The great news from Europe last Wednesday, that the European Union will allow vaccinated vacationers back this summer, could not have come at a better time as there is no doubt we are seeing and hearing of booking momentum. Everyone I talk to is focused on forward bookings, staffing challenges, and other immediate-term issues. It’s an exciting time, if still chaotic and frustrating. It’s important to keep one eye on the future, as we build for coming success. What are the broader lessons we’ve learned in the past year-and-change that are worth holding onto? What wisdom can we use for our businesses in the future, but also guide our everyday thinking?
I was fortunate enough to hear from many of our industry’s top minds at a recent virtual travel leadership roundtable, where we discussed some of what we’ve learned from the pandemic. Here are some of the key takeaways.
LESSON 1: HUMAN CONNECTION IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.
Family, friendships, business relationships — all were put to the test during the pandemic, and I think we will come out valuing them more than ever before. In many organizations, Zoom calls “leveled the playing field” amongst employees and enabled more authentically personal connections. We should continue to forge those bonds. Josh Leibowitz, who was named President of Seabourn last summer, said that virtual meetings let him speak one-on-one with team members who would never even meet him in normal times. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t know that I would have had that level of presence and engagement, and the opportunity to connect,” he said.
Many of us have relied on the emotional support of colleagues to get through the pandemic — another way that business relationships have evolved. “Self-care is not a passive thing,” said Matthew Upchurch, Chairman and CEO of Virtuoso. “The power of community and the collaboration teams we had were pragmatic, but they also created a lot of emotional support.” Those relationships extend to consumers as well. Virtuoso and its Members and Advisors kept customers engaged on a personal level through good old fashioned phone calls, virtual events and the new digital tools like Wanderlist that gamified the fun in dreaming of travel. Upchurch also pointed out that travel advisors’ value, as a ‘specialist in you [the traveler]’, has been magnified in an environment where complexity and trust (I got you) are more important than ever. With trust being a very human to human feeling.
- The Takeaway: Continue fostering the person-to-person relationships that sustained you and your business during the pandemic. It may be one of the only truly beautiful things to come out of it.
LESSON 2: TECHNOLOGY ISN’T ALL BAD.
This is a corollary to Lesson 1: The pandemic taught us that, when used right, technology can actually improve our personal relationships — not just turn us into smartphone-staring automatons. “When people think about digital, they often think DIY, cutting out the human,” said Upchurch. “But we’ve also seen the utilization of digital to amplify a human connection.” For instance, the use of videoconferencing has augmented the power of personality given only 7% of communication are the words spoken, the rest is body language, intonation, etc.
Zoom, of course, has put us in rooms together virtually, where we can watch each other’s body language, intonations, and facial expressions — leading to clearer understanding and stronger attachments. “We’re more connected now because of Zoom,” said Caroline MacDonald, Group Vice President of Sales, Marketing, Distribution and Business Performance at Rosewood Hotel Group. “Doing something virtually is not viewed as ‘phoning it in.’ This adjustment is going to make us smarter and more judicious with our time. It’s been an industrial revolution.”
- The Takeaway: As we return to the days of in-person meetings and trade shows, take advantage of virtual meetings and other technologies to better manage your time. The more efficient we are, the more our human strengths can shine through.
LESSON 3: VALUE THE COUNTRY YOU ARE IN.
Globalization contributed to the pandemic, and while it’s not going away, domestic trends may take the driver’s seat for a while. Countrification is what James McBride, Partner & CEO at Nihi Hotels in Indonesia, calls it: “Within each country, the travel of their respective inhabitants has changed the dynamic for many businesses.” Those of us who rely largely on international feeder markets may need to adjust how we address the domestic consumer. That means examining everything from public holidays to attitudes about the pandemic to whether your marketing materials are in the local languages. Last year, McBride was dismayed to realize that Nihi’s website was not even available in the Indonesian language, at a time when his only guests were domestic. “Sometimes you have to shake your head when you see how programmed we were to the world we were living in.” The website was changed immediately, which has resulted in Nihi overperforming in the market.
The strength, size, and resilience of domestic markets surprised many of us during the pandemic. And they may continue to sustain many of us for some time, while long-haul trips take longer to recover. McBride says that far-flung destinations like Nihi Sumba need to adjust their outlooks. “It was hard enough to get people to these so-called ‘mystical locations’ in the normal era. Now it’s going to be even harder.”
- The Takeaway: Whether your business depended on long-haul arrivals or not, it’s critical that your marketing, sales, and messaging are all attuned to the domestic and closer-in markets. In other words, love the one you’re with.
LESSON 4: YOU HAVE TO GO WITH THE FLOW
It was humbling to watch the virus take over the world for the better part of a year before we finally started wrestling back control. Even now, inconsistent vaccination rates and outbreaks will lead to an uneven recovery. Travel is still largely driven by policy. Local labor markets have been disrupted. There’s not much we can do to control any of that.
The upshot is we must remain nimble. “We really have to have a ‘flow’ mindset,” said Leibowitz, who said Seabourn opened its itineraries through 2023 far earlier than usual. “That’s when people were comfortable with traveling, so we said, let’s just go with the flow.” Seabourn also launched ships this summer in the Southern Caribbean and Greece, where they could vaccinate crew and travel island-to-island.
In the United States, travelers who have been flocking to Miami and visiting luxury national park lodges since last summer are now ready to visit Europe — arriving with a set of expectations that may not be able to be met. They too will need to go with the flow, which means we need to manage those expectations. “Many clients are ready to travel to Greece and Croatia and the South of France. Some will be in the Miami mindset, anticipating an unrestricted experience, but the EU suppliers and destinations are still going to be figuring it all out,” said Bobby Zur of Travel Artistry. “I anticipate we’ll be doing a lot of triage in real time if we don’t manage expectations on the front end.”
Suppliers will also need to adjust both operations and expectations as they contend with the challenges of staffing back up. “You can’t just open for the sake of opening,” said one leading hotelier. “You have to be able to provide the services and experiences that guests expect.” Your business will have to adapt to the often challenging realities of the local labor market, potentially offering fewer services, but more genuine hospitality. In other words, dust off your training manuals.
- The Takeaway: Build flexibility into your operations, so you can react nimbly to travel restrictions, divergent customer expectations, labor shortages, and other factors beyond your control.
LESSON 5: SUSTAINABILITY REMAINS A HUGE TOPIC.
There are two reasons for this. One is that an enormous amount of pent-up demand is about to crash into a severely compressed amount of supply — which means overtourism will once again be on everyone’s minds. As we look forward to the “Roaring Twenties,” we must be careful not to crash the ship. Destinations from Amsterdam to Hawaii are grappling with how to make this a “conscious comeback,” a responsible recovery.
At the same time, topics of sustainability, overtourism, and global warming are looming large among consumers. Much of the push is generational, but Upchurch says it’s also because the travel product has gotten so good that expectations are shifting. “As the baseline of quality continues to improve and becomes less discernible, consumers are starting to make choices based on something beyond what they know they’re going to get,” he said. “And a lot of those things are values: sustainability, how you treat your employees, more emotive and purpose-driven factors.” And he points out, “It’s not a question of clients asking about sustainability per se, it’s a question of leadership, when an Advisor can orchestrate a great experience AND make it easy for the affluent to make a positive difference they have put themselves in a new category.”
Pandemic or no, these issues are here to stay. “The threat of climate change and overtourism is a far greater risk to our industry than the current COVID crisis — and not something a vaccine can fix,” said Jannes Soerensen, former General Manager at the Beaumont in London.
- The Takeaway: There will be a post-pandemic boom, which we should celebrate and enjoy. But we should rebuild in a way that addresses the longer-term problems threatening our industry.
What about you? What are the most valuable lessons you learned during the pandemic, and how do you plan to apply them moving forward? Let’s keep the conversation going!