The first half of 2020 has been particularly grueling for the travel industry. Jeff Cavins, CEO of recreational-vehicle rental site Outdoorsy, likens it to the entire planet “getting hit by a meteor” in terms of what it did to consumer interest in travel.
Cavins and other industry all-stars recently joined Karen Webster for a panel discussion titled, Being There: Travel and Hospitality Remade for Generation COVID-19. Other panelists included Zane Kirby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents; Nigel Hack, founder and CEO of luxury travel agency Madrid & Beyond; John Galvin, president and CEO of AAA Northeast; and Kevin Long, co-founder and CEO of camping site The Dyrt.
Panelists agreed that the pandemic put consumers into a panic mode that cured all traces of wanderlust. Bookings bottomed out, air travel was all but grounded and beaches, museums, restaurants and other tourist hot spots shut down.
But Webster noted that governments around the world are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders just in time for the summer travel season. Will consumers' wanderlust emerge after 12 weeks of lockdowns, and what will travel look like this summer and beyond?
Madrid & Beyond’s Hack said the pandemic has presented the industry with a series of steep daily learning curves that have been incredibly difficult to ascend. But he believes the challenges will ultimately improve the industry going forward.
“I think if we were to flash forward to May 2021, surely this learning curve that we're all experiencing now will have produced positive results,” he said. “At this point, as an industry, we still have to prepare for the worst just in case — but we have reason to hope for the best.”
AAA’s Galvin added that travel demand hasn’t dried up entirely, just shifted focus. Whereas cruises, European vacations and trips to mega-theme parks like Disney World are normally popular this time of year, “what we're seeing now and what we're hearing from our members is more and more about road trips,” he said.
Galvin said many Americans want “short-distance travel by car to the great outdoors — beaches, lakes and areas where they can be outside and feel safer than in a large group or confined area. And where they can social distance easily.”
Outdoorsy’s Cavins and The Dyrt’s Long concurred, noting that their businesses have bounced back with a vengeance in the past several weeks.
Cavins said Outdoorsy has seen its RV bookings soar by 1,500 percent. “We're seeing that togetherness and that family bonding [are] driving this desire for experiencing the great outdoors together,” he said. “And as a result, we've been fortunate lately. We didn't know that this would happen a month ago and it was somewhat of a surprise to us.”
The company has had to hire more customer-service reps, while engineers are working day and night to add servers to keep up with the site’s record traffic.
The Dyrt, which only launched earlier this year, has seen its paid-subscription service The Dyrt Pro pick up a new subscriber every five minutes or so during the past few weeks.
Long had worried earlier this year that The Dyrt had accidentally picked the world’s worst time to launch a new venture in the travel vertical. But as it turns out, creating a digital community designed around helping people planning camping trips during a lockdown has boosted the service’s popularity.
“We went from having a few hundred thousand organic visitors coming to our site a month and now we’re clearing over a million users monthly,” he said. “They are coming here because the site has the largest number of users submitting pictures, videos and reviews of campgrounds on the Internet. I think that when you're cooped up at home, planning for the outdoors sounds really fun.”
Both say consumers are looking to get out again, but want to do it on their own terms — in environments that they feel they can trust, and more importantly, control.
Travel Isn’t Permanently Grounded, Just Delayed
While staying local in self-contained units like RVs could be this summer’s travel preference, previously popular travel destinations further from home aren’t quite out of the running. However, Madrid & Beyond’s Hack and ASTA’s Kirby said a walk-back there will likely take longer.
“Places in Western Europe and the Caribbean, they're aspirational places that people really want to go to,” Kirby said. “Temporarily, there are going to be some shifts in the way people travel, but I'm not sure that people are going to stop wanting to go to Venice or Rome or London or any of the places in order to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
What will it take for tourists to feel comfortable making those longer journeys again? Panelists agreed that the gold standard will be a COVID-19 vaccine.
That should put the public-health emergency at an end, and panelists agreed there’s even some evidence that consumers are already planning for that. For instance, Kirby said ASTA is seeing bookings for late 2020 pushing up as consumers anticipate a time when they’ll be able to go out and about in the world again.
But Madrid & Beyond’s Hack noted that while a vaccine will arrive sooner or later, the economic crisis touched off by the COVID-19 pandemic show signs of outlasting the health crisis. He believes that’s why high-end firms like his have yet to see a recovery in bookings for late this year and are just taking things day by day while trying to stay on customers’ radar screens.
“I think all travel-business owners right now are just doing the best they can to keep visible and to reposition themselves for when a demand returns,” Hack said. “When that happens … we'll be customizing every trip according to the budget. There are no fixed prices.”
What Comes Next?
Minus having a very accurate crystal ball, how and when the travel industry stages a comeback remains unknown, but panelists agreed it’ll require creating spaces where consumers can feel at low risk of COVID-19 infection.
If a vaccine doesn’t emerge, the industry will have to very publicly demonstrate to consumers that the airplanes they travel on and the places they stay at will be fully and comprehensively sanitized before customer use. That feeling of safety, they noted, is something that will vary among different consumers; AAA's John Galvin noted that when they take questions about how well-sanitized locales are — they are by and large coming in from consumers over 60 who are at the highest health risk.
But all agree that travel will resume, modified somewhat, more digitally accessible and more under consumer control.
Said Galvin: “I don't think we're going to be back to 2019 travel levels for a couple of years, but I'm very optimistic that we're going to see really strong growth throughout the year from now until then and continue to see consistent improvements as consumers get more and more comfortable and economically able to get back out into the world.”