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After months of pandemic-era challenges, it’s a given that everyone in the travel industry is hoping for a much better 2021. But the road forward is far from simple, as hotels, cruise lines and airlines strategize to find the best way forward.
There is reason to be optimistic, according to George Aquino, vice president and managing director of AHC Hospitality, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based hotel management company that operates multiple Marriott International and Hyatt properties.
“History taught us that societies will always bounce back after a pandemic,” he said. “The 1918 pandemic and World War I were followed by decade-long growth in mass consumerism, the Jazz Age and a renaissance in arts, culture and entertainment.”
Aquino has even given the recovery a name.
“Despite the gloomy forecast for our industry, I predict that it will recover quickly from COVID-19 and give birth to the ‘Travel Roaring Twenties,’” he said. “People are itching to travel, especially after months of living a sedentary lifestyle. The ramp up to normalcy will be faster than predicted.”
Travel advisors, meanwhile, should rethink their relationships with suppliers as they prepare for 2021, according to Paloma White, founder and CEO of Paloma White Travel in San Diego.
“With regard to agencies and how we conduct business, 2020 has been a reckoning in which facades can no longer exist,” she said. “The pandemic has exposed many suppliers as being less than desirable partners, and likewise, it has increased our loyalty to those who went out of their way to do right by us and our clients.”
People are itching to travel, especially after months of living a sedentary lifestyle. The ramp up to normalcy will be faster than predicted.
Airlines, cruise lines and hoteliers are more aware than ever of the importance of travel advisors, according to Jesse Ashlock, U.S. Editor at Conde Nast Traveler.
“This may sound strange, but I think in the long term this pandemic could have a salutary effect on the relationship of both suppliers and consumers with travel specialists,” he said. “In situations of uncertainty, they are the ones most able to provide certainty, and I think as such they will be recognized more than ever as essential to a safe, meaningful travel experience.”
Travel advisors and suppliers alike, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on the promise of a vaccine.
“The recent news about vaccines looks promising,” said Jane Braun, owner of Saddle Hill Travel, an agency with two locations in Massachusetts. “Assuming we have widespread distribution by mid-2021, the travel industry could start to see a gradual recovery as early as this spring, as consumer confidence around travel starts to tick up.”
Braun says that if vaccine distribution is perceived positively in the beginning of the year, summer and fall bookings could spike — particularly if supplier terms are flexible.
“We still have a lot of unknowns and obstacles to get through,” Braun said. “But we are optimistic about selling travel during this transition time to destinations that are open, and to working with suppliers who are offering flexible terms.”
Regardless of the time frame for a return to normalcy, here is an overview of what will likely be in store for three supplier segments in 2021.
Cruise Lines: More Protocols, Less ContactAs the cruise industry continues to plot its course forward, ships will feature greatly enhanced hygiene protocols as they gradually return to service. COVID-19 testing will be a necessary reality, according to Shannon McKee, president of Access Cruise, a Miami-based cruise consulting company.
“Testing is going to be crucial,” she said, comparing the current situation to how the industry adopted enhanced security procedures after 9/11. “Health and safety protocols will continue to be a priority — that’s not going to change.”
To that end, McKee predicts faster development of touch-free technology.
“The cruise lines are working diligently as they move down this touchless path, which they were already working on prior to the pandemic,” she said. “They have had to speed up their plan. They were already working on facial recognition — so guests do not have to show a passport or check in with an agent when arriving or departing the ship. They are going to continue to enhance those experiences onboard, so I think it’s going to get better for guests.”
It will be a while before all ships are sailing again, notes Tanner Callais, editor of the cruise website Cruzely.
“My reading of the Framework For Conditional Sailing Order is that it’s going to take much longer for them to come back,” he said. “I am actually thinking March at the earliest, and that is if the current spike in cases lets up. If cases continue to soar, I think it’s reasonable that the No Sail Order returns.”
Callais also predicts that advisors may have a harder time getting clients on some ships.
“You have the slow restart where ships come back online a few at a time — not entire fleets all at once,” he said. “Combine that with lots of pent-up demand, and you are likely to encounter supply problems.”
Cruise lines, meanwhile, are rolling out a variety of innovations. Windstar Cruises, for example, is installing new hospital-grade equipment, including HEPA filters, UV-C ultraviolet irradiation and electrostatic sprayers on all its yachts in time for its planned relaunch in the second quarter of 2021. Carnival Cruise Line has pushed back its relaunch to February, with new protocols in place, while Celebrity Cruises has introduced all-inclusive fares — which includes complimentary Wi-Fi access, drinks and gratuities — that give travel advisors more opportunities to earn commission. Crystal, which is scheduled to restart service in March, is launching a new expedition ship, Crystal Endeavor. It also recently debuted the Crystal Confidence 2.0 program, which includes a no-money-down deposit window through Jan. 5, as well as a virtual cruise experience program designed to keep travelers engaged even when they cannot set sail.
“The cruise industry has been put through the wringer, for sure,” said Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel, a travel agency in Garden Grove, Calif. “But we have seen innovation and determination from all of our cruise partners. They are implementing safety, testing and service protocols to keep virus spread in check onboard, and we foresee a robust cruising season once cruises are running again.”
Airlines: Testing Trials and Touchless TechnologyThe new year will likely bring continued turbulence for the airline industry, according to Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany, an airline consulting firm.
“For the airline business, 2021 will be more difficult than 2020,” he said. “Airline travel will return as allowed by government restrictions, economic ability and consumer confidence, but these three factors are largely outside the control of airlines.”
Sorensen says that the pandemic may diminish in 2021, but remnants of this storm will forever affect the travel industry, most notably airlines. He feels that testing is an additional layer of safety to help build confidence, but it is not the ultimate solution.
“Testing could become a major travel motivator if it became instant, inexpensive and accurate,” Sorensen said. “At present, no test offers all three. Even a vaccine is not a solution. It, too, is a layer of safety, albeit a very important layer. I am urging carriers to consider a future requirement for proof-of-vaccine to encourage acceptance.”
There are some bright spots, of course. The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the Boeing 737 MAX to return to service in the first quarter of 2021, which is good news for airlines affected by its nearly two-year grounding. And passengers may see more innovations, including self-service, touchless technology in airports.
Testing could become a major travel motivator if it became instant, inexpensive and accurate.
Booking habits will continue to vary from previous years, according to Airlines Reporting Corporation, which reports “significant volatility” in advance purchases this year that is likely to continue into the new year. Its 2021 Travel Trends Report, released in partnership with Expedia.com, notes that flexibility has become a top priority for air travelers, with most passengers booking flights less than a month in advance. The report also says that beach and vacation destinations in the U.S., Mexico and the Dominican Republic are among Expedia’s most-searched destinations for 2021.
Individual airlines will likely continue to find new ways to deal with the pandemic. In November, for example, United Airlines, American Airlines and British Airways experimented with free COVID-19 testing programs for transatlantic customers. Emirates, meanwhile, offers its passengers free insurance that covers expenses related to COVID-19 and offers discounted testing for visitors at the American Hospital and its satellite clinics in Dubai.
Hotels: Longer Stays, Less InsuranceToday’s challenges may bode well for travel advisor relations with the hospitality industry, according to Robert Rauch, CEO of the consulting firm RAR Hospitality.
“One significant advantage for travel agencies is that the hotel industry is hurting after a deep recession,” he said. “Online agencies will offer quick business, albeit at high commissions, while traditional agencies will be the first to bring back large chunks of corporate travel and leisure tour business. This should be a period of renewal for a relationship between hotels and agencies.”
The importance of advisor-booked group and corporate travel is underscored by Choice Hotels, which has revamped its group booking process to provide advisors access to a special Group Management Platform when they reserve groups of 10 or more rooms.
Rauch also predicts that hoteliers will expand the number of services and products they offer.
“I believe hotels will migrate toward providing more services for both travelers and locals,” he said. “Hotels will continue to look for new revenue streams that will include parking, even at suburban hotels; enhanced selling of liquor to-go; and sundry shops that add value rather than just providing a few foods, beverages and drugstore-style basics.”
Many pandemic-era protocols will likely stay in place even after the vaccine is distributed and bookings increase, Rauch adds.
“We will continue to see enhanced hygiene tools that will differentiate one hotel from another and hotels from vacation rentals,” he said. “Vaccine delivery will have an enormous impact on travel. First, travelers will feel comfortable making trips they would not even consider before taking the vaccine. Second, corporations will allow their team members to travel to events, conventions and on sales calls. Third, consumer confidence will jump to new heights due to pent-up travel demand.”
When it comes to travel patterns in the new year, longer stays will become even more popular, according to recent statistics from corporate expense manager SAP Concur and travel management platform Tripit. The ability to work and study remotely has fueled that trend, says John Russell, CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corporation, which recently relaunched its GuestHouse Extended Stay brand.
“As we continue to live through the pandemic, we are noticing there’s been one hotel segment that continues to perform significantly better under pressure, despite industry-wide drops in travel demand: extended-stay hotels,” Russell said. “Although the future of the pandemic is unclear, hotels will need to offer an extended-stay option in 2021 in order to remain competitive.”
Indeed, numerous hotel brands now offer extended-stay and remote work/study packages. Hyatt has its Work From Hyatt program, MGM Resorts has Viva Las Office and Hilton has WorkSpaces by Hilton, which offers special day rates that include a guestroom and other amenities.
Hotels are also using technology in new ways. Viva Wyndham Resorts, for example, is one of many brands that has revamped its digital offerings during the pandemic, with an upgraded website, digital check-in capabilities and touchless restaurant menus. Free and low-cost travel insurance, which has been offered by many hoteliers in 2020, is evaporating over the course of the coming months, with many such programs expiring at the end of this month. Among the hotel brands still providing coverage in the new year is Club Med, which has an emergency assistance program for guests staying before April 30, 2021.
According to travel advisor White, staying on top of a quickly evolving marketplace makes an advisor’s role even more important.
“We have all had to incorporate new information regarding cancellations, refunds, travel restrictions and insurance coverage in our client discussions and paperwork in an attempt to preclude any potential litigation,” she said. “Although the precise information given may evolve after 2021, ensuring we provide this information to the client — with documentation — has become imperative.”