Voyage into the unknown: 6 key post-Covid considerations for travel & transport brands

As the travel & transport universe begins to assess the irreversible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s already clear that uncharted waters lie ahead.

Those that make it to shore will need to adapt, specifically to the changing demands of new types, or 'tribes' of traveller – as familiar consumer archetypes evolve beyond recognition in the months and years ahead.

Throughout this series we’ll explore how the industry must respond through the lens of financial, technological, psychological and environmental factors. What will have the biggest implications on how we service a post-pandemic sector, and where do new opportunities lie for travel providers? 

In this introductory examination we highlight the emergence of key new consumer groups which we’ll explore on our journey, as we ask how travel brands must begin to reimagine a new normal.

The crisis has proved eye-opening for any organisation which entered 2020 unconvinced on the legitimacy of remote working.

Travel firms must focus on reselling the value of business travel.

The crisis has proved eye-opening for any organisation which entered 2020 unconvinced on the legitimacy of remote working. Having seen on a wide scale video call technology replace the demand for physical presence – even if for a few months – the value placed on proximity is already irreversibly diminished.

From here, anything that can be done remotely, will be – as large firms opt to capitalise on an expanding array of virtual options in favour of cost savings.

A weighty, new onus will be placed on airlines, rail and hospitality services to remarket and resell the idea of business travel, both domestically and crucially, internationally. Stakeholders will require greater convincing that the volume of journeys booked pre-COVID remain a necessity, in an age where the stock of that ‘personal touch’ has crashed to an all-time low.

The ability to creatively and cost-effectively reposition business travel – responsible for up to 75% of airline industry profits – must be prioritised when the airways reopen.

we’ll see a growing desire to travel again – but for a significant sub-set

A new breed of cautious traveller will keep social distancing front-of-mind. 

No sector will welcome the lifting of draconian social distancing measures with more gusto than travel and hospitality. But it would be naïve – if not financially ruinous – to presume society will shun our newfound isolatory habits without a moment’s thought.

Yes, we’ll see a growing desire to travel again – but for a significant sub-set, the narrative of those first forays away will be led by what’s come before. These cautious travellers will be led by an increased awareness of personal space, an heightened preference for family time, and a new propensity for personal protection. Many of those used to holidaying in groups or in large complexes will convert to bespoke home stays, employing personal travel solutions where available.

For this new tribe, trust in the industry will waver. They’ll drive to locations where possible, book and organise trips for themselves – taking every step possible to remain in control of their own situation. Better that than put themselves at the mercy of hotel chain complexes, cruise liners or indeed any holiday or travel types synonymous with mass containment of people.

Fear is a huge factor in the wake of the unknown – if we don’t know what caused something, how can we avoid it? In the aftermath of world-changing events like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and London 7/7, fear drove an immediate decline in travel which, although relatively short-lived, signposts a demand for entirely new, personalised options.

Technological innovations being made in facilitating new personal transportation alternatives have never looked more timely – another pressing topic that we’ll be addressing.

Once international travel reopens for business, an ever-expanding tribe will act on this renewed sense of eco-consciousness, voting with their feet.

A resurgent ethical agenda will kickstart a new staycation boom.

One much-heralded positive of global lockdown has been a huge, and crucially, demonstrable improvement in air quality – shared in satellite images and heat maps the world over. Travellers who keep the environmental agenda close to their heart will be keen to harness this momentum and spearhead serious change in public attitude to travel and ethical responsibility – but how will they fare?

Once international travel reopens for business, an ever-expanding tribe will act on this renewed sense of eco-consciousness, voting with their feet. Not only will the reality of having lived through a separate global crisis be fresh – the fact the virus specifically attacked the respiratory system will not be lost on a collective conscience, already bemoaning desperately poor air quality levels. 

And then there’s the evidence. The new statistics; the images of a utopian world where long-distance travel, if only for a few months, was only made by necessity. These are the images to be held up as irrefutable guidance that climate change isn’t something that can be put off. A reaction will follow.

The pandemic adds its name to an expanding list of factors which have given rise to the humble ‘staycation’ in just the last few years – heatwaves, Brexit, the weak pound, overseas terror attacks and the climate issue itself – as more UK travellers ditch holidaying abroad for breaks closer to home. 

Airlines and other transport giants need take note. Ethical travellers will be back with purpose, and they’ll no longer make up a fledgling demographic.

A chance to capitalise, as traditional traveller markets re-evaluate options.

All travel and transport sub-sectors will need to engage in post-COVID firefighting, but for some the battle will be bigger than for others. The cruise industry established itself as an early headline-maker in the midst of the outbreak – its older, more susceptible demographic and close-quarters habitat proving a particularly undesirable combination.

In the short-term, cruise operators must come out of their comfort zone in order to stay afloat. The industry’s lifeblood is its loyal clientele, many of whom have formed annual habits but find themselves on the more severe end of lockdown for the foreseeable future. Even when social distancing enforcement subsides, a seed has been sown and cruising’s vulnerabilities temporarily exposed. As the chasing pack – traditional seaside resorts, holiday camps and secluded, rural destinations – vie for the attentions of would-be cruisers, it’s time for the sector’s big players to act fast and develop new means of filling dwindling decks.

A similar conundrum awaits popular parts of Mediterranean Europe. Italy and Spain have been among the countries most devastated by COVID-19, with normality sadly looking a far-off reality. When travel restrictions lift only those regions which can demonstrate reasonable recovery, or which weren’t as badly-hit in the first place, will attract the usual throngs.

If regular travel is back in play this winter, expect the likes of Scandinavian countries, less affected by the virus and able to capitalise on ‘winter wonderland’ sentiment to take the driving seat. Meanwhile, opportunity lives in the likes of Greece, Egypt and Tunisia to prosper in the wake of Spain’s grim misfortune.

When consumers feel in control, their worries about the state of the world and propensity to be cautious with money are eased.

Fairweather frivolity will take a backseat to stability, in the face of deep recession. 

In response to COVID-19 major governments, including those of the UK and US, have been forced to unlock headline levels of financial support to keep limping economies on two feet. While initiatives like state-backed furloughing, enforced pay-cuts and unpaid leave may well prove to protect many jobs, the long-term reality remains deep recession.

In the UK, consumer confidence levels had started to rebound from years of Brexit-led uncertainty, with a palpable sense of optimism returning to the high street, housing market and beyond. Now, with national debt forecast to reach as high as 100% of GDP, the familiar face of austerity is set to return.

When consumers feel in control, their worries about the state of the world and propensity to be cautious with money are eased. Even after distancing restrictions are lifted, dreary economic outlooks and low levels of spending optimism will take hold, and many of those with a predilection for occasional luxury will be forced to rethink their more gung-ho travel plans.

As this sporadically big-spending, but ultimately responsible tribe of traveller scales back, the luxury escapism market it props up will need to rethink its strategy.

A socially-starved breed will throw caution to the wind… if the price is right.

Perhaps after all of this, the most effective route back to normality for major operators is the most obvious. After all, nothing turns the tide of public sentiment like a cheap deal.

As the traveller group least at risk of falling dangerously ill to COVID-19, young active adults – those currently missing out on proms, parties, festivals and summer on the beach – are among those most exasperated by social distancing. In the eyes of this carefree, break free traveller, the pandemic has stolen irreplaceable experiences – and when travel comes back into play, caution will fall victim. 

Even better for airlines and holiday companies, such will be the urge among this tribe to get away, few will be confined by the trivialities of destination. Moreover the question will be ‘where can you tempt me to?’ In the early days of industry revival, it’s already expected that airlines will need to cash in on this young, confident breed’s desire to get out of the country as quickly as possible, with cheap deals to get them abroad quicker, and more often. Tempted by large discounts, this group – left largely unscarred by virus anxiety – will pounce on chances too good to pass up, and destination will play second fiddle to price and interactive opportunities.

The international travel industry must capitalise on this group most likely to kickstart its recovery. The carefree sect demand incentivisation, competitive deals and flexibility – and in the short-term at least, they should be offered it.

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