Just as the ‘War on Terror’ changed travel and tourism forever, COVID will be changing travel for a long time to come.
But the legacy of COVID is not the only complexity facing the travel industry after 2022. The global lockdown, apart from making people more interested in travel than ever before, also concentrated attention on slow-burn topics such as climate change, runaway inflation and the need for diversity and representation.
As soon as the world’s pent-up travel demand was released at the end of a two-year stretch of isolation, social distancing, masks, sanitising and vaccination certificates, a tidal wave of travellers washed over an under-prepared travel industry. Flight delays and cancellations, missing luggage, lack of communication, botched itineraries.... social media was sizzling with the frustrations of stranded or disappointed customers.
The problem was two-fold. As travellers eagerly lined up for their long-delayed holidays, reunions and wanderings, they expected a travel industry that was just as eagerly waiting for their return.
It came to a surprise to everyone that airlines, hotels, tour operators and service providers had not recovered from their own slump. Venues had closed, staff had been laid off, entities ticked over with skeleton crews, supply chains had been truncated.
Resilient tourism industry
The good news is that the travel industry is the most resilient on earth. Just as it has adapted and recovered before, it will do so again. Many customers are determined to continue travelling, and they are prepared to negotiate the complexities of the new world of post-COVID travel. But at the same time the travel industry is expected to meet them halfway in terms of pricing, flexibility, communication and responsiveness.
The greatest source of stress is the famously-opaque airline industry – to the extent that more than 40% of all travel complaints concern airlines.
“There are so many forms to fill in for flying,” said one respondent to the TNL poll. “I am worried that I miss something on the forms that is only discovered when I get to the boarding gate, and then I miss my flight.”
“I am determined to go travelling again,” said another, “but I am wondering if I should not delay until things become more certain.”
Business travellers, particularly, are concerned about sudden surprises. According to a survey conducted by American Express, almost three quarters of UK executives experienced recent delays or cancellations and almost half declared that they would cancel a business trip if there was a chance of a travel disruption.
Uncertainty is the main worry for potential travellers, particularly at the airport. Cancellations and delays are dreaded mostly because of the challenges of airline staff communicating a rapidly-evolving state of affairs to a dispersed and panicking set of passengers.
What does the increased appetite for travel mean for the travel industry?The good news for travel professionals is that almost half of the world’s population with the means to travel have decided that embarking on a trip is the most effective way to shake off the cobwebs of lockdown. Read more about that here.
So what can the travel industry do to mitigate the added worries of the post-COVID, mid-climate change, increasingly-expensive world of travel?
Delays and cancellations almost invariably carry a cost implication, whether they are missed connections, delayed hotel bookings or forfeited events. Travellers would be greatly reassured if they knew that they could be refunded or rebooked. Most travellers polled indicated that they would opt for flexible travel arrangements that would allow sudden changes without penalties.
A global pre-occupation is value for money. While travellers are prepared to spend, and many have travel budgets, some travel costs are viewed as grudge purchases, like airline tickets, travel transfers or unnoticed extras. Potential clients would like to know what they are paying for, so they can be reassured that they are getting what they pay for.
Navigating this post-COVID world is not only about post-COVID. The new traveller is more cautious, discerning and cost-conscious. The travel industry is expected to be more flexible, responsible, communicative and diverse. It’s a new road for both, and it can be a journey to be shared.