Now is not the time for the travel sector to play it safe. IMMedia’s MD Peter Bakker shares his thoughts on why tourism operators need to go digital now to ensure their survival in a post-COVID world.

For the first time in history close to 90% of the world’s population now lives in countries with travel restrictions. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), between five and seven years’ worth of industry growth will potentially be lost and over 100 million travel and tourism jobs are at risk. The air passenger volume graphs are a mirror image of the Covid-19 infection rates globally.

A new era of travel is about to dawn

However, we will travel again — but it will not be the same. Even when borders re-open, new health and safety systems and regulations will need to be put in place, none of which have yet been clearly defined. What is clear is that the use of digital (biometrics technology) will help to restore trust and provide a more seamless journey. But the burning question remains: how will travellers’ behaviour change post-COVID and how will this impact the current tourism operators’ offerings?

Smart travellers will trust places with good governance and health systems. They will take fewer trips and stay longer. They will see this pandemic as a forecast of what’s to come from the climate crisis. They will act like responsible citizens as well as passionate travellers.

Complacency will kill the travel industry

As many travel organisations continue to struggle for survival, it is astonishing how few of them are preparing themselves for any sort of post-COVID re-opening/resumption. The world post-COVID will look and feel different; as every government institution will happily tell you over and over again. But this should not induce any form of complacency, particularly in the tourism sector. .

The airline industry in particular is a great example of this; bar a few Middle East-based organisations, the industry is looking for government bail-outs rather than the opportunity to resume services. Take Australia as an example. The former duopoly of the Australian airlines is now faced with limited options: domestic travel and the introduction of possible travel bubbles between “COVID-safe” states and its neighbour across the ditch, New Zealand. But the Aussie airline industry is thus far proving unable to adapt to these opportunities. Partly bound by antiquated legislation and rising case numbers in states such as Victoria and New South Wales, services between these “bubbles” remain inadequate or non-existent. 

Staying local VS travelling internationally

To what extent business will return to individual country’s domestic sectors is impossible to predict, but smaller operators that do not — or cannot — rely on government subsidies need to look at more innovative ways to keep their operations alive, now. For example: supplementing in-house dining with home delivery service (where possible), tailoring their offerings to provide a more localised experience and relying on smaller groups in a socially distanced setting. 

Or turning hotel rooms into pop-up restaurants as Swedish hotel, Stadt, in Lidkoping has done. It has opened up their rooms as private dining spaces, allowing people to go out to eat while still maintaining social distancing from other diners. The idea is that instead of getting a table in a restaurant, diners are given an entire room with a table. Orders can be placed by phone, so diners never have to leave the room. The operators who innovate within the confines of COVID will be better equipped and prepared for the new post-COVID traveller.

Digitalisation is the passport for post-COVID travel

The underpinning ingredient to the post-COVID world of travel is “digitalisation” — from the small operators placing their services/offering on the web to the the WEF’s Known Traveller Digital Identity initiative that brings together a global consortium of individuals, governments, authorities and the travel industry to facilitate safe and seamless journeys. Consortium partners can access verifiable claims of a traveller’s identity data to improve passenger processing and reduce risk. Travellers can manage their own profile, collect digital ‘attestations’ of their identity data and decide which information to share.

Now is the time to reassess digital initiatives; those that provide near-term help to employees, customers, and the broad set of stakeholders to which businesses are increasingly responsible; and those, such as the discipline of Content Marketing, that position you for a post-COVID world. In this world, some things will snap back to its previous form, while others will be forever changed. Playing it safe now, understandable as it might feel to do so, is often the worst option.