During this year’s ASTA Convention, which we are attending virtually this week, Sandra McLemore, travel TV host and president of Travel Marketing & Media, opened up a general session on “What’s Next for Travel” by metaphorically comparing the past year-and-a-half to going through a shipwreck.
“For many travel advisors, your shipwreck came during the Gulf War, for others 9/11, and for all of us during the pandemic,” she said. “The start of the pandemic marked an important time for all of us. At first we thought it was two weeks, people stocked up on toilet paper and pasta, and those weeks turned into months, which turned into a year, which has now turned into over a year. This shipwreck has brought us to our knees leaving us to question, ‘How are we going to survive?’
“We wondered, ‘How long the revenue pools would last? How long it would be until we could pack our own bags and travel and our clients could go traveling? And, ultimately we wondered—‘Where to from here,’” said McLemore.
“You hunkered down, and instead of quitting, even when it felt super helpless, you pushed forward with your businesses. Some of you invested in learning and coaching, some of you put your process on automated, and some of you picked up the phone to call your clients to strengthen and maintain your relationships,” she added
“Though 2020 didn’t bring us the luxury of big revenue or travel, it gave us the luxury of time. We had time to reassess, to clean up, to set new goals, and make new habits. For the first time in our lives things slowed down enough to see things in our businesses with clarity. But that didn’t change the situation we were in; things were going to get harder before they would get better.
“To survive the past year, many of you were forced to work in new ways, in uncomfortable ways. For some of you it meant getting a job outside the travel industry. I know of a travel advisor who got a job bagging the groceries at her local grocery store. You had to do what you had to do to pay the bills. For others, it meant leaning in to things like social media or marketing. Those very things you have avoided your entire business because they were too techie, or too complex,” said McLemore.
Large businesses furloughed many people and eventually had to say goodbye to them. “It was ugly and it was uncomfortable, but you continued to embrace it. You rallied together in communities of travel advisors whether on Zoom or messenger and supported each other,” she said.
“Here we are at the beginning of the end. Ships are starting to sail. People are flying. Hotels have reopened. And here we are literally sitting next to each other. And though the full return to travel still feels like a long way, we have come so far. In the not too distant future we will have more clients sailing and flying. Our industry will rebound as it has every single time before…bigger and stronger. Though, I do see some bumps along the road as we recover.”
The Media Looks Forward to Travel Recovery
And, as we look forward to the recovery of travel, ASTA held a panel with media including: Wendy Gillette, reporter with CBS News, Corina Quinn, director, destination & travel guides, Conde Nast Traveler, and Julia Cosgrove, editor-in-chief, & v.p., Afar.
The panel began with a controversial topic with the question around vaccine, particularly the right of a travel business to ask for proof of vaccination status. Travel companies, like the Travel Corporation, have said that vaccination is now required for travel. So the question asked was, “Where are we headed?”
“I think it’s going to be a combination of governments, municipalities and private businesses…it’s going to get narrower and narrower the places a person can be without being vaccinated,” said Cosgrov. “I asked the v.p. of comms at United about vaccine mandates for travelers and he said they’re probably not equipped to handle that. But I’m curious about hotels, how does that work in practicality?”
Next, the panel was asked if they were concerned about quarantine and being stuck somewhere.
Gillette said, “Honestly, I choose the countries based on no quarantine. I’ve been tested probably 50 times, my husband has tested about 100 times.” When they traveled, Gillette said they stayed away from crowds, and when at resorts in Mexico wherever there were areas where people would be congregating, they would stay away from those, wore masks everywhere, and took precautions. “We never got COVID, and we got vaccinated,” she added.
For a trip to Greece that would end in Italy, she had to pivot and extend her time in Greece because Italy was making those coming from the U.S. who weren’t on a direct flight quarantine, so they altered their trip just two weeks before. “I imagine many of your clients are going through the same processes,” she said.
Regarding overtourism, which was an issue before the pandemic began, Quinn spoke about the changes she saw destinations take during this time to address these issues.
“I have seen a few different approaches in different countries. They had a chance to slow down and figure out how they wanted to handle overtourism going forward,” said Quinn. “We all know that the pent-up demand isn’t going to go away. The floodgates are open, and I think travelers are going to be too excited.”
“A few things we know…Venice is going to start charging day trippers to come in and out starting next year. Iceland did a really smart thing, they took this time to build infrastructure to alternates…they’re pushing the Diamond Circle and natural attractions that will force people to spend more than just a night. They also introduced a visa for international visitors. They can stay up to six months and work remotely, but in order to qualify you have to make more than $88,000 a year. They’re going after a qualitative traveler, who has the ability to stimulate the economy, and will have a more meaningful relationship with the country, so they’re not getting a heavy foot traffic of drop in and drop out without engaging with what the country has to offer.”
Next, they discussed the issue in the aviation and hospitality industry, where there doesn’t seem to be enough staff, or enough flights, to be able to get the travel industry back to where it once was.
Cosgrove said that on the airline side, United bought a flight school right before the pandemic began. “They’re on this thought that they have to be building the next generation of pilots and training them, so they thought, ‘Why not train them ourselves?’
“As far as hospitality, hotels and restaurants, I think there’s a shift afoot of the people who have been doing these jobs. I think they expect more and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how private companies respond to that. I think there’s a shift in thinking. Everybody’s had a lot of time to think about life, think about work, and suddenly that under minimum wage job suddenly isn’t the best opportunity at the moment.”
Quinn added, “A lot of people do think it’s the federal unemployment issue, but the unemployment rate has gone down and there are still so many businesses that are still strapped for employees. Obviously, a lot of them have probably gone into other industries.”
It was also noted that in states where the enhanced unemployment has ended, the issue has not gone away.
Now, when it comes to business travel, at first it seemed as though business travel wouldn’t rebound as quickly as leisure travel would return, or that it would never return the same because of technology such as video conferencing and Zoom.
“I think it’s hard to predict,” said Gillette.
Cosgrove added, “I do think business travel is going to change. I’m a little optimistic. I think people who were planning to travel in December, those dates will just get pushed out a couple of months. September moves to January, January moves to April. I think this is just a blip. I think by summer of 2022, things will have recalibrated into a new normal.
“But in terms of business travel, we [Afar] are now fully remote, we are a very small company; there are only about 45 of us. But we are now a fully remote organization. But the need to meet in person and not just be eight hours a day on a screen, is there. I see folks who maybe don’t have the same headquarters that they are used to, needing to get folks together. Again, it’s just trying to anticipate what the shift will look like, maybe it’s short term, maybe it’s long term.”
We all know with the shift, and shutdown to the travel industry during the pandemic, the way the media covered travel, also had to change. The panelists discussed their shift in the way they covered the industry, and what the public is looking for now when it comes to travel inspiration and travel stories.
“It was an interesting year, because we are primarily a leisure travel publication, and that stopped. We saw a shift in the types of things we would cover and the types of features we would run, weren’t top of mind,” said Quinn. “What we saw in our digital space was that as things started to reopen, and news of destinations, and vaccination protocols were announced, the stories that cut through it and cut to the chase such as stories like, ‘you want to travel to Italy, here are the protocols, here’s what you need, here’s who you can talk to,’ those started to explode. Then there was a second wave of those stories, ‘if you’re going to Italy, here are the new hotels, here are the new experiences, here are the destinations people are finding really popular.’ And what we were finding was that our readers just want to be able to cut through the chaos and make confident travel decisions.”
The same could be said about what your clients are looking for now in a travel advisor.
“They’re still more hungry for ‘what do I need to know and where can I go,’” added Quinn.
Cosgrove said it was the same for Afar. “News you can use, more service journalism—give them all the tiny little details. As people go back to dreaming about booking, they’re going to need to be guided along and everybody is in different places. The same is probably with your clients where there are some who are like ‘I’m going to be the first one to Malta or Italy or Greece,’ then there’s someone who is like ‘I don’t know, do I book here or there?’ I think there’s an opportunity for expertise, there’s so much noise and spouting of nonsense now, so trusted resources—there’s a market and an appetite for that. It’s a little psychological—find out where people are and meet them there.”
Is the topic of the pandemic over? When asked about the ASTA 2022 Convention, which takes place in San Francisco Aug. 24-26, all of the panelists said the pandemic will still be a main topic…possibly through 2025.
For more information, visit asta.org.
Also, check out: “Virtuoso—’Forward Momentum in Travel.”