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How the travel industry emerges from COVID-19 (If I had a crystal ball)

The COVID-19 outbreak has been devastating to the travel industry. From emergency shut downs, to economic uncertainty — airlines, lodging and restaurants have been devastated. And, with no real idea of when life will return to “normal,” the travel and tourism industry has been left with a lot of time, and not a lot of options. We did a deep dive on the best thinking — and here is what we came up with for what will emerge when the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

Airlines: For years airline seats got smaller, as the leg room shrunk and flights got fuller. Ever crowd into a pre-boarding line for Southwest, or a mobbed pre-boarding line at a gate? People want to get on and off an airliner quickly — and it is a high stress event. So, for the airlines that survive and many cannot survive a month with little revenue, life has to change. But that might be the easy part — airlines will need to rethink boarding and arrivals, check in, and baggage claim. Seats will need to be further apart, new material will need to be installed, and air filtration will be more important than Wi-fi.

The demand for short flights may drop — and the thought of flying in a tiny regional jet may be out of the question. Buses may face the same issue — and rail travel impact -where seats are more spread out and fresh air is accessible is hard to call.

Certainly, longer flights might be a different story — bigger jets, and bigger destinations may be more of a draw — if the economy recovers.

Lodging: Big chains have housekeeping down to a science. And they bounced after the bedbug scare. This will be a challenge — and may tilt the advantage toward the huge chains that have been so dominant. I have to wonder about rentals — where the cleaning is far from standard and cancellation fees can be pretty steep. So, lodging will have to reinvent itself — and revise room layout, housekeeping, and policies — it may be the end of big brand expansion and growth — at least for a while. The question is if smaller, local chains can survive. And they might, especially if they occupy the high end. Certainly, the truth may be in a small package. As in the big hotel with the crowded lobby or the elevator in a bad spot, the small, intimate hotel may be just the place folks want to go — and the rural hotel even more so.

Regions: A safe bet is brands are out the window. COVID-19 changed the world. And it may reframe the whole way we see travel. So, Times Square, full of folks, was once a huge thrill. Now - maybe not so much. And that paradigm may be true elsewhere - Paris, Venice, Hollywood: the crowds now go from being exciting to being scary. So, what will folks look for? Rural, small batch, nature, and wild. No crowds, no lines, no masses. Crowded parks are hard to justify in a world where COVID-19 lurks. The possibility is that there will be smaller and more exclusive options, and that big destinations will go the way of resorts in the Poconos.

In fact, we may see a rare regression in tourism. The industry was born in the 19th century when railways took folks from crowded cities to the mountains and seashore to get away from sickness.

They took a train to spend weeks on end in the White Mountains and other natural locals, in grand hotels. Then the car came along, the estivation became “tourism.” Enter the open road, Route 66, the “motel,” and Howard Johnson’s.

Then came the jet in the 1950s, and the glamour of “come fly with me” — and Pan Am and TWA would carry you off to Paris, Athens or Lisbon.

Deregulation and later low-cost airlines made those destinations available to all. We started to read of mass-tourism — and the age of the Airbnb was upon us.

So, are we going back to the estivation, staying in a remote area, enjoying nature, and lack of crowds? That will come at the expense of the once hallowed bucket list destination.

Back to branding — if the market shifts, a brand must shift too. New motivation means old branding just may have the opposite effect.

The down time is the right time to do research, better understand where the make is going, take stock of your assets — what do you have that WORKS in the new normal? What images and messages do you want to share? What under performing asset is now the magic that forms new jewels of your brand?

Sit on your brand, and see your market share slip away — rethink it while you have the time, and benefit when the new normal arrives.

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