Post-COVID-19 Travel: What Will the Industry Look Like?

(OlegAlbinsky/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images) New York City // Photo by OlegAlbinsky/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

We’ve heard it before. “No crystal ball could have predicted the year we are currently having,” Albert Herrera, Virtuoso, SVP, partnerships, said during a Virtuoso Travel Week virtual event. “Coming into 2020, luxury was poised to have the most successful year on record, but the global pandemic brought the world to a halt.” But what will the industry look like once the world starts moving again?

During a panel hosted by Herrera titled “Wish You Were Here: Welcoming Travelers to the New World,” he spoke with Virtuoso members and suppliers to see just what the luxury of luxury travel holds in a post-COVID-19 world. Participants included Fred Dixon, president and CEO, NYC & Company; Haisley Smith, VP, marketing and development, Brownell Travel; and Ben Trodd, SVP, sales and hotel marketing, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

“How do we define luxury when a high-touch business meets a no-touch world?” Herrera asked.

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Lean Into Change

Necessity is the mother of invention, Dixon said. The unpredictable times call for new thinking—“lean into change.” As for New York, Dixon says there has been a focus on public art lately and the destination marketing organization (DMO) will be working on “Re-establishing New York as the capital of arts and culture.” He added that luxury travel companies need to do a better job of making sure tourism positively affects more people in the community, bringing to life more of the destination fully. By doing so, it would help the industry recovery more equitably and sustainably.

Smith said that the downtime has allowed Brownell to look at its business from the inside out. “We can’t control the outside world and what happens, but what we can control is our agencies, how we interact with the world and how we develop the opportunity going forward.”

There are three things, in particular, that excite her about the future. Among them: Advisors need to be paid more equitably than they have in the past, she said. This goes beyond fees. Advisors need to “earn for the work we do when we do it.” Additionally, there’s an opportunity to reframe the conversation on sustainability. The pandemic has shown how dependent communities, cultures and people are on tourism. Lastly, Smith said that we’re not just fighting COVID-19 but “systemic racism,” as well. The industry, she said, needs to rethink how it hires and who they “invite into the conversation,” making sure to elevate different voices.

Transparency Is Key

As for how the industry can strengthen its partnerships, Trodd said is all begins with trust. There must be “absolute transparency,” he said, going forward. One way Four Seasons is doing that is by explaining to advisors and guests exactly what the new hotel experience will look like, since it will be different than they last visited. Four Seasons even created a “Welcome Back” portal to share what’s new, to what restaurants may be open at given resort, if the spa open, what will the arrival experience look like, etc.

It’s also, obviously, about safety. Trodd explained that Four Seasons formed a partnership with Johns Hopkins to create its new health and safety program to “redefine” luxury. Dixon added that there should be a mutual agreement to support better public health. New York, for instance, has done a good job of flattening the curve and it will take both locals and visitors to make smart and safe decisions to keep it that way.

But despite living in a “no-touch world,” as Herrera called it, Trodd said employees must still be empowered and confident in creating a luxury experience for guests. Training is, and will continue to be, crucial. This goes beyond the hotel experience, as well. Trodd added that hotels and their destination partners have a collective responsibility to be transparent and that partnering with smaller providers who are better adapting could be necessary.

Smith added that advisors need to know more about supplier’s business practices, financial security, and their downline suppliers—not to mention terms and conditions, which have come to the forefront as advisors seek to rebook or cancel their clients’ trips.

Flexibility and Agility

“Flexibility” was another keyword brought up during the panel. It’s “going to be key for all of us—about what can and can’t be done, what could be done but now can’t be done,” said Smith. Advisors must coach their clients to become more flexible, so they know what to expect on a given trip. “Advisors can set up the most perfect experience, but we are living in a world of unknown,” she added.

Trodd added that it’s important to remain flexible, as a hotelier, on cancellation and rebooking terms and more. Punitive policies or lists of terms and conditions will only create more barriers for travelers. Trust that guests will come back when they’re ready, he said.

Related to flexibility, Trodd added that the industry needs to be agile. “The industry is moving faster than ever,” he said. COVID-19 has taught the industry to think on its feet in ways it hasn’t in the past—maintaining this agility will benefit the industry culturally and logistically going forward.

“It’s a tough road ahead—duh,” said Herrera. “but travel will be back—and I say “will” as in, capital, bold, highlighted—it will be back and luxury will lead the way forward.”

Smith said agencies may need to work more strategically with partners—meaning working more exclusively with a smaller group of partners, which will advisors and their suppliers work more flexibly and fluidly. Dixon echoed that there is an immense opportunity to show people how to return to travel sustainably. “We will rebuild this beach one grain of sand at a time,” he added.

Adding to the good news, Trodd said there’s lots of pent-up demand.

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