The Travel Industry: 10 Lessons We’re Learning from COVID-19

The Travel Industry: 10 Lessons We’re Learning from COVID-19

This article was written by PATA CRC Expert Advisor Damian Cook, the CEO of E-Tourism Frontiers

The COVID-19 pandemic is, without doubt, the single greatest crisis in the history of tourism in its speed, scope and severity of impact. As destinations and businesses start to re-emerge from lockdowns, the tourism industry must reflect on what the experience has taught us about the nature of crises to prepare ourselves for a post-COVID-19 future.

Ten things we have learned:

1. COVID-19 is not a Typical Crisis: It is a Global Phenomenon

As COVID-19 spread in early 2020, many destinations and businesses turned to their crisis management strategies or hurried to create one. Unfortunately, managers, experts and planners found them lacking.

No tourism authority or company had adequately planned for an event of this scale, moving at such speed and impacting so many. There were no plans capable of responding in an adequate way to the events that transpired. Why? Because most crisis plans were designed to contain and manage events such as terror attacks or natural disasters.

Typical crisis management focuses on logistics, communication and media at a local level to mitigate negative visibility globally. COVID-19 rapidly grew from a local concern to a cross border crisis and finally, a Global Phenomenon that impacted every country and ultimately every human on earth. Such a lesson has changed the way we look at crises in our globalised world to require active local, regional and global management of new Phenomena – whether it is cyber-terrorism or climatic disasters.

2. There are no Precedents, only Principles

2020 saw an unprecedented use of the word “Unprecedented”, and with good reason.
Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was not spread by mass global cross-border travel. The Hong Kong Flu epidemic of 1969 was not accompanied by a social media ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and disinformation.

History is a great teacher, but our present reality is shaped by new forces: population, scale and technology. While we should analyse and assess our past performance in managing crises, we also must be aware that we have entered into a new era where forthcoming crises or phenomena are indeed novel and will present us with unique challenges.

Thus, we need to figure out how to distil the principles of excellence that underpinned and guided past successful management and recoveries, not look for blueprints. For example, the vectors of COVID-19 make it a more infectious virus than SARS or EBOLA. So, studying the precise containment measures of those two preceding crises is insufficient for creating an action plan today.
However, as case studies for effective crisis response and recovery execution, Singapore’s response to SARs as well as Hong Kong’s recovery can still be studied to understand how the destination managers and health officials worked successfully together to recover.

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So, history may still provide lessons worth reviewing, but our future resilience requires more study, education and preparedness to evolve new approaches.

3. Warnings are Worthwhile

It’s not accurate to say that we were not warned about the potential for a pandemic of this nature. Warnings were ignored, and preparedness was relegated to “future planning.” Many destinations and businesses simply ignored much earlier warnings that could have helped.

For example, in recent years many destinations found themselves catering to a single market in isolation. When warned that international events and phenomena could threaten this position, they often disregarded this as impossible. What could stop an entire nationality from travelling?

Now that we have seen what happens when not only one market stops travelling, but all markets stop travelling, we must reconsider the entire model of dependence on markets, scale and economic yield.

4. Overtourism was an Opportunity to Prepare

Overtourism, until recently, dominated our industry’s conversation. Overtourism aligned us with other industries, such as mining and industrial farming, for impact on environments, climate and communities. Overtourism undermined and commoditised the experience of travel.

Some argued that there was no real Overtourism crisis and that it was a significant failure of management. Volumes of tourism needed only to be better processed and distributed to enable sustained growth.

The Overtourism debate though is now on hold as the industry has ground to a standstill. But there are clear parallels and linkages between Overtourism as a management problem and the risks COVID-19 poses to destinations

Many of the same skills and mitigation policies that would help with Overtourism are highly relevant to the safe and fast reopening of tourism. For example: urban planning, building design, crowd management, tourism flows, policy enforcement, and dispersal to secondary and tertiary destinations.

The bigger the travel volume, the bigger the risks, whether Overtourism, COVID-19 or another infectious disease. Therefore, if tourism is to recover and if mass tourism as a model returns (see #8 and #9 below), we need to take this opportunity of “zero tourists” to invest even more effort and resources into addressing the similar management problems first raised by Over Tourism.

5. The Market Remembers

For travel businesses, this crisis has been an existential threat, and their paramount motivation is survival.

The reality is that many businesses will not survive the sustained cessation of travel or may not be able to compete in the emerging regulated, scaled-down market. One thing has become clear, however. Any travel company hoping to recover must be aware that the way they responded to COVID-19 will be remembered.

The management of cancellations, rebooking and issuance of credit has moved from reactive crisis management to a major nationally and legally protected consumer rights’ issue. Companies that placed the protection of assets over the clients’ rights will be remembered. Reputation and recovery will go hand in hand, so destinations and companies need to ensure sure they have a plan for communicating accurately, timely, and empathetically with their base.

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6. New Protocols are Here to Stay

Eventually COVID-19 may be cured, vaccinated against or stopped. But, the new normal is just that, and we won’t go back to where we were.

As companies recover, many believe that the current protocols may be temporary and will be eliminated by a vaccine or cure, but this is unlikely to be the case. The correlation between global travel and the vectors of viral transmission were a clear warning: If COVID had been more deadly, the resulting pandemic could have moved beyond a worldwide health crisis to an extinction-level event.

For anyone who believes the new protocols will be short-lived, they would be wise to consider how “temporary” new aviation security protocols were after 9-11.

7. Recovery is a Regional Effort

Travel is restarting, but in phases. These phases are not being defined by opportunism, but by policies set but multiple governing authorities.

How and when a destination reopens is now beyond the realm of a Destination Management Organisation (DMO) or a Tourism Ministry. Health, Foreign Affairs and security bodies are all part of the decision-making progress. The first real indicators of progress are negotiated bi-lateral travel agreements to enable travel between countries that have managed their cases, leading to the creation of ‘air bridges’ or ‘travel bubbles’.

It has become starkly apparent that tourism recovery requires active participation in a global community of intertwined health, diplomatic, economic and security authorities. Real recovery will only come from nations working in cooperation. Isolationism and inability to manage and mitigate public health will work against any destination.

Simply put, nobody will recover in isolation.

8. Mass Tourism: A thing of the past?

The sustainable future of post-COVID-19 travel is likely smaller scale, authentic and experiential.

In recent years, tourism economies have been built to scale, and the globalisation of the business community has led to the dominance of travel brands that operated on volume models. This created the commoditisation of travel as a mass-market product.

Before COVID-19, cracks were already forming in such models of mass tourism. The genuine threat of over-tourism and the resultant anti-tourism movement in Europe created a global distaste and rising disinterest in high-volume travel. Emergent millennial travellers began using technology to seek out authentic, small scale experiences, while increasingly more reports about the “Invisible Burden” of mass tourism on the environment have become mainstream.

COVID-19 will accelerate technology-driven changes in travel. Combined with new health concerns, impact on personal wealth and renewed interest in domestic and regional tourism, we will likely see the scale and volume of travel reduce. It is doubtful that the amounts of travel required to support the mass travel industry will be feasible for several years, or that the firms that delivered it will have the ability to remain in business to meet those needs should they return.

9. The Future is Expensive

Mass tourism created experiences that were more affordable and accessible but less personal. Further, they were more crowded and more open to health risks.

The careful balance between volume and value always hinged on price. Though many destinations worked to build strategies to maximise financial yield while reducing impacts, market forces and the political drive for growth and employment saw an inevitable lowering of prices in return for higher visitor numbers.

As discussed above, COVID-19 may well reduce travel volumes for some time to come, possibly permanently. With smaller-scale travel comes higher prices. As a result, consumers may well need to be comfortable in travelling less while investing in more top quality, more personal experiences.

10. Experience is More Important than Hygiene

Finally, as the challenges of restarting travel are today’s reality, we must never lose sight of the importance of customer experience.

The temptation now is to make safe, hygienic travel a fundamental part of the travel equation, and to publicise this to attract visitors. This is the same mistake that was made after 9-11. Safety and security were never a marketing message; it was an assumption on behalf of the trade that guests needed overt reassurances to build confidence to travel.

COVID-19 health and hygiene are no different and should not be treated as a marketing message. Destination marketing videos featuring masked and gloved employees sterilising surfaces may be counterproductive. It is one thing to ensure a destination or business is well protected and secure, but no one would think to create a marketing video featuring heavily armed guards and police patrolling the streets or hotel grounds.

After the events of 2020, people will want to relax, explore and travel again. An opportunity to do so, and have a smaller, more valued experience from a destination that cares is what they need. That indeed shows us where the future is headed.

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