What does the future of travel look like? The fact is: we don’t know

Terrilyn Kunopaski | April 3, 2020

In good times and in bad, our responsibility as travel & tourism consultants is to act as an extension of our clients’ teams, always providing services, support and direction with their best interests in mind. Safe to say, we’re in the midst of bad times. Three Mondays ago, one of our clients had only seen three cancellations as a result of Covid-19, and was optimistic about the summer ahead. By the end of that same week, they made the difficult decision to cancel their 2020 season altogether.

The effects of the coronavirus have been rapid, evolving and devastating to anyone and everyone working in this space, from major brands to small businesses.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, “the loss in travel-related jobs alone due to Covid-19 will more than double the U.S. unemployment rate from 3.5 per cent to 7.1 per cent by the end of April; the expected loss of $910 billion in travel-related economic output in 2020 would be seven times the impact of 9/11; and the predicted slowdown in the travel sector alone will push the U.S. economy into a protracted recession.”

These projections, by the way, changed drastically compared to a week earlier, when the impact was expected to be six-times that of 9/11.

The data is daunting, and that’s without even acknowledging the pandemic itself; whilst we all adjust on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour basis from a business perspective, the health and well-being of our families, friends and communities are threatened by this deadly virus.

Still, as economies collapse, hundreds of thousands are falling ill, and even more are being left jobless, a prevailing message being shared by some industry voices on various platforms is one of blanket optimism and near imminent returns to “normal.”

At Bannikin, our advice to our clients in navigating these ever-changing circumstances is to rely on facts. And as it relates to the future of the travel industry, the fact is: we simply do not know. We do not know when this crisis will be over, and we do not know what the world will look like when it is.

To claim otherwise is irresponsible in a time when uncertainty is the only certainty.

It’s not to say we can’t be future focused, because indeed, for some of us, that is the only option right now. But, planning and strategizing for a soon-return of an industry that is likely to be forever changed, fails to acknowledge the realities we are facing: Companies are going bankrupt. Borders are closed. Our very social existence has been altered. And critical details about the virus at the root of all this remain very much unknown, too.

If you’re among the lucky ones who feels confident that your business will still be operating a year from now, there are many considerations to make. For our team, one is how we can apply our expertise, skill sets and services beyond our typical target clientele; now is the time for diversification and a reimagination of our operations—from structure to identity.

Further, planning for different scenarios, as also recommended by organizations like PwC and Destination Think!, will set us up to react thoughtfully as whatever new reality unfolds. Whether with regard to timelines, travel restrictions or the combination of different circumstances, considering varying possibilities could prove beneficial if, and only if, these scenarios are developed using well-founded facts and expert insights based in strategic analysis—not “mass delusion,” in the words of Skift’s Rafat Ali.

Our industry is ripe for disruption, which has been made all the more clear in the way perspectives are so divided in today’s climate. The good news is, we’ve been handed a blank slate. The travel and tourism industry can take this opportunity to move ahead in those areas where we have fallen behind for so long: Equity and equality in our organizations, at all levels and on all stages. Implementation of truly sustainable practices — economic, social and environmental, especially in the destinations we serve. Innovation in technological platforms for travel advisors. Building organizations that put the customer first through goodwill practices and by fostering healthy & happy company cultures. Fair wages and safe working conditions for frontline workers, like hotel cleaning staff, guides and porters. Upheaval of management teams so those voices touting baseless forecasts of tourism coming back “sooner than we think” will be drowned out by leaders who are willing and able to see the future for what it needs to be, and lead the charge in rebuilding it.

It could be years before we see the fruits of this labour, and it’s impossible to predict what is in store—for the planet at large, nevermind for travel and tourism. But crises can be a catalyst for the strongest kind of evolution; it drives us, by necessity, to grow. What we do know is that this industry will be different when we come out on the other side. And there is great potential for it to be better, whenever that time comes.