If you’re wondering what travel post-COVID-19 will look like—Where is travel heading? What are the trends? Who is booking now as some destinations and hotels slowly reopen?—we have some answers for you.
Yesterday, Recommend participated in a town hall session with members of ASTA’s board of directors,
Zane Kerby, ASTA president and CEO, noted that he spoke to ASTA’s outside research team, which is surveying consumers every two weeks, and he says they reinforced the idea that many consumers have stronger concerns about societal issues right now than they do about their own personal economic decisions. Adding that “though that may cause them to avoid travel to large cities in the near term, many are exhausted by the quarantine and restless to get out and see the world.”
So what are these consumers planning and who are they?
“On the corporate side, they’re itching to go, it’s starting slower than I thought,” said Dave Hershberger, ASTA board chair and president of Prestige Travel Leaders, Inc. “I initially thought corporate would be the first ones back into travel. On the vacation side, boy there’s pent-up demand and pent-up interest. We’re getting so many requests, [we’re] not doing many bookings, but we’ve gotten a lot of requests.” He added that people call saying they want to go to Hawaii as soon as possible or to the Dominican Republic. “There’s a lot of interest right now and I think as soon as we get some help from the CDC, I think we will see a real burst of travel again,” he said.
Denise Jackson, ASTA corporate advisory council, and president and CEO of Balboa Travel, Inc., noted that most of her business comes from corporate meetings & incentives. “On the meetings side,” she said, “large meetings have cancelled for the obvious reasons. We’re seeing more of a demand for virtual meetings. We’ve had to recreate that area overall. We’ve entered into new partnerships with virtual technology companies to be able to create the technology beyond Zoom and Go To meetings for more of an experience type. For our corporate customers, we’ve spent a lot of time providing COVID information for them. And we’ve created a desk just for them that is getting information out. That seems to be the biggest piece—a lot of questions and information we’re providing on the account management side. They’re really trying to determine beyond their essential travelers that have to go, what liabilities are still in place.”
Jackson added that, “They’re frustrated over international travel and when Level Fours will go down, and how the schedules with airlines will play into that. It’s not just the CDC saying ‘go,’ but when are the airlines going to have capacity and the ability with the schedules to get them where they need to go. It’s all suppliers that have to play in to make sure that we can get out there on the road.” She added that customers are asking, “’Are restaurants open? Are hotels up to speed?’ It’s not just about is a hotel clean. It’s the surrounding area…what’s going to be open? Is there a car, is there Uber? What services are available? We’re working on a regular basis with communication and it’s a higher demand than ever before.
“Bottom line is our customers are still there; they haven’t left us. They’re just not traveling. They’re anxious to go. The question is just if international is going to go before domestic. And, I think Dave is right, we felt that some of the corporate travel will go before the leisure travel, but the leisure is definitely coming back to us and starting to book,” she said.
Jackson added that she’s hearing more families wanting to travel together than before. “But that also presents a problem because it has to do with whether they can all go together and where can they go. We’re starting to see the sales out there. I saw today a Crystal Cruise [offer] that was an amazing price in the Caribbean that I’d never seen before. The deals are there, but it’s the question, ‘Am I going to get stuck on a ship? Am I going to be able to take the entire family? Can we all sit down for dinner at the same time? Are we going to have to keep social distance?’ We’re having to become the experts. All our travel advisors are dealing with the same thing out there, but every one wants to book and get going.”
Marc Casto, vice chair and secretary for ASTA board of directors and senior v.p. of FCM Travel Solutions USA, added, “For us, leisure travel is definitely leading the way out of this. I agree with Denise, this is a chicken or the egg situation. Which will open up first? Is it going to be the traveler demand? Is it the regulations? Is it airline capacity? All of those have to work in tandem. But, I believe that the critical element is that the traveler interest has to resurface and that’s going to open the doors for things to come.”
Who is Looking to Travel?
Casto noted that FCM Travel Solutions is noticing an increase in search activity on their website or e-commerce platforms. He said, “So people are back looking, obviously at very diminished levels, but any kind of positive trend, is a positive trend.
“There are two different segments that are starting to show some positive growth. The first is the destination group, specifically the wedding market,” he said. “Apparently, being pent-up for the last couple of months has been very good for the wedding industry. The other side is our student universe—focused on student travel—we’ve actually hit some critical transaction numbers just this last week,” said Casto. Adding that, “Millennials themselves have been showing more of an interest to get on the road than other demographics. They’re certain to push the envelope a little further, as they always do, and will push the envelope a little further in the travel area and they’re starting to open up some new destinations for us.”
Supply & Demand?
“Let’s talk a little more about demand,” Kerby noted. “Bringing a plane back into the sky is a challenge. It’s not a snap your fingers and it happens tomorrow. There are a lot of things that need to be calibrated to bring a plane back, plus any plane that’s been sitting for more than 30 days has to go through a recertification program with the FAA, so do pilots. So the idea of demand returning with air is a real challenge, and I think we might see some lag there.”
Jackson responded, pointing out that if a vaccine is found and the CDC puts measures in place, we’ll start seeing a flow again. Adding that, “I think what customers are struggling with is that companies are struggling over when to send their employees and the possibility of contacting COVID, or it being fatal, and the liability for that. They want to be sure that their employee is safe, and that all the suppliers along the way are ready and able to get them across the country if necessary in the best possible way.
“Some of what we’re hearing from the airlines is about avoiding the middle seat, and if you’re not comfortable you can cancel. But, what we’re all not educated on is, if you cancel that middle seat, you might not get on the flight for two weeks. That’s not going to work in the corporate environment for those of us who are selling corporate travel. You’ll miss your meeting. It has got to be up and running and make sense,” she added.
“The unknown is the problem. A vaccine would be extremely helpful because then that takes everything out of the equation,” continued Jackson. “The problem is we can’t really plan, because we don’t know. We’re seeing positive numbers, they’re not great numbers, but we are able to see positive numbers.”
Jackson recalled that as a board they were asked where they thought we would be in June. “I don’t think any one of us got it right,” she said.
Is Social Distancing Enough?
Kerby asked the group if they had a sense of if measures put forth by the CDC and social distancing would be enough for travelers
Casto said, “I would say those are all necessary components. But, in and of themselves, they’re not sufficient. We need some liability reform associated with this. California is now on a presumption stage. Where, if you get COVID, you’re presumed to have gotten it in your workplace. That’s going to impact the return to work strategies for many different companies. And the ability and willingness for people to travel for business purposes. So we need some of these regulatory components to be addressed to encourage a more positive environment for economic return,” adding that, “The steps that ASTA has been taking for this is very beneficial. Not just for the corporate travelers, but also for any of those who engage with them.”
What is the New Travel Trend?
“Will the pandemic cause permanent shifts in travel demand on the leisure side, asked Kerby, “Will RVs replace Paris and the pyramids?”
“No,” said Hershberger. “I don’t think so, but I think there will be a growing demand for domestic trips—one of my favorite destinations to travel to is any one of the 62 national parks. I think for the short-term, the domestic will far outpace international. But there’s nothing like seeing the pyramids, there’s nothing like seeing the Louvre. The National Parks are great, and there’s a lot to see in the United States, but there’s something about going to another culture that changes you. It broadens your horizons, it really changes how you view the world when you travel internationally. I don’t think that’s going to be a major change.”
Casto added, “If people wanted to travel just to see sites, save thousands of dollars, go to Google and type in pyramids, and you see all the pyramids and photos from every angle much better than any photo you can possibly take. But that doesn’t satisfy anything. That doesn’t address what it is or the why we travel
“It’s going to be diminished for the present, but it will come back. There’s no question it will come back. People need to see the world; people need to connect; people need to experience. That’s a hard wiring in our DNA as the need for water, the need for sun, to get our vitamin D and anything else; it will resume.”
What are Employees doing?
As far as how these business leaders are managing their current work environment, Jackson said she took advantage of one of the PPP Loans and brought back all of her staff. “We didn’t have a lot of transactions for them to go through so we focused on training, which we do regularly anyway. Most of our agents are virtual anyway. We had some tech projects they worked on. Our agents know how to use technology, but they don’t know how to build it, or why they’re supposed to use it. We educated them on a lot of the technology the agents are using. We created a COVID desk and redeployed agents on that. The sales team did presentations for them so they could see what the sales presentations were like. And, we did some community service with senior citizen groups where they sang opera and broadway for them. And, we had them hone in on any certifications they needed to do.”
“Training has been very important,” added Hershberger. “We now have time to do things we didn’t have time for back in February. Do things make sense? Can we clean something up? We’ve looked into a lot of our operations. Because of the PPP, I have people working with about 10 percent of the workload. We have a lot of time to be a little more creative,” he noted. “A little more time to think about things. We’re reaching out to past customers, not to sell them on anything right now, but to see how they’re doing. Let them know we’re going to be here for you at the end of this.”
Jackson added, “I encourage you to go to those customers willing to give you time, and give you insight on what they’re looking for and what you can do differently. It’s amazing the intel you’re getting that you can bring back to your business, and make decisions that otherwise you may have gone in the wrong direction. It’s enabled us to make a plan moving forward, because if you talk to enough customers, you’re hearing the same thing over and over. Because they have learned to live in a new model, and we need to be prepared for that—not what we think is the new model, but what they think is the new model, because they’re going to pay us at the end of the day.”