
“I’m very blessed with an optimistic nature, and I’ve worked for Marriott a long time, and I have seen us go through dramatic downturns before. I can honestly tell you I never, ever for a moment really thought that we wouldn’t get through it — never, not for one second. I did recognize that we were going to pay some painful, painful prices: everything from human prices in the loss of jobs and the pain on our associates and on our industry. But I know our model really well, and it’s an extraordinarily resilient model with a lot of flexibility: our ability to flex on investments, our ability to flex on expenses, our ability to kind of manage our cash as best we could and reduce our cash outflows. I really had total faith that we would get through it but just didn’t know how big of a price we would pay.
“On the personal front, we had our own stories. My three children were all working in New York City, and they all came to work from our home in Bethesda. One of my children brought his two roommates because they lived on the West Coast and couldn’t fly home. So, we had seven of us working inside my home all in different parts of the house, working remotely for the months of March and April. While I think we all were experiencing some pretty stressful times, I can say that dinner table was a gift.”
Leaders of the U.S. travel and aviation industry called on the Trump administration to set a May 1 deadline to commit to a plan for reopening the country to inbound international visitation.
Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia who was vice chairman at the time
“The bottom dropped out, and the first order of business was basically if this keeps happening, we’re going to need money. Our balance sheet just wasn’t … It wasn’t that we were not fundable, obviously. It was just that we weren’t set up for this giant reversal in the funds flow. So for … Now I can’t remember. It must have been several weeks. Eric (Hart), my CFO, and I, and a team of people, we were all in on like, OK, we got to figure out how we’re going to raise a bunch of money. Talked to a lot of investors, had banks involved etc. Had to figure out what our go-forward plan was, what we thought normalized future business looked like etc., and talked to a bunch of investors.
“Fortunately, there were a lot of smart investors who make good bets. We ended up with two great partners in Apollo and Silver Lake on the preferred (shares), and then JP Morgan did a very good job for us, along with other banks, in raising a bunch more capital. I spent, I think, the better part of three weeks. I was on the phone all the time. I remember I was living in Wyoming. I would go for walks just to get some fresh air, and I’d be on the phone with bankers. I was on the phone constantly. Our people killed themselves, finance people, lawyers, everybody, and we did it. And then we could breathe again.”
Listen to Peter Kern
Tamara Lohan, CEO of Mr & Mrs Smith, a premium hotel booking service
London, United Kingdom
“I had just taken over as CEO and I remember standing in my kitchen when the realization hit me that all my hopes for the company, and all the projects we were planning, I had to let go of them all. I stood there. The tears just came flooding. But then, there was a moment of clarity. I could see the outlines of a plan to rebuild.”
“The hardest part was making genuinely good people redundant – people with mortgages and dreams of their own who’d been with us for a long time. It was really, really tough.”
Hilton says it has had to furlough “tens of thousands” of its corporate staff. CEO Chris Nasetta says that in Hilton’s 100-year history “we’ve never experienced anything like the current situation.”
Luis Maroto, CEO of Amadeus
“Although March 2020 is seen as the onset of the crisis, we had a growing feeling of unease since mid-January. And suddenly, what seemed like a blip in one corner of the world snowballed.
“While my team and I were trying to evaluate the potential impact of this crisis and watched daily as the number of passengers and bookings worldwide fell dramatically – culminating in us reaching the inconceivable “negative bookings” threshold [because of refunds for cancellations] – we were also extremely concerned about our teams, our entire staff worldwide, nearly 20,000 people in 190 countries, and the intense personal challenges they were facing.
“At all costs, we wanted to alleviate as best we could this sudden loss of freedom, the isolation, and the distress. After 30 years of continuous growth, we were in a deep crisis. While this was happening, our customers and partners were reeling.”
The United Nations World Tourism Organization says tourist arrivals worldwide could fall by 20 to 30 percent in 2020, costing businesses as much as $450 billion.
Uwahnie Melanie Martinez, owner of Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute, a lodge and tour company
Hopkins Village, Belize:
“As the month wore on, I saw it like chess. You’ve got to watch the board, watch the game, you’ve got to see the moves, and then prepare to make yours in order to ensure your strike. So that’s exactly what I did — taking on more ancestral work in terms of agriculture and sustainability and fishing. The time being down from tourism allowed me just that — I got to rear chickens and put in a program for the poultry, we have bees and we’re now harvesting honey, we’re planting fruit trees.”
The CARES Act is approved in Washington, providing $2 trillion in aid to U.S. businesses, including travel companies.
Adam Armstrong, CEO of Contiki who was working at SilverSea Cruises when the pandemic struck
“I was working in cruising at the time, and it was the end of the summer season in Australia. The last few cruises were about to depart, and the sudden realization that this weird virus that was getting a bit of airtime on the news was actually going to be material. I remember my head of sales coming to my office one morning and saying ‘Have you seen what’s happening in Italy?’
“Until then, I had dismissed it and I just thought it’s just another bird flu or something like that that will come and go and be geographically restricted. And as soon as I went online and looked at the news and said ‘Wow! It hit Italy. This is going to be big. We need to strap ourselves in for this.’
“I think it was just inconceivable at the time that we would tie up the entire fleet of SilverSea and indeed every cruise line in the world. We were still trying to operate a few cruises here and there. But it became very evident that it was just too problematic. Crossing borders and the (many) nationalities of our guests and our crew was just too complicated.”
Airports and hotels have seen some of the biggest drops in foot traffic as a result of coronavirus fears, according to analytics platform Placer.ai.
Maud Bailly, CEO of Southern Europe at Accor (formerly global chief digital and commercial officer)
“My second daughter was born on February the 19th. And on March 24, we faced the first total lockdown in France. So from that moment, we switched into what I call ‘Survivor.’ Long story short, no one asked me to stop my maternity leave, and I strongly intended to have it, to take it, and to fully enjoy it. But you know, when you are facing as a leader such an immense shock, you can’t reasonably tell your people, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got the law with me. And I’m allowed to be off and let you face this incredible and uncertain crisis.’ So long story short, at night, we had a baby crying and the milk. And during the day, we had homeschooling for my first daughter who was learning to read, and we had to scan homework and return it to the school, and at the same time be connected with [the company] on crisis mode. And it was just hell.
“Once you live that, I think you change forever, and you fall or you survive — and we (at Accor) chose to survive in a good way and hopefully can get better. So after the shock, you’ve got two options: you die, because it’s too hard, or you get resilient and you learn. You react quickly. You adapt yourself. And somehow, if you look at the glass on the positive, you really reveal yourself. I clearly don’t want to work in this mode for the rest of my life because I feel like already I am 89 years old. But these years are also super valuable, and I’m always sharing with my team that we need to learn from these two years and they should ensure they don’t get amnesia. Because we do have a lot to learn from this unprecedented crisis.”
Listen to Maud Bailly
“Once you live that, I think you change forever, and you fall or you survive — and we chose to survive in a good way and hopefully can get better… Because we do have a lot to learn from this unprecedented crisis.”
-Maud Bailly, CEO of Southern Europe at Accor (formerly global chief digital and commercial officer)
Vivian Zhang, General Manager of Holiday Inn Express Wuhan Optical Valley
“For me personally, I was definitely scared but I also knew my staff was scared too. However, I had to be brave and carry out my responsibilities, care for my team as well as my guests.
As the team leader, I must be the power, courage, and love for everyone at our hotel, and treat them like my family in this most difficult time. In addition to the management work, I also took on other guest-facing roles due to being short staffed – I had to stand by my team. From room service, housekeeping, kitchen, to sanitation, I could feel the stress, fear, exhaustion, and pain that everyone was experiencing. And this further strengthened my determination and purpose to provide ‘true hospitality for good.’
“From January 23 to April 8, it was an unforgettable 76 days for all of us staying in Wuhan. We lived every day counting and witnessing how the pandemic went from thousands of cases a day until cases subsided. When we sent off the medical team and those guests staying on business, we all burst into tears. We still kept the thank you letters, the protective suits with signatures of the medical staff on it, and the praise pennant they sent to us. That was a precious record of this extraordinary and unforgettable experience for all of us. All the challenges and difficulties were just water under the bridge. What stays unchanged is our dream and confidence for a brighter future ahead.”
Global Coronavirus Cases: 877, 292
- Adam Armstrong, CEO of Contiki who was working at SilverSea Cruises when the pandemic struck
- Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago
- Brian Znotins, Vice President of Network Planning at American Airlines
- Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group
- Carol Fergus, Board Member of Global Business Travel Association and Fidelity Director
- Elliott Ferguson, CEO of Destination DC
- Greg Webb, CEO of Travelport
- Jamie Pherous, CEO of Corporate Travel Management
- Keith Barr, CEO of IHG
- Lebawit Lily Girma, global tourism reporter for Skift who was a freelance travel writer at the time
- Leeny Oberg, Chief Financial Officer at Marriott
- Lola Akerstrom, multi-award winning visual storyteller, author, and travel entrepreneur
- Luis Maroto, CEO of Amadeus
- Mark Cuschieri, Vice President at the Global Business Travel Association
- Maud Bailly, CEO of Southern Europe at Accor (formerly global chief digital and commercial officer):
- Michael Deitemeyer, CEO of Aimbridge Hospitality
- Naledi Khabo, CEO of the Africa Tourism Association
- Niles Harris, General Manager, Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown
- Oscar Cerezales, Chief Strategy Officer of MCI Group
- Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia who was vice chairman at the time
- Sarah Kline, President of Time For Travel travel agency
- Sophia Botchway, a flight attendant who did not want the identity of her airline disclosed
- Tamara Lohan, CEO of Mr & Mrs Smith, a premium hotel booking service
- Uwahnie Melanie Martinez, owner of Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute, a lodge and tour company in Hopkins Village, Belize
- Vivian Zhang, General Manager of Holiday Inn Express Wuhan Optical Valley
Skift editors and reporters Lebawit Lily Girma, Rashaad Jorden, Sean O’Neill, Matt Parsons, Dennis Schaal, Cameron Sperance, and Madhu Unnikrishnan contributed to this project.
Edited by Tom Lowry.
Design and creative production by Matt Heidkamp, Joanna Gonzalez, and Jose Marmolejos.