Follow past recovery trends with an eye towards traveler intention
There have been a number of articles, blogs and videos on what travel companies need to do to win back the confidence of the traveling public. Many prognosticators are trying to predict which businesses will survive, which won’t, and what the travel landscape will look like as the world emerges from this unprecedented event.
The truth is that no one knows for sure exactly what is going to happen, but we can use history, common sense and solid lines of communication with our customers and partners to improve our odds of success. One thing’s for sure, the tour industry will need to adapt to ensure its survival, and facilitate a quicker return to prosperity.
The industry has been forced to make significant changes and adaptations following 9/11, SARS, H1N1, and the Great Recession. As a result of these external forces, the tour industry created new products that had wider appeal, and quality of product has improved considerably over past iterations. This includes more “experiences” and less “stops and visits” as well as smaller group sizes and tour customization. We should assume these trends will continue with the added requirements of health and safety baked in.
Another example, the creation of the many sustainability initiatives surrounding tourism and its impact on the planet have brought touring to the forefront of reducing its footprint and environmental impact.
Expect players to enter the space with little to no pre-conceived notions of how it was done in the past. It only matters what will appeal to travelers moving forward, and only those companies that are able to listen to what the market wants and accurately forecasting what products and destinations will appeal most in this post Covid-19 world will thrive.
There are four primary things that all tour operators should be doing right away to hasten a return to normalcy. As time goes on, these items will l become the “ante” to stay in the game as the global tour market rapidly evolves.
- Talk to your best customers
All operators have their most loyal customers that have continued to travel with them for years. Get in touch with them and ask them specifically what it will take for them to travel again, and what type of tour they would like. This does not have to be an exhaustive survey involving hundreds or thousands of guests. It can be a small slice of your typical customer base, but it will yield significant information that will be useful in planning. Having a phone conversation instead of just sending out a survey enables a reassuring point of contact, and lets your best customers know you care. Instead of trying to “sell” them on what you think they will want, you are actually making them part of your tour planning process and improving the odds of success. It is also a great opportunity to follow up with them after if you acted upon their recommendations, further deepening the loyalty and relationship.
- Create and communicate a sanitation and safety protocol
While safety and security have been underlying pillars of the touring business, it is now challenged with adding in layers of cleanliness and virus protection protocols at every level of the tour experience. From transfer services to motorcoaches to hotels, restaurants and attractions, today’s tour customer will want to know that these things have been addressed and are part of the selling proposition. As tour builders and planners, we will now need to ask our partners for their policies and procedures moving forward, and work with those that give the customers the confidence they need to travel again. This will be a rapidly evolving area once things re-open, but you can continue to use this to communicate confidence and reassurance.
- Ask your coach partners to communicate their cleaning regimens and ensure that it is part of the communication during the sale, as well as pre-trip departure. Can you or the operator provide anti-bacterial wipes to give extra assurance? On the first day of the tour, have the drivers once again communicate their routine and have them ask for the guests to help with keeping coaches clean and germ free. Also, how will “unwell” guests be handled on the coaches? Once the tour manager and driver determine that someone is sick, how will that be handled? More than ever, people will be overly sensitive to sneezing, coughing, etc. Can people be tested with thermometers prior to departure to assuage any fears or concerns? This will be an important consideration in any group travel environment moving forward.
- Hotels are facing a huge challenge. Work with those hotels that are taking this seriously, and pass along their cleaning and sanitation protocols to your guests. How will public areas and guest room cleaning be dealt with? Obtain that information from your hotel partners to reassure your guests that your partner hotels are up to your standards.
- In terms of restaurants and dining, choose locations that have lower density and lean toward outdoor patios and secluded dining areas. High density, confined restaurants will have a real challenge in this environment. Less will be more in terms of crowding and overall traffic, so be vigilant here. Even if you’ve included most/all meals, it might make more sense to have less meal inclusions, or a catered lunch in a park so that customers can feel comfortable. Of course, iconic meals that are representative of destination should not be taken out, but simple meal stops in route can be reconsidered as inclusions.
- The various attractions, parks, monuments and museums will need to take significant steps to reassure the travel public that areas where people congregate are safe and sanitary. Attractions will need to have material and correspondence that will articulate their efforts to assure safety, especially those places that have high traffic volume. If they don’t, skip them.
- Start with tours closer to home
According to a recent study by Insure My Trip, Americans are spending less on future travel and planning to spend less on future travel. Prior to the pandemic, the average trip cost was around $5,800, now, the average trip cost is hovering around $3,600.
People most certainly want to stay close to home. They will be more likely venture out on shorter trips, so should something happen, it will be easy and relatively quick to get back home. Until airlines and airports get back to previous capacity, the most likely and preferred form of transportation would be motorcoach or private transportation. Important to note, during the crisis, there were no incidences involving tour groups or motorcoaches of infected people. Your customers will need to know that. Several tour companies have already been planning regional short breaks of 3-4 days that will help people jump back into touring. The trips should be low density at the outset (no 50 passenger groups) and feature a combination of indoor and outdoor attractions. National Parks and State Parks are excellent options, as people will gravitate to the great outdoors. National Parks have been overly crowded from global demand, so it will be refreshing to not have a crush of people, and guests can spend more time enjoying nature’s wonders. Over time, tours can increase in length and distance from home, but don’t expect a return to normalcy until the air transportation system gains strength.
International travel will take time to rebound as people will have concerns about getting stranded, but when the time is right, there will be tremendous pent up demand. In regards to cruising, this too will take longer to recover, especially in light of the sensational media coverage surrounding it in the midst of the crisis. Ships that are smaller and more adventure-oriented will have a better success proposition, as well as river cruise vessels. Expect large ocean cruise ships to have one of the most formidable challenges. It will be incumbent on the industry to show consumers exactly how they will maintain required safety. For over 20 years now, ocean cruises have captured massive amounts of market share due to their excellent value and strong marketing. For the short term, while the ocean cruise business recovers, the tour industry now has a clear opportunity to grab back some of that share, and show the world how much touring has improved.
- Priced to move, with policies to reassure
People will consider safety and security first. However, once things return (and they always do eventually) it is always the “deal-seekers” that will be our early adopters. Some travelers like to boast of the great specials they found, how they blazed the trail, etc. These people will be expecting at the least, a very good value to start traveling again. Of course, no one should operate at a loss, or with an unsatisfactory margin, but trying to recoup all losses incurred in your first few trips will not yield success, and everyone should be looking at success in the long haul.
Clearly the data at this point shows that lower price points and staying closer to home are key. When putting new tours together, try to buy opportunistically and work with your vendors to get their best rates, depending on season and demand. Pass along some of those savings to your customers, and let them know they are getting a great deal, but not at the expense of their safety. Tell them that things will not always be priced this attractively, as there will come a day when demand once again catches up, and surpasses it again, which will drive pricing back up. Lean toward building and selling product that is priced to move and will attract people back. This will generate confidence, shake off any operational rust, and create a new platform from which you can navigate the new reality.
Final thoughts on payment security
One final item that should be addressed concerns deposits, payments, and refundability. It goes without saying that many people endured a great deal of financial stress surrounding the status of their affected or cancelled vacation plan. Not only are there the aforementioned safety issues, but also significant economic pressure is affecting nearly everyone. Vacation plans and the desire to get away will be strong, but it will need to be balanced with economic risk considerations. All vendors will most certainly relax their payment and cancellation policies to restore confidence, so this will make the burden on operators a bit easier. Stretch out deposit and final payment policies as close to departure as possible.
It will also be interesting to see if the travel insurance providers develop cancel for any reason policies or provisions that accommodate pandemic outbreak. And certainly, anyone that becomes sick prior to departure should not feel pressured to travel, but how will this be controlled or monitored to insure it is valid and not some other uncovered reason for cancellation remains to be seen.
While there are just as many questions as there are answers, these four things can be done to help speed your return to the market, and can be adapted as the environment changes. Changes will happen very quickly and it will be important that our industry continue to adapt and be flexible so that a new normal can be established.
What has been predicted or anticipated, usually changes due to unforeseen circumstance, and only those companies that are the nimblest will recover quickest and capitalize in the next chapter of touring.
Mike Schields is a 30+ year travel industry veteran. having held senior executive roles at Globus Family of Brands, Brightspark Travel, The Travel Corporation, and most recently, Legacy Travel Group. Mike’s specialties include sales, marketing, business development, channel market development, strategic positioning, product development, and company culture optimization. He is currently owner and principle at MAS Travel Consulting, helping medium and small sized tour operators achieve their growth objectives.