I was not sure how it was all going to turn out and was somewhat curious. Here I was staring out at the English countryside and about to dip into the first virtual London World Travel Market (WTM).
Overall the WTM experience was a positive one and I’m sure they’ll be plenty of people like me that don’t miss the sore feet, long queues and crush on the tube to get home, so often a part of the Excel experience. Whilst the virtual experience does not match the face to face one, I can understand why some will not be going back to Excel.
Having been a regular visitor at the show for more than thirty years and having worked with some of the WTM team over the years too, I think the virtual WTM this year marks a watershed in the travel events industry.
Bricks and clicks approach to travel industry events
We have to get smarter about how we carry out our business travel and what better way than to start to ask whether the show still has relevance. If we want to demonstrate that the travel industry is serious about becoming more sustainable and responsible, then what better way than collaborating to show how we can reinvent these shows to be just that? Maybe it’s time to take a more serious look at the bricks and clicks approach to business travel in our own industry.
Sustainable business travel events
There was plenty of discussion about “over tourism” in places like Cornwall, Venice and Barcelona but are we not creating the same issues in London when we as an industry converge en masse on the city? London’s transport system can barely cope with the volume of Excel visitors. Is that not showing the world that the travel events industry is not willing to act any more responsibly? Local communities wrestle to make their daily commute as WTM takes over London every November.
An open source approach to sustainability
If there was one overwhelming theme to WTM it was that we have to “build back better” and that should start with the show itself. Whilst I did not have the technical issues that several exhibitors reported, I can see that there is scope for improving navigation and how things are done online with better search facilities, but most importantly there is a need to ramp up the sharing of learning on sustainability. To quote one speaker Matthew Upchurch of Virtuoso “we should consider taking an open source approach to sustainability across the travel industry.”
Sadly I missed the insights that I expected to find on how the travel industry is planning to build back better. Whilst it is reeling from the worst “undertourism disaster” ever in world history there were few case studies, examples or even charts to map our progress in becoming more responsible or building back better.
Lack of success stories in sustainable travel
I sat through three sustainability sessions and everyone lamented the lack of success stories and consumer buy in and wished for more transparency and sharing of experiences in moving to certification by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).
I tried to put myself in the shoes of a small hotelier listening to the conversation and could only assume that they’d come away more confused than before about what sustainability means and why they should certify their business.
Whilst I learned that there are about 70 GSTC enquiries a month about certification of which 50% go forward and an eventual 30% join the programme that suggests that progress is at a snail’s pace. We need to move to an open source solution to get real traction on sustainability in the travel industry. Some accused the certification process of being elitist as it prevents grass roots businesses from getting involved, which is where transformation can often happen.
Let the traveller signpost best practice in sustainability
I loved the idea put forward by Kelly Bricker at the University of Utah for a Citizen Science platform. Travellers could report on their travel experiences and how responsible and sustainable they found the places where they stayed and visited on this platform.
Consumer travel trends in the time of Covid
I was fascinated by some of the consumer research shared by the likes of Google, Expedia and YouGov. The Forward Keys research shows that the propensity for outbound travel from the UK is showing more resilience than inbound travel. The YouGov Vacation Dreams research[i] shows that the intended destinations favoured by each market are very different. The findings from Google on recent search and online booking behaviour demonstrate the need to be ready with campaigns when new travel corridors[ii] are opened up and people want to travel again.
Last minute booking and self-catering popular
It’s clear that there is a lot of pent up demand for travel but the time horizons for forward booking online shared by Expedia’s July research[iii] are quite short at 0-21 days from date of travel. Good news emerged for those in the “vacation rentals” business as this type of accommodation was the most popular for planned future leisure trips within 2-3 months (31%).
Pace of travel industry recovery in a post Covid world
Since WTM we’ve had the news of three potential new vaccines and we’ve finally got some government recognition that more needs to be done to support the travel industry which is encouraging. However the research shows that any travel recovery will be far slower than any post 9/11 comeback.
Only 16% of those in the Expedia July research showed an interest in flying in the next 2-3 months, 35% were neutral and just under half (49%) were uncomfortable with flying. Only 24% showed an interest in international travel and of those only 22% were interested in trips over 1,500 miles with more (62%) preferring to travel by car than plane, for their next overnight leisure trip.
How to encourage people to travel again
It’s clear that providing flexible booking policies, information to reassure travellers about health and safety measures and letting people know what activities and places are open at destination, are all essential to build greater confidence.
I’m sure we’ve all got our own personal horror stories to share about trying to reach travel companies to get refunds from our cancelled trips. Some in the travel industry have not done themselves any favours and it will take time to rebuild the damaged trust.
Ways to rebuild travel confidence
I was interested to learn that some destinations and organisations are doing so much more to build confidence to travel. Jamaica[iv] is launching a compulsory $40 fee this month on all travel there to provide travel insurance for all visitors.
Some tour operators like Travel Republic[v] are also including travel insurance or reducing the size of travel deposits to entice people to make a booking. Some of our clients have reengineered their business entirely to cater to their domestic market or run campaigns to target emerging segments such as the digital nomads, who are happy to work from anywhere.
Whilst the travel corridors enabled some people to travel, they only saved 1 in 10 holidays this summer from the UK, according to ABTA.[vi] What is clear is that when a country joins a travel corridor those travel companies serving that country have to be quick to react and have their campaigns ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Something that Google was quick to promote as an opportunity at WTM this year.
What’s your view?
What are you doing to encourage people to travel? Do you have your campaigns ready at a moment’s notice for when destinations open up to visitors?
What was your experience of the first virtual WTM this year? Are you happy to swap your sore feet for a virtual experience or do you yearn for the face to face WTM experience?
Do share your views or contact us if you need help getting those campaigns ready or reshaping your business to cater to new emerging markets.
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[ii] Travel corridors were established when countries could be visited without UK travellers having to quarantine on their arrival in the destination market or on their return to the UK.
[iii] Expedia Traveller Sentiment Study July 2020 https://bit.ly/3nYBwGW