Africa Travel Week
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Five strategies you need for your travel business in 2021

With many countries beginning the New Year in lockdown, where they’re might be jetting off to next is likely far from consumers’ minds. But as the COVID-19 vaccines begin to be rolled out across the globe, there is hope that as we enter spring travel will very much be back on the cards.

The Travel Industry is experiencing an unprecedented, historical downturn, with expert predictions that the industry shrunk in 2020 by 40%-60% – a sharp contraction at least six times the impact of the September 11th 2001 attacks. Travel & Tourism is one of the world’s largest economic sectors, supporting 1 in 10 jobs (330 million) worldwide and generating 10.3% of global GDP with 100 million jobs expected to have been lost in 2020 due to COVID-19. But it’s not all doom and gloom, and there’s a lot to look forward to in the New Year:

The good news is history shows that the industry is very resilient and that despite terrorist attacks, wars, epidemics and the global financial crisis, travel sees strong recovery then settles back to its long term growth rate. Numerous independent industry surveys of business and personal travel sentiment support this and an example of this prediction is early post-lockdown travel behaviour in China where travel is at 47% and spend 69% of 2019 levels, which are encouraging signs of recovery. That said, we need to recognise it will take 2-3 years for the industry to get back to the 2019 global volume of travellers.

The way people travelled shifted dramatically in 2020, and it’s likely we will see a continuation of the same popular themes in 2021 as we gradually emerge from lockdowns and tiers. From ‘rewilding’ our suburbs to data driven marketing, here’s the key travel industry trends we expect to see in 2021…

Brand Identity is key

Brand and identity management used to be a matter of setting yourself apart from your competitors. Now, during a global crisis, businesses need to take a new approach.

One thing businesses have had to learn from the pandemic is that their actions during these difficult times may come under public scrutiny in a way that impacts their brand identity. Crisis management is an important skill that companies on a global scale have had to rapidly pick up, and with the ever-changing situation it’s become essential to keep ears to the ground and be ready to adapt.

Showing empathy and being human is also another crucial part of brand management during a crisis. The travel industry is a sector that relies heavily on experiences linked with emotions. Brands and travel professionals therefore need to display emotional intelligence, either when communicating business-to-business, or when working with customers. Showing flexibility, empathy and active listening has never been as important to the travel sector as it is now.

“With the changing times and the national lockdown, consumer behaviour quickly changed… nearly 30% of consumers in the UK were checking reviews… People had more time on their hands… 75% of consumers wanted to see how businesses were dealing with the coronavirus. There was a 22% decrease in trust in businesses, and 56% of people were more worried about fraud,” says Jordan Pellant, Senior Sales Director Travel, Trustpilot A/S.

“Moving forward into 2021 and beyond, what I can tell you from the trends I have seen earlier is the impact of social proof is only going to get bigger.”

Presenting a united front and showing resilience is also key to maintaining a positive brand identity and positioning yourself well in the ‘new normal.’ But it’s not only customers who need support right now; companies must step up their efforts to develop wellbeing strategies and initiatives for their employees.

“The opportunity is there for companies to hold the hands of their employees and help them to find opportunities,” says Niki Zoli, Former Director of Social Impact, Marriot International.

“I see COVID as a natural disaster. We need to look at how we can support our associates and then our communities. Talk about what you are doing to support the most basic needs of your communities”

‘Rewilding’ and conservation

2020 brought a huge focus to biodiversity loss, and the impacts it can have on human health. There’s no denying the link between a loss of natural habitats for wild animals and an increase in zoonotic diseases. If we are to reduce the risk of future pandemics, businesses and governments worldwide will need to work together to protect biodiversity and increase conservation efforts.

One of the best ways to do this is by ‘rewilding’ areas – restoring them to their natural state so wildlife can return and complex ecosystems can begin to thrive again.

More than half of the world’s GDP ($44 trillion of economic value) is at moderate or severe risk due to nature loss (WEF), so it’s likely as travel returns there will be a desire to ensure the positive impacts of a lack of tourists in hotspots are maintained.

“Given the consequences, when we look at the spill-over of disease from wildlife to humans, we need an international agreement to take this seriously,” says John Scanlon, Acting CEO and Chair, Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation

“Biodiversity is the fundamental foundation of life. It gives us clean air, food and allows us to build resilience. If we lose Biodiversity it’s game over for all of us”

Pivoting to Digital

The outbreak of COVID-19 has created huge difficulties with face-to-face interactions, and many businesses across the industry have had to quickly pivot to digital. Whether it’s enabling online booking or improving user experience of customer services, airlines, travel agencies and other travel leaders are making the most of this time by improving their technology. The easier it is for the consumer to find the information they need, the better the experience.

As well as this, with the travel industry coming to a complete halt, virtual tourism as a marketing tactic has also rapidly developed.

“Virtual tourism has been one of the joys of the lockdown period. This is a great opportunity for brands to bring travel to life and allow us to get behind the scenes and engaged in the stories that make these cultures so unique,” says Lyn Hughes, founder and editor-in-chief at Wanderlust Travel Media.

During the lockdown period, we’ve seen tourism organisations and tour operators turning to virtual reality as a means of promoting products and services, replacing conventional holidays with a virtual ‘for free’ experience. For those unable to travel, this has acted as a temporary replacement for real-life experiences, but using digital marketing tactics in this way will be easily adaptable for the future and could be part of the ‘new normal,’ allowing customers to ‘try before they buy.’

However, getting people to travel again is not just about re-opening hotels and allowing airlines to fly. Traveller confidence is key to winning back customers. A growing number of travel and tourism companies are turning to video to get their safety messages across and address every part of the customer experience. Having a good social media strategy and hosting confidence messaging on websites and social platforms will be important going forward.

A huge benefit of pivoting to digital during this time is the amount of data companies can gather. Data is essential for helping travel companies make better marketing and business decisions. Digital consumers produce massive volumes of information which provide trends and purchasing patterns, so digital skills are a must for the travel industry’s professionals.

“Business and data will define the future of the world. The use of ‘big data’ is going to provide the ability to make good decisions and those decisions will flow from what the market is saying… At this moment, when everyone is isolating themselves and instructed to work from home, you can build capacity and train on the use of analytics. Data manipulation will be one of the strongest tools to help the recovery,” says Edmund Bartlett, Tourism Minister of Jamaica.

Agility and Adaptability

Agility and adaptability have been highlighted as two key skills that companies will need in order to bounce back in a strong position.

Back in April 2020, travel marketing was looking long-term rather than putting out fires. Since then, companies haven’t been able plan to any large-scale marketing campaigns due to the ever-changing situation. Research conducted by Euromonitor pre-pandemic showed that customer service, better technology and improved user experience were top of the marketing wish list worldwide.

The survey also showed how different countries perceived the travel industry, and what each considered to be a priority. In the UK, 68% of marketeers said their ambition was to create a consistent brand experience across channels. Now, these ambitions are seemingly on hold while crisis management plays out.

Visit Britain forecasts, as of August 25th 2020,that inbound tourism to the UK has fallen by 73%. Indeed, when travel restrictions were loosened on the 4th July, self-catered holiday cottages and camping sites quickly sold out as people looked to stay closer to home.

However, while “immense damage has been done to consumer confidence… people still want to go away,” according to Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the UK travel trade association (Abta).

With travel corridors and restrictions constantly changing, “the government’s behaviour has encouraged a culture of late booking and people are realising that nothing is guaranteed,” Rachel O’Reilly, head of communications at Kuoni.

In the current climate, it’s clear that consumer needs are ever-changing and marketeers will need to stay abreast of these demands and have the ability to quickly adapt at short notice.

“A really important thing to consider now is the fact that it’s the younger generations who want to travel first. Gen Z are extremely social media savvy… they are the ones who also want to participate and contribute to your content creation… it will be interesting to consider how to engage those people and attract them to your destination,” says Eva Satkute Stewart, Global Sector Head for Travel and Tourism, YouGov.

“There are clear signs emerging that consumer risk tolerance is climbing up gradually.”

Safe travel stamps and passports

The vaccine rollouts across the globe provide a lot of hope for the travel industry. If targets are met, there’s a chance we could see a significant return to travel – short and long-haul – during the summer months. Those able to prove they have had sufficient doses of the vaccine may enjoy more freedoms, and there is opportunity for travel businesses and governments to work together on inbound and outbound protocols to protect against the transmission of the virus.

“I believe there are multiple vaccines in final testing, so there will be a wave of them coming to us and available to high risk groups in Q1. That provides some optimism for summer 2021,” said Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, at WTM Virtual in November.

As well as safe travel passes for individuals, it’s likely that the hospitality sector may also have to do more to prove their health and safety standards to guests visiting in 2021. Luxury and boutique hotels will take a more personalised approach, while budget options will have to find ways of achieving five star cleanliness on much lesser budgets.

“Of the 17 hotels that we’re opening, the majority is going to be in places that we perceive the medical crisis is over,” says Michael Struck, Founder & CEO of Ruby.

“We believe that personalisation is, to our guests, more important than saving a few bucks. It’s about getting the luxury right for that type of people.”

Looking forward to 2021

Based on the vaccination process, and the trends we saw emerging during brief periods of travel in 2020, there is a lot to look forward to in 2021. Now is the time for travel brands to connect with their customers and build their trust so that as travel restrictions lift there is confidence to visit destinations across the globe once again.

2021 also provides a great opportunity for the industry and world leaders to work together – to protect against the virus and increase conservation efforts to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Albertine Brandon

Albertine Brandon is a style and beauty influencer with expertise in social media, influencer marketing and content strategy. She has created content for her own channels for close to a decade and has interviewed some of the UK's top social media talent, including Suzie Bonaldi (Hello October), Dodie, Stephanie Yeboah and Emma Blackery.