October 2020. We just returned from two weeks in the Dolomites, Italy's Marche region and San Marino. Although our trip was primarily a personal one — to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary — we also wished to see for ourselves what was happening on the ground in travel and tourism (vs. talking about it on Zoom). Our goal: to witness firsthand how businesses are operating and adapting during this time.
Here is a summary of those observations, paired with takeaways for destinations and tourism companies. We include some best practices in messaging and operations, considerations to keep up with changing consumer trends and demands, and a reminder that sustainability doesn't need to be at odds with COVID-19 safety and hygiene measures.
- We understand that Italy does not represent or reflect tourism realities across the rest of the world. However, we imagine many of these items may resonate on some level no matter where you are located and whether you have been allowed to re-open in some capacity (or if you think you will re-open soon).
- To be clear, we are not advocating that everyone get up and travel right now. COVID-19 rates are again on the rise in many areas, especially as cooler temperatures visit the Northern hemisphere and people retreat inside (see our COVID-19 Travel Resource Guide for more details on relevant data and considerations). However, people will continue to travel now and in the future. The considerations we outline bear that in mind.
1. Think shared safety: “For you, for me, for us.”
Kudos to one of the safety campaigns in the Dolomite region featuring this short but effective slogan: “Für dich, für mich, für uns” (“For you, for me, for us”). While travel safety has traditionally focused on the traveler, the new mindful equilibrium ought to pay attention to the safety, comfort and protection of both hosts and guests. Destinations and travel companies must actively educate travelers that regulations and precautions are in place for everyone’s benefit.
2. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
In our conversations with many small accommodation providers in Italy, we found that they took the responsibility of enforcement on themselves. They not only made sure travelers complied with requirements, but they networked with other businesses to ensured that they did, too.
“If one of us fails to do this right, we’re all going to fail.”
Many of the business owners we spoke to understood that if one party is lax and someone gets sick, everyone would eventually suffer. An outbreak would negatively impact local businesses, economic activity and the health of the community. Destinations and travel companies have an opportunity to co-opt this and advocate a sense of shared responsibility and that we all — businesses, travelers, local communities — need to reinforce best practices and regulations for our shared travel public good.
3. Flexibility is king.
Be alert to travelers’ needs to remain flexible because of changing travel restrictions and border regulations. While we appreciate the predicament in which many travel businesses currently find themselves, companies need to make changing and cancelling plans as simple and transparent as possible for the traveler if they wish to hold her trust.
Refund terms need to be upfront (e.g., immediate vs. 2-3 weeks, as was the case with our car rental cancellation). Don’t hold refunds hostage. If we as an industry wish travelers to return, we cannot make this process painful and confusing. Cancellation and refund shenanigans erode consumer trust and encourage travelers to stay home and “wait it out.”
4. If booking directly would benefit your business, make it easy for me to do so.
Despite much ink having recently been spilled on the term “digital transformation” in travel and tourism, digital low-hanging fruit abounds. One such area: many accommodation and activity providers still don’t offer a simple direct online booking path for travelers. Particularly during this trip, we attempted to book accommodation directly as often as possible to ensure that as much income as possible landed in the hands of local accommodation providers. However, confirming a room directly was often difficult or impossible without online booking options and when phones and emails went unanswered.
Destinations and DMOs: If you wish to help local businesses capture more direct bookings and become less dependent on OTAs, research available tools and offer turnkey online booking options or plugin components for local provider websites. Note: We are not anti-OTA. In our tourism development work, we encourage local accommodation providers to establish a presence on them for marketing and market access purposes.
Kudos to the family-run B&B/hotel websites that not only had prompts on their website to book directly, but also provided information as to why booking directly — especially at a time like this — benefits everyone in the transaction. Asking for help is ok, and educating travelers on the importance of their booking decisions is, too.
5. Don’t compete on price. Compete on flexibility and options.
Offer more flexibility, adjustable/modular tours, shorter itineraries, self-guided tours, etc. Price is not the determining factor in most traveler decisions right now. Safety, travel confidence, border restriction awareness, and flexibility are.
Your competitive advantage in the long term shouldn’t be low price anyhow. Instead, compete on the quality and uniqueness of the experience you’re offering. In fact, as the pandemic plays out, prices may likely rise to reflect the true cost of product/service delivery in the new equilibrium.
6. Hygiene theater is often just a fig leaf.
Science tells us that COVID-19 is transmitted mainly through human contact and interaction, airborne droplets and human concentration indoors, rather than through surfaces. Mask-wearing and traffic/crowd control is what matters. But the temptation to spend cycles on what we feel we can control — the cleanliness and disinfection of surfaces — is clear. And we understand why: to make travelers feel safe, even if its effect is marginal.
The restaurant that packs itself full with people yet sprays disinfectant everywhere: pointless. Guest houses controlling traffic in common breakfast areas: mindful. Mask-wearing signs, elevator restrictions and guidance to core family/group, one person at a time in an office — these measures not only offer some comfort, but they better align with the science. And they not only help shift the immediate behavior, but they serve as a constant reminder that we need to be aware and vigilant for our own good and for the good of others.
Note: If you are unfamiliar with the term “hygiene theater”, check out this article from The Atlantic.
7. Hygiene theater for sustainability is a bad exchange.
Don’t exchange or abandon environmental and sustainability practices for the sake of hygiene theatre. Re-embracing single-use plastics and plastic water bottles will not stem the pandemic. Instead, businesses should educate travelers on why and how their sustainability practices also comply with COVID-19 hygiene best practices. This is not zero sum.
8. Continually adapt to the new ask.
Understand changing traveler behaviors — avoiding crowds, embracing outdoor activities, private groups — and focus your destination and travel product offerings to support this. This approach not only meets evolving traveler demands, it also helps manage visitor flows and aids client dispersion within a destination.
For example, make it easier to find information on how to visit towns, villages or national parks which may be less busy. For restaurants, consider extending or adjusting dining hours and offering outdoor seating options (and blankets) to help limit the number of people indoors.
9. As a default, wear a mask.
This goes for both travelers and anyone working in the tourism industry. If you or your employees even wonder or think, “Should I wear a mask?” Just do it. Even if it’s not legally or technically required, wear a mask anytime you are near or talking to someone who is not in your immediate or family circle. For example, even though the removal of one's mask was allowed when at a table at a restaurant, many people kept their mask on until they finished ordering and interacting with the waiter. That's good for everyone.
10. DMOs, destinations and travel companies: Answer your emails!
We understand business is difficult and lives have been disrupted. But if you intend to be an ongoing concern or organization, now is not the time to ignore inquiries. Keep communication lines open and make an effort, even if quick, to respond to inbound calls or emails, regardless of whether they inquire about a transaction, logistics or the current situation. These emails may not result in immediate sales, but your response to them can help to develop a relationship and earn trust. If your plan is to ignore travelers and customers until COVID-19 is over, and only then re-engage when money is guaranteed to flow, you are making a mistake.