Travel will come back, but it will look very different. Here’s exactly how.
Over the past 3 months, I’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in travel for my podcast, talked to thousands of travelers through the #TravelFromHome community we launched in response to the pandemic, and have sent surveys to millions of travelers in the TripScout community (the #1 ranked trip planning and travel entertainment app… at least when people were actually traveling). I’ve also been interviewed by most of the top publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post on this subject. I’m not an epidemiologist and can’t predict what will happen with the virus, but I am someone who obsessively studies traveler psychology and the travel industry, has traveled to ~100 countries, and has daily conversations with industry leaders. I’m not making any claims on what should happen, but rather what inevitably will.
“Hygiene” to be the new buzz word promoted in travel.
There will be a war of perceived cleanliness. Words like authentic and wellness have dominated travel marketing, but the new focus will be on hygiene. People will trust bigger hotel brands because they will publicize their social distancing and enhanced cleaning efforts. Short-term rentals and apartments will outperform most hotels as people want to avoid crowds and germs.
Business travel will never return to normal.
Many companies learned for the first time that Zoom is highly effective. And with finance budgets being slashed, the bar for what will be considered an essential in-person meeting will be much higher. For the first time ever, leisure travel will become the majority of hotel and airline profits.
Conferences, concerts, and sporting events will never fully recover.
Not only will be people not want to go to conferences during a recession and post-pandemic for long time, but conference organizers did not have pandemic insurance and most will go bankrupt because of this. Pandemic insurance will be a meaningful expense going forward, which will drastically change the economics for conference organizers. I expect the same trend to impact concerts and sporting events.
Cruises won’t die, but they will never recover.
You can’t have the world commonly refer to you as “a floating cesspool” and ever think you’ll thrive in a post-pandemic world. Destinations were already starting to push back on cruises because of overtourism, and this will only accelerate that. Cruises won’t go away as there are some die-hard cruisers out there and acquisitions out of bankruptcy will re-align the economics of a cruise to fit this new world.
Several traditional travel publications will go bankrupt.
Throughout the economy, Covid-19 will accelerate the inevitable. In travel, that means many struggling business models — like printed guidebooks and many travel magazines — will not be able to outlast the pandemic. The ones that were already doing well on digital will be able to survive, even thrive, but many won’t.
The in-flight experience won’t meaningfully change.
Safety precautions — like removing middle seats — will only last as long as demand is low. As we already seen, if the flight has an opportunity to be fully booked (or overbooked). As traveler confidence and bookings increase, airlines will return to maximizing every square inch and ancillary possible.
Southwest’s flexible booking model will be the new norm.
Travelers will demand more flexibility and struggling airlines won’t be able ramp up customer service agents. There will be many more self-service options to change bookings on websites. Southwest’s easy no fee change/cancellation policy will become the new normal.
More people will use travel agents.
Industry uncertainty, rapidly changing information, and painfully long hold times will cause people to want more human help. I certainly don’t expect everyone to go back to travel agents, but a meaningful percentage of travelers will want someone they can text/call that is in the know and will handle everything for them.
There will be a rush to nature.
Expect the rest of the year to be filled with road trips, national and state parks, camping, and cabin getaways. People can’t wait to travel and have already booked up most of these types of experiences. Cheap oil prices for road trips will only accelerate that desire this year.
There will be a boom for local experiences and staycations.
Staycations and local “travel” are going to boom after stay-in-place measures are lifted. People will appreciate much more what’s in their own neighborhood, will want to support local businesses, and will have to do something different since the obvious nature experiences mentioned above will be crowded and booked up.
There will be a lot more digital nomads, but they will look different.
Nearly every organization in the world built the infrastructure for their employees to work remotely in a week, so it’s inevitable that more people will work remotely. Employees will embrace it for lifestyle and productivity. Companies will embrace it for safety and cost savings. Most of these people won’t become digital nomads, but certainly increasing the top line will cause there to be many more. Don’t expect these new digital nomads to all fly off to SE Asia and vlogs and launch online courses. Most will simply choose to live somewhere cheaper and rent apartments for 1–3 months at a time.
OTAs will struggle as more people book direct.
Travelers struggled to figure out if the cancellations and changes were the responsibility of the airline/hotel or who they booked it through. Many who didn’t book directly with a hotel and airline got screwed (or at least had a lot more hassle). It’s no secret that airlines and hotels have had tension with the OTA (Online Travel Agents like Booking.com and Expedia) for a long time because of their high commissions, and this will accelerate the shift of power. More people will book directly with the hotel/airline in order have more flexibility and protection. Expect more perks to not be available unless booking direct and expect commission structures to change long-term.
Second cities will have a renaissance.
Craft breweries started to save second cities pre-pandemic, social distancing will save them going forward. As people will want to travel to cities again soon, but it will be a while before they go to places with high population densities — or a long international flight — so expect smaller or previously declining cities to come back first. This will show people that they can also have a great travel experience that is less stressful, crowded, and expensive. This will be accelerated by the desire for people in major cities to travel, but not fly far. Expect more people in Chicago to visit Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Cleveland instead of Tokyo, Paris, and London.
Senior travel will decline.
Unless you were in a high-risk category, the health and safety of others was the primary reason travelers gave for not traveling. Once the pandemic risk declines, expect people to travel again except those that were already retired and will have a much longer lasting concern given their risk factors.
Trip insurance will be transformed.
This pandemic shined a spotlight on trip insurance. Nearly every trip insurance product proved to be completely useless for pandemics, so travelers will start paying a lot more attention to the fine print. Trip insurance will get much more expensive, but much more useful and popular.
Expect even more consolidation in the travel industry.
There are many distressed travel companies that will be acquired by the few companies that still have a decent balance sheet or access to capital.
TripAdvisor will go bankrupt (if not acquired).
I’ve been preaching this for the past few years, and TripAdvisor’s stock has been a straight decline during that time. The recent market crash doesn’t even impact the charts if you zoom out 2+ years. Not only have they lost the attention and trust of modern travelers and they’d be completely irrelevant if it wasn’t for their strong SEO on Google (which is also at high risk as Google moves more into travel), but they gave the majority of their cash away in dividends and stock buybacks the months before the pandemic. I don’t believe they have enough cash (or access to capital) to survive the Q2 and Q3 decline in travel.
There will be a labor shortage in travel.
This isn’t because they will be afraid long-term, but a significant percentage of local operators will go bankrupt and millions of travel professionals have already been laid off. They will simply find other jobs when the economy rebounds and it likely won’t be in travel.
There will be an acceleration of self-service tech solutions.
Services that would have happened any way over the next decade — such as self-service and contactless check-ins, mobile keys, mobile check-ins, and mobile SMS/chat for requests will become the norm for hotels. Contactless payments like Apple Pay and Venmo will also be much more ubiquitous.
War on Coronavirus will be the new War on Terror.
Covid-19 will have a similar effect on the travel industry long-term as 9/11. Travel will return to normal, but with structural changes to airport security and individual privacy. Expect similar long-lasting changes. Some changes will be smart, some will be burdensome and pointless, and others will be overreaching and concerning.