Limited visibility, having a plan is more important than ever
In any limited visibility scenario, a plan and/ or strategy needs to be developed that can raise the chances of success under complex circumstances. COVID-19 has recalibrated the world and the tourism sector is one of the hardest hit. The most difficult question to answer objectively right now is: How long will the recovery take before we return to 2019 levels? There is no going back to 2019, but we do have an opportunity to lay a new path leading to a recovery by the sector built on solid foundations for growth over the next decade. It will be a long and slow process but one with chances to renew, innovate and reinvent the travel experience from top to bottom, while always considering the safety of consumers and our partners.
We are in the middle of a transformational event. The sector is going through a process for which damage limitation plans are needed. COVID-19 is a huge challenge. We don’t stand a chance against it alone but united we are a very strong adversary with effective weapons that will enable recovery times to be accelerated; but only if we work together, public and private sectors as one.
Four hefty pillars need to be erected as soon as possible to achieve that recovery.
Implementing these protocols is a bridge to reducing contagion and virus spread
Medical/health control stability
Close monitoring of trends in the unpleasant figures on contagion, hospital admittance, deaths, recovery. Faster testing, but alongside a technology-based track & trace system. This will enable us to reduce the risks of a second or third wave.
The lockdown was a tough test for consumers. The slow and steady reopening process is cautious but a lack of discipline in consumers due to social restrictions that lasted 90 days or more is the main reason why measures on social distancing, the use of face masks and constant hand washing are not respected. Albeit cautious in cases for reactivating the economy, the reopening process will no doubt lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases and these will be more prevalent in young people. We will need to get through a long trial and error period before we can stabilize our control over the virus.
Rebuilding consumer confidence
We need to protect our consumers, employees and partners, as well as our destinations. This is the motto to be followed. Perfect implementation is not on the cards, but firm and steady steps forward will help build confidence in our various target audiences. Safe travel is the new driver.
The key factors to building that confidence include:
• Implementation of hygiene and sanitization protocols throughout the travel industry, beginning with the airports of origin, airlines, destination airports, road transportation, hotels and apartments, as well as the tourism trade in general.
• There will be a temptation to ease protocols, but we should avoid doing that. Consumers will lack the discipline needed to follow the rules, but we should try to delicately force them. Although rebellious, consumers will appreciate and have confidence in our tourism product if they see we are serious and disciplined.
• Federal and local certificates are important. Mexico has a solid reputation in this regard. These certificates can be complemented by others from certain organizations, such as the CDC and the WHO. Additional certificates might include ones launched by companies and hotel groups. These seals of quality can help build confidence, but we should avoid over-certification as it can suggest they are too easy to obtain and therefore meaningless. At the end of the day, implementing these protocols is a bridge to reducing contagion and virus spread.
The economic recovery that has affected all markets and most consumers
The impact on unemployment and the deteriorating financial health of companies and governments has been unprecedented. All the numbers coming out of every country are disconcerting. Tough decisions on successfully balancing public health and economic health are at the top of the agenda for public and private sector leaders. 2020 is a year of learning and transition. 2021 will be the trial year that will allow us to see whether we were able to learn and implement the right strategies to begin the economic recovery. Consumption has been severely impacted. Let’s remember that twothirds of global GDP figures are represented by consumption.
On the other hand, the virus has created a delayed demand that we should approach carefully. Solid baby steps will reward us with the best results. Opening the floodgates to large-scale demand will not. Protocols need to be put in place to ensure we don’t go back into lockdown. The economic recovery is closely tied to a health recovery.
Market and consumer behavior in the tourism sector suggest that the first stage of the recovery will come from short-distance domestic overland trips. Internationally speaking, short-distance trips will start to recover first; i.e. flights in the order of 2-4 hours. This means that Mexican destinations like Los Cabos, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta/Riviera Nayarit and Mazatlán will begin to recover first. Leisure trips will be first, followed by business travel. Low density destinations will be preferred during this first stage. Bubble markets have banded together to boost regional travel, such as the Balkans (Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia), where few cases have been recorded. Greece, Italy and Spain have reopened cautiously. Greece is forcing all visitors arriving by air to be tested.
The meetings industry is facing the greatest recovery challenges. This industry is essential for boosting the economy in certain countries because of the spillover it generates. Leaders in this sector need to be made aware that organizing events under the afore-mentioned precautions is entirely possible. Institutions, companies, corporations and governments must suddenly decide whether to hold their sessions and events in the short term or organize them under the necessary protocols. Organizations such as the GTBA (Group Travel Business Association) have spoken out in this regard. The MICE industry (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) requires a specific reinvention initiative to ensure its events continue to be held.
The cruise industry is facing significant risks due to the nature of its business and high density of its operations. Nonetheless, although 60% of those interviewed in various surveys confirmed that they will not reactivate their bookings until a vaccine is available, 50% of the bookings that were cancelled in the last 90 days did not ask for a refund but simply postponed their travel dates, once again demonstrating the loyalty towards this type of tourism product and the strength of this industry.
The aviation sector – a fundamental part of this industry – has undoubtedly been among the hardest hit and faces monumental challenges involving underused equipment stock due to a severe drop in demand, a perception of high density in the travel experience that suggests contagion might be possible, and a slow and gradual return of demand for travel over the next 18-24 months, to mention just a few. However, the vast majority of airlines have
been supported financially by their respective governments, enabling them to survive in the short term. It is imperative for destinations and stakeholders in the tourism sector at large to make huge efforts to boost demand, which will in turn accelerate a rescue for this sector of vital importance to the tourism industry. The size of the aviation sector will shrink – despite any economic support – but we trust it will return renewed and stronger.
Promotion. Last but not least
Consumers have changed, so communication must also change. Traveler habits and behavior have changed and the buttons that need to be pushed to establish dialogue and build loyalty have also changed. They need to be re-examined. Travel decision drivers will be affected by new considerations related to confidence and health under non-intrusive protocols.
Empathy with them will be more important and messages will need to inspire protection during the travel experience without affecting the – albeit redesigned – experience.
Socializing is an essential part of tourism, and we are setting rules that place limits on that activity. Innovation in how to socialize differently will need to be one of the things focused on by the sector. We can develop it.
More than ever, we need to point the arrows in the right direction and everyone in the tourism sector needs to work together. This will not be a V-shaped recovery, but it will be solid and reasonably paced. There is a lot of meat on the bones of our sector. The industry came to a full stop, and now comes the reboot. We have always come back stronger in the past; this will be no exception.