The travel industry is taking a catastrophic hit. According to a recent analysis by the US Travel Association, COVID-19 has already resulted in a loss of 8 million travel-related American jobs. Additionally, total spending loss on travel in the United States, which includes transportation, lodging, retail, attractions, and restaurants, is expected to top a half a trillion dollars by year end. This projected $502 billion is a 45 percent decrease from last year, and is nine times greater than the impact of 9/11.
How long it will take to recover is anyone’s guess. When will people feel safe again?
“There are a lot of factors in the psychology of travel,” said Karen Yates, community director for the International Association of Tour Directors and Guides. “For some travelers the fear will linger for a long time to come and they will be much more reluctant to travel in hard-hit areas or those with marginal health care. At the other end, those intrepid travelers, often international travelers, will be ready to pack their bags as soon as they are able.”
Travel advisers are reporting that they are seeing long-range bookings into 2021 and beyond, especially for larger, bucket-list, special occasion travel. Some travelers are also booking now, traveling later to take advantage of steeply discounted prices. But largely, people are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Even after things open up, some people will remain skeptical, but this could balance out if travel prices remain low,” said Yates. “As it gets later in 2020 and leading into 2021, there may be a weariness that sets in with curtailed travel plans, and travelers will be more likely to take risks over time.”
One consensus we heard over and over again: Travel is highly valued, and we won’t give it up for long.
“With every fiber of my being, I believe the travel industry’s long-term prospects are good,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors. “It is endemic to the human spirit to go and see and to interact face to face. Regardless of how long this crisis lasts, Americans are unlikely to give up the life- and relationship-enriching experiences that travel provides.”
But what have we learned from this pandemic-induced crisis? How will travel change in the future? Here are some thoughts from industry leaders.
Travel advisers will be more important than ever.
There have been hundreds of change-of-plan stories. During the past months of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions, travel advisers have worked to bring their clients home, re-book travel and get refunds. The takeaway: It’s important to have someone on your side.
“If you’re concerned about your financial portfolio, your 401(k), your savings, you’re likely on the phone with your broker and your financial adviser, right?” said Kerby. “The same is true for savvy travelers. You need to be talking to a travel adviser. Doing so will give you peace of mind. No matter what happens, you have a professional in your corner helping you make plans, and rearrange plans as necessary.”
Advisers are also up-to-date on travel restrictions, and often the best source for information on airline and lodging discounts.
There’s no place like home.
The travel industry leaders we surveyed believe that Americans will look for closer-to-home destinations. “When things start opening up, the average traveler will be staying closer to home,” says Yates.
Travelers will be looking at less-visited destinations and US-based locations, many opting to drive rather than fly. Crowds will be avoided and there will be greater interest in traveling in small groups with friends and family.
“Before the pandemic, our tour operator members named small groups as one of the top three travel trends projected to grow the most over the next five years,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association. “Given the current climate, this will likely continue to grow in popularity.”
Industry leaders are also predicting a new appreciation for the outdoors. “We anticipate seeing a growing demand for more nature-based travel, a focus on natural assets like outdoor adventures, national parks, wildlife, and wide-open spaces,” said Dale.
We’ll be playing it safe.
There will be a greater emphasis on safety conditions and higher standards for cleanliness in hotels, airplanes, and on tours. “Group tours, just as with the airlines, will have a greater focus on sanitizing buses and ensuring the health and safety of guests,” said Yates. “Tour companies will be more proactive in understanding if a guest has an illness prior to departure and making adjustments for those guests. And it’s likely there will be quicker action in managing guests who fall ill during the tour. Masks and other PPE will be used more readily.”
Travel advisers often recommend purchasing travel insurance to their clients. In the future, more will do so, buying “cancel for any reason” policies to secure big ticket flights and trips.
Advisers also recommend that travelers enroll in the US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Once enrolled, you’ll receive information from the US embassies about safety conditions in the countries you plan to visit. It also helps the embassy to contact you quickly in case of an emergency, and for family and friends to get in touch with you in an emergency.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com