We could start with a poetic reference to humanity’s nomadic heritage in the dawn of civilisation, where our ancient ancestors furthered beyond Mesopotamia to birth new cities and cultures. How travel is embedded deep within our veins and is essentially the lifeblood that draws us to venture unfamiliar plains. We could, only it’s not exactly true.
Our pastoralist forefathers journeyed cyclically, whether it was to seek fertile pastures outside landlocked regions or to establish new territory. Purposed by sustenance, which is far from our motivations to travel these days. And if ‘these days’ allude to the train wreck that was last year, we have to address the elephant in the room while stating the obvious: the pandemic has fundamentally impacted not just the industry, but us as consumers as well.
Travel analytics company ForwardKeys detected an emerging pattern of domestic travel bookings among major markets in the first 10 months of 2020. Some 87 percent of Chinese flight tickets were issued within a fortnight of departure, 69 percent for South Korea, and the most notable jump in Russia with 70 percent of travellers booking only four days prior.
APAC director of ForwardKeys, Jameson Wong, maintains that as we get used to the propensity for late bookings, shorter lead times might become the new travel custom. Other surfacing habits include an inclination for direct flights as opposed to connecting ones, which poses a major challenge for hubs and duty-free operators located within.
While Wong also expects airlines to keep fares low to attract passengers before naturally rising according to recovering demand, he believes business travel demand could possibly see a slower recovery. “Airlines will likely launch lower business-class fares to tempt leisure travellers to upgrade, which carriers like Qatar, Emirates and Lufthansa are already considering,” he remarks.
Locally, the mere announcement of the Singapore-Hong Kong bubble on 15 October caused flight searches between the two countries to soar to 50 percent of 2019 levels, while bookings jumped to 30 percent. Both skyrocketed three weeks later when the details of the bubble were confirmed. The question truly is whether these trends are disruptions that will die out with the arrival of a vaccine or changes that will never make a departure.
Back with a vengeance
Alongside partnerships between Singapore Tourism Board and Expedia to the plethora of venues to redeem SingapoRediscovers vouchers, our bid to save the local economy is a likelier result of deprivation and pent-up demand waiting to be released. Jewel Changi’s Glampcation series, a tent-type stay at the airport itself, sold out within the weekend of its opening.
Needless to say, staycations are not only prevalent here. With ‘nearcations’ the next viable option for American citizens and where road trips are not possible, the phenomenon of revenge spending saw huge shopping sprees in China post-lockdown. Let’s not forget fallen brethren who bought into the concept of ‘homecation’, demonstrating the innumerable ways the word vacation can be modified when desperate.
According to the Global Traveler Sentiment Survey by leading travel data provider OAG, our appetite for travel has not waned in light of a life-threatening virus. Some 69 percent of the market intended to travel internationally within six months from August 2020. Interestingly, however, aboard the plane is where majority of consumers fear catching COVID-19; with 38 percent of Asia- Pacific travellers regarding the aircraft the primary potential hotbed, the Americas at 40 percent, and Europe at 45 percent.
Above leaving the middle seat empty, the consensus is also shared that the most effective safety measure to be implemented is to require all passengers and staff to wear masks. Unsurprisingly, the millennials and Gen-Zs lead the charge of least concerned during travel, with 56 percent rating their fear level at five or below.
Again, the rate at which tickets to Restaurant A380@Changi and Cruises to Nowhere were snapped up only proves that absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder. So fond it overcomes the fear of infection. If customers are relatively unfazed by the stage of travel they consider the chief breeding ground, recovery for hospitality sectors should, by proxy, bear more promise.
The new temporal
“While we might not have imagined a global crisis as devastatingly disruptive to the travel industry as COVID-19, we’ve seen the spread of SARS and H1N1 regionally, and viruses such as Zika in other parts of the world, in addition to other disruptors to the industry such as natural disasters, financial crisis and political unrest,” says Cristiano Rinaldi, chief operating officer at Capella Hotels and Resorts.
“All of these are things that we may not anticipate, but we must remain nimble to navigate our business through this and come through it stronger. Ultimately, the key to navigating the hospitality industry is flexibility and adaptability, having to reset and redefine what it means to operate within the parameters of a new normal.”
Rinaldi himself adapted to a new landscape amid these strange times, taking on the role last September and adding one of the top luxury hotel brands to an already-impressive portfolio including Edition hotels and One&Only resorts. He remains focused on the wellbeing of guests and employees, the latter of which he reveals are often overlooked.
The question truly is whether these trends are disruptions that will die out with the arrival of a vaccine or changes that will never make a departure.
“The far-reaching impact on our staff and their families notwithstanding, there is also a knock-on effect with our supply chains, the communities in which we operate in, support and provide for. It goes beyond just the confines of a physical hotel or entity.” Rinaldi explains that knowing how to reset to the right degree and continue building trust with guests and stakeholders is critical.
“Having to socially and physically distance is the antithesis of hospitality in many ways. Hospitality denotes warm, gracious service with a high degree of personalisation and a genuine smile. Having to pivot from all that in its purest traditional sense to conform to our new reality is something that we, as hoteliers, are also having to adjust to.”
Rinaldi believes that the best practices in hygiene and contactless measures will live on post-recovery, such as à la carte buffet breakfasts which also reduce food waste. Currently, Capella’s technical services team is reimagining how new properties are designed in anticipation of guests’ expectations. From the practical non-touch control panels to the meaningful increase of family-oriented experiences, these implementations now bear greater repercussions than meets the eye.
TripAdvisor data states properties that indicate their health and safety practices have a 16 percent higher click-through rates than properties that do not. Clearly, these simple but perceivable additions can make an impression on customers. The travel booking site goes on to point out a substantial 73 percent look to avoid crowds, with traffic and search trends for nature destinations on the rise.
It’s difficult to determine whether homestay platforms such as Airbnb can hold the same competitive slice of the pie moving forward. While the unregulated domestic households cannot account for the meticulous cleaning protocols that traditional travel lodging undergoes, they warrant a significantly lower chance of interactions with the lack of common areas such as elevators, lobbies and facilities used by several other travellers simultaneously.
Campgrounds and farmhouses with outdoor activities are among the few that have grown in popularity. “Consumers are now being encouraged to see what a difference their spending can make to local businesses and communities in the destinations they visit,” says Kanika Soni, TripAdvisor’s chief commercial officer.
“If, as our research suggests, health and safety practices are more heavily weighted in customers’ decision-making, then there is an opportunity for us as an industry to channel consumer interest towards other practices that serve the greater good.”
These very steps that brands are taking to promote customer knowledge of the establishment’s cleanliness conduct can be replicated in the education of sustainable practices. How a business is steering away from single-use amenities or other precautions to reduce harm on local ecosystems is one way that could foster this positive shift for the industry.
Undermining old preferences
We could always afford to take it a step further, as many already have. If being green is about doing less damage where possible, independent eco-luxury collective Regenerative Travel shows there’s more that can be done. “Sustainability is about reaching net neutral, and regeneration is actually making it better than you found it,” co-founder Amanda Ho defines. “Better for the environment and better for the community.”
Uncomfortable as it is to admit, our objectives for travel have strayed far from its original purpose—a cultural exchange. How often we’ve chosen a destination for its visuals; picturing how good it would look within the context of social media. Ho is ready to acknowledge that the fault doesn’t lie with consumers alone. “Unfortunately, much of the travel industry has been disconnected from the people and place.”
“COVID-19 is just a ‘dress rehearsal’ for climate change. There is a need for us to begin to repair and replenish. The pandemic proves that we have to make changes or life will get very difficult to impossible for future generations.
It also proves that we, as humans, can make dramatic changes to our behaviour if we need to. It requires us to ask, ‘why do we travel?’ and gives us an opportunity to change how we travel.”
The New York-based brand director tells how the hotels in the Regenerative portfolio have taken the pandemic as a time to take a cohesive pause and rethink operations. Course of action includes implementing distribution programmes to provide low- cost meals, essential items, and prescriptions to staff across the globe as well as the local communities to allow their employees to work while still giving back.
Bawah Reserve resort is a leading example. Accepted into the Signing Blue programme by WWF Indonesia, the establishment commits to marine protection around the resort as well as the prosperity of the people in the surrounding islands by providing resources education through the Bawah Anambas Foundation. In the Philippines, Siargao’s Nay Palad Hideaway follows a similar framework, supporting local schools and cultivating a permaculture farm for its own produce.
As much as the platform works to bridge the gap between vacation and values, moving from sustainable to regeneration necessitates a whole system’s approach that creates abundance for all stakeholders; chiefly the land, its community and the wildlife. “In order to achieve a more regenerative future, we must have more radical transparency, be open to collaboration between all stakeholders such as NGOs, hotels and government, more diversification to create resilience and look to furthering policies for diversity and inclusion,” Ho opines.
Big brother versus you
It makes sense for a sector that’s nearly three times larger than agriculture to demand greater regulation. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates tourism to make up 10 percent of global GDP in 2019, amounting to almost USD9 trillion in worth. Just think how much that costs in terms of damage done, both socially and environmentally.
Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company proposes the merit of a government’s intervention. As COVID-19 accelerated the shift to digital, it finds that many tourism SMEs were unable to fully integrate new online capabilities unlike the capacity of larger businesses. Commission rates ranging from 10 percent for larger hotel brands to 25 percent for independent hotels certainly don’t help the odds.
Here, we see the widespread reach exemplified by the multifaceted campaigns encouraging a ‘Singapoliday’, comprising a whopping SGD45 million pumped solely into marketing. It is a visibly consolidated effort roping in key partners of the industry where the public is constantly updated on the roll-out even through official news channels.
While most countries can await a likely helping hand—that is, the government that will step in for economy’s sake—the power to shape travel still lies with the individual consumer. Not to spit a cliché, but it boils down to being conscious. Becoming more aware of the social and economic impact that your tourism dollar can make on the destination will surely contribute to a more informed selection of companies to support.
Never have we had an episode like this in the 21st century to quite literally put a pause on the entire system of aviation, attractions and accommodation. Mass reform on a scale where the results we witnessed are undeniable. If there’s any moment to re-evaluate the way and, more crucially, the purpose of our jaunts so as to forge a paradigm shift ahead, it’s truly no time like now.
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