August 2021: US Travel Experts Predict Future of Tourism
Last week, ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) organised a webinar on The Future of Travel Distribution, featuring travel journalists from CNN, Afar, Conde Nast Traveller, and The Wall Street Journal. The panel discussed various issues but one of the most interesting was their predictions on what travel might look like twelve months from now in August 2021. Moderator Arnie Weissman wrote a detailed two-part account of the webinar for Travel Weekly, which you can read here and here, but to make things easy for you, here are our top takeaways from the event.
The 2020 US Election is a Big Factor
Possibly the second biggest cause of uncertainty for the US travel industry – after COVID-19 itself of course – is November’s presidential election. Different outcomes will mean hugely different impacts for the industry, with the two different candidates likely to take radically diverging approaches to issues such as economic stimulus, industry regulation, and global cooperation to defeat COVID-19.
WSJ travel editor Scott McCartney pointed out that, to effectively beat the virus, the world would need to come up with a global standards protocol, and it would be difficult to enforce this – and for US nationals to travel overseas – without the USA’s cooperation.
An End to Overtourism
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic could be an end to destinations being swamped by tourists. With more intrepid travellers likely to be tourism’s early re-adopters, mass tourism destinations will likely be shunned in favour of more remote, obscure locations, and destination marketers will need to get more creative – and think more about the negative effects of overtourism and what life has been like for locals without it – when it comes to promoting their destinations.
Cruising to Bounce Back
One thing the panel were generally agreed on was that cruising will bounce back healthily – the industry is used to dealing with crises, and regular cruise bookers are loyal to the industry and already in desperate need of their cruising fix, with many operators saying they are already sold out well into 2021.
But whilst seasoned cruise veterans will be itching to get back on board, the industry may find it hard to attract first-time cruisers, for whom the prospect of boarding a crowded ship in the middle of a pandemic may not be an attractive one. And increased regulation as a result of COVID-19 will present the industry with new operational challenges.
Luxury Travel to Lead Recovery
The panel felt that the luxury sector would be the first to rebound, as UHNW travellers will have suffered less from the economic effects of the pandemic, and be able to afford the kind of travel that is safest when there’s a virus around – private jets and limos, private villas, remote destinations.
However, some panel members felt that this would only be a short-term spike and, once the world returns to something approaching normal, self-isolation – as well as the harmful effects of private jet travel and a desire for more sustainable tourism – would be less attractive.
Deals, Deals, Deals
The panel were unanimous that prices will drop and deals will be required to stimulate demand for travel in the next few months. Whilst there is considerable pent-up demand amongst travellers, it is balanced by understandable fears regarding not just health and safety, but also the likely inconvenience involved in travelling during a pandemic, and it may take more than price cuts to get some people back on a plane.
Business Travel May Never Recover
If there’s one travel sector that may struggle to recover in the long term, it’s business travel. We are all Zoom-literate now, and companies have seen just how easy it is to arrange virtual meetings – and how much cheaper. So whilst companies will still hold regular meetings, the majority may now be virtual rather than physical.
The one bright spot for business travel could be conferences & exhibitions – although many of them have gone virtual for 2020, the panel expected physical conferences to return as soon as it is feasible. Trade shows are essential for human contact, catching up on what competitors are doing, and doing the kind of relaxed evening networking and socialising that simply isn’t possible online, they observed.
Hard Times for OTAs
OTAs may find it harder to bounce back than other distribution channels, with many travellers having been stung by customer-unfriendly refund/cancellation policies during 2020, and desiring the kind of personal service and direct, human assistance that OTAs simply cannot provide.
More niche booking platforms are better placed to benefit from a recovery in travel, particularly AirBNB, whose model of providing private accommodation will be particularly attractive in the current climate.
Good Times for Travel Agents
The panel felt that COVID-19 presents a huge opportunity for travel agents & advisors to stress their value proposition, particularly at a time when travellers are worried about health & safety and sustainability. TAs know their clients well, and how intrepid or risk-averse they are, and so are perfectly placed to provide personalised information and itineraries – a level of expertise and service that the OTAs cannot offer.
And how TAs work now will dictate how successful they are when travel recovers. Communicating with clients during the pandemic and letting them know that they are still around and ready to help them is a very important message, as is a customer-friendly refund policy – how agents treat customers during the bad times has a huge impact on customer loyalty.
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