Last week I enjoyed taking part in a frank and open travel industry webinar, expertly chaired by Francesca Ecsery and hosted by Caroline Hayward of The Chairman’s Network. The timing was just after the government announcement about the first steps in easing the UK lockdown and the announcement of the 14 day UK quarantine for international travellers which so far excludes Ireland and the Channel Islands.
I expect those countries with very low cases of Covid-19 are lobbying the UK government to be added to the quarantine exemption list, as the potential benefits to their economies could be immense. Sometimes it takes a crisis to recognise the true scale of the impact that tourism has on a country’s economy.
Francesca opened the session with a few observations on the market trends as follows which included a few stark numbers but some glimmers of hope that there could be some recovery in certain markets:
The bad news in the US
- $33.4 billion losses so far in the US due to Covid-19
- 20.5 million job losses in the US and unemployment at 14.7%
Glimmers of hope in Europe
Europeans are still planning holidays and AirBNB was reported as seeing some signs of a rebound. In Denmark and the Netherlands bookings were reported to be at 90% of April 2019 levels, according to the Financial Times.
We know that travel is very aspirational and a key motivator and the one thing families are often loathe to do, even in times of hardship, is to forgo their annual holiday.
Build back better
Whilst some are predicting a year of staycations with our younger generation increasingly concerned about climate change, there are some governments (eg France) and cities such as Amsterdam starting to create templates for ensuring that sustainable travel is planned for.
Whilst many of us have enjoyed cleaner air during the lockdown, there are those in the airline industry claiming that C02 emissions from tourism are only 2.5% and less than meat production and airlines such as Air France are starting to use bio fuels.
There is wariness in the UK about travelling in a post covid-19 world and it's clear that it may be difficult to persuade the "Stay at Homers" to travel abroad after the end of lockdown. However the validity of travel vouchers often issued for one year, instead of refunds, may help to counter this reluctance. The stories of UK visitors stranded in overseas destinations will not have helped those fearing a second Covid-19 and subsequent shut down.
We’re seeing articles now proclaiming the attractions of UK destinations such as Morecambe Bay which are far less crowded and therefore more appealing. Those that can may also choose to travel out of season to avoid the crowds, which may be another opportunity for the travel industry.
These articles for lesser visited destinations will gain new audiences if established tourism areas shun visitors after lockdown or give the impression they are not welcome.
It was great to hear the views of all those present which included those working in markets as far afield as India and Australia. Whilst everyone was in agreement that the situation is unprecedented and no one has all the answers, there were a few common themes which emerged and it was a really thought provoking session.
Whilst some travel companies have actively called their customers and listened to their situation, others have ended up with jammed phone lines and no way for their customers to reach them, even removing phone numbers from their websites. This has led to greater customer frustration and anxiety, not to mention the stress this has caused for the call centre staff dealing with the situation on the ground. Those companies failing to listen to customers will struggle to win back their trust.
There is no doubt that trust which is often a fragile entity between consumer and company has been damaged. The ongoing situation between ABTA and Kane Pirie of Vivid on the hot topic of the customer right to a refund has drawn people’s attention to whether ATOL could actually afford to step in to rescue all companies which are at risk of insolvency, making any credit notes worthless in the event of a company failure.
Need for flexible booking policies
There was broad agreement that these were essential to reassure customers trying to plan future trips who may be forced to change their trips again, should the Covid-19 situation deteriorate again.
Increased focus on health and safety
Reassuring the customer that the right routines are in place to ensure their health and safety were also seen as mandatory and the UK government guidelines for employers now preparing their workplaces for a return to work may help with this.
There are of course still concerns about future liability regarding any employee that falls ill with Covid-19. The research on how Covid-19 is transmitted is still ongoing and incomplete and creates a challenge when trying to organise cleaning of properties on a same day turnaround if the virus can survive on surfaces for longer than a few hours.
Cleaning staff who are caring for elderly relatives will not want to expose their families to any risks, so the question of longer turnaround times for cleaning and supplying appropriate PPE for all cleaning staff is essential to consider.
Proactive customer communications and making a difference
One of the webinar attendees who works at a tour company mentioned that they had proactively called as many customers as possible to empathise and listen to their personal situation. They reported that this had been helpful in securing their goodwill. So whilst some companies might be stopping all communications during this Covid-19, others have found that this has been beneficial, as long as it’s not been overtly sales driven in nature.
Those travel businesses that have found a way to assist in the crisis are also far more likely to be building customer advocacy. I was heartened to read how Andy Hibbert and his team at KarShare had used their car sharing operation to provide cars for NHS staff during the crisis. So far they’ve assisted 623 car owners to donate their cars for use by NHS staff. Bold and innovative thinking which has made a positive contribution to so many NHS staff lives. Read more
Francesca mentioned the marketing of companies like Sandals and Kayak which have created virtual tours, language lessons and book and movie lists for their destinations with hashtags such as #Travelfromhome to keep their brand relevant.
A recent article from McKinsey on how marketing leaders can manage the crisis and plan for the future provides some insights into how consumer optimism changes, based on the lifestage of the virus. It makes some recommendations as to what type of communications can work during this unprecedented situation and is well worth a read and thank you to Francesca Ecsery for sharing this article.
Mario Gavira in Phocuswire this week plots out the first of four scenarios on how the post Covid-19 travel world might pan out.  He uses two dimensions relating to the economy and people’s behaviour which make sense as they’re very inter-related. I’m looking forward to reading them all and then deciding which one I think is most likely. Read more
What’s clear in all the crystal ball gazing is that there will be no return to normal as buying behaviours and attitudes have changed during this Covid-19 crisis and business travel as we knew it may never return.
Those companies that stay close to their customers and plan carefully for the changes we’re going to see in the post pandemic travel world are going to be the best placed to benefit.
What’s your view?
 How Marketing Leaders can both manage the coronavirus crisis and plan for the future. April 8, 2020 https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/how-marketing-leaders-can-both-manage-the-coronavirus-crisis-and-plan-for-the-future?cid=soc-web
 Possible futures for a post pandemic travel industry Part 1 May 19, 2020 https://www.phocuswire.com/Futures-radically-different-travel-industry-part-1
View all articles