And just like that, it’s October. Independent of where you are, the world has been in a state of inertia for more than six months. Finally that’s changing – one city, state and country at a time. As we all emerge out of the unexpected hiatus, the travel industry needs to reassess its operations and market strategy. The world that we are in today is quite different from the one we left behind. The new physical and emotional landscape brings with it a fresh set of challenges such as the potential infrastructure changes and transition to digital in operations sales, and customer experience.
As we reopen our gates to customers, we must abide by the new rules of engagement. Going forward, technology will play a central role in delivering unique and safe customer experiences. Several aspects of our business from identifying demand pockets, new schedules and ticketing, will be led by technology. It is not to say that the transition will be smooth; many will undergo trial and error but ultimately catch up with the changes that are required to operate within evolving realities.
In Search for Demand
A crucial aspect of reopening is identifying the demand pockets. Our world is no longer as vast as it used to be. We must swiftly prepare for the travel bubbles that sprout up around us. These could be city pairs within the domestic market or even with other countries. It is justified to focus and zero in on these travel bubbles, as they offer the first glimpse of recovery. Yet we also need to learn from past behaviour and not put all eggs in a single basket.
Notwithstanding, there are also several challenges with travel bubbles:
- Sporadic in nature: Travel bubbles are not permanent. In just a few months we have witnessed destinations open to each other and then close with the re-emergence of COVID-19 cases. From the flip-flopping green zones, quarantine norms across the U.K. and Schengen Zone, to Malaysia’s recent ban on certain passport holders, and the extended lockdown of the state of Victoria here in Australia, we have learnt that demand can spike and drop in an instant. Tour operators and distributors need to be efficient and be a step ahead in identifying travel bubbles while having a ‘Plan B’ if further waves break out.
- Operational Planning: As experiences re-open, they need to ensure that social distancing guidelines and protocols are maintained. Despite that, it is also certain that most experiences will not run at maximum capacity. Tour operators need to be in control of the volume of visitors allowed daily and plan for it accordingly. This has a real impact on operations and staffing, along with reduced revenues.
- Sales and Marketing: A travel bubble opened – great! Now we must re-engage our partners to maximise those markets. The industry needs to be quick in churning out market-specific campaigns, pricing and offers as time is of the essence. Never before has there been a critical need for tour operators and distributors to truly work as one. A sale lost today is a sale lost forever, so we must accelerate our efforts to tap into the demand at the earliest.
But “Technology is Not for Me”...
Several industry players, small through to larger-sized, have had their hesitations and not invested in technology so far. These concerns must now be addressed head-on. In order to survive in these dynamic and changing market conditions, we admit that none of us have the capacity or the bandwidth to overlook the entire spectrum of marketing, scheduling, ticketing and operations by ourselves, particularly with limited staff.
There are technology solutions already out there which can empower resellers and distributors in an instant. For context, the hospitality industry is quite like the Tour & Activity (T&A) sector. There are millions of operators worldwide, everyone is unique in their own right, and it varies widely city after city. Even before the pandemic and the global lockdown, they continued to strike a balance between dine-in versus delivery. During the pandemic, virtually all had to get on the delivery platforms to survive. And now, as the world re-opens many are expanding the use of technology to assist them in managing reservations, staff schedules, inventory management including set menus, as well as contactless ordering and billing.
The real-world challenges steadily being overcome by the restaurant industry are very much applicable to the T&A landscape – tour operators and distributors need to be on top of the demand pockets, manage channels, place a cap on inventory to adhere to social distancing guidelines, introduce contactless ticketing and voucher scanning, while ultimately being able to dynamically control the pricing.
In today’s world, the T&A inventory is a perishable commodity. As demand picks up, the booking windows will get shorter and tour operators must identify partners who can deliver on the short-term goals but simultaneously explore new partnerships and cater to a different niche or travel bubbles.
The time is also ripe for travel companies such as airlines, hotels and ground transfer providers to broaden their horizons and tap into opportunities which were once overlooked. With the world now turned upside down, companies should objectively consider new avenues to maximise engagement through improved customer loyalty and engagement.
Open for Business?
The T&A sector is no stranger to cyclical business trends, be it a seasonality, daily weather conditions or event-driven demand. As businesses go from full throttle to shallow growth, adapting to the new realities is the only way to survive this crisis. There is no accurate crystal ball gazing to predict the future of demand or travel bubbles. The travel industry will simply jump from being either open or temporarily closed for the foreseeable future. The one thing that is a constant is the indelible human desire to escape their current existence and embrace fresh experiences whenever and wherever the opportunity is open for them to do so. The restricted realm of operations and dualism of the situation is akin to a yin and yang yo-yo. Eventually, there are limited aspects that remain within our industry’s control and technology is surely one of them. We must therefore identify ways to enable technology to work for our businesses in the most efficient way possible. It isn’t a sales pitch, it’s a lifeline.