The past two weeks have been simply surreal. We were totally swept away by the incredible effect that COVID-19 has brought on the world, especially for all of us who are in the hospitality industry and felt it immediately. Our business went from thriving to surviving in just a few days. We had one crisis meeting after another and every day ended up with a great plan that was relevant for all of 10 minutes. However, after these two incredibly difficult weeks, things are stabilizing and it’s time to focus on moving towards the “after” time. Whether you’re a hotelier or a vendor, such as we are, the main question is: Who and when will be the first people to travel again?
In a seemingly ‘crazy’ hypothetical situation, I envision young families and people with no previous serious medical conditions or chronic diseases being some of the first to experience limited travel. They could receive a special certificate from their doctor classifying them as “COVID-19 low-risk travelers”, and be allowed to travel to certain destinations and hotels. At their destination, they would be able to explore, but only within restricted places. On the upside, they would be able to stay at the hotel resort for as long as they’d like with similar ‘low-risk’ travelers. If someone sneezes or gets ill, no one would panic and they could all continue to enjoy their stay. Upon their return, they would have to self quarantine for 14 days and that’s it.
This might sound like a radical possibility, but variations of it are already happening. For example, if you are traveling from Europe to China, you might not be guaranteed the hotel of your choice. Recently, an investor shared an anecdotal example of his Italian business partner being refused a room at a certain hotel in a province north of Shanghai. He had to go to a hotel designated for foreigners. At our own company, a colleague’s friend traveling abroad in Thailand shared a photo posing with a sticker marking her as a “corona approved traveler” due to medical screening when entering the country.
We’ve been able to gain glimpses of the future from experts who have lived through past epidemics. In a recent Wired article, Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who faced smallpox, discusses the potential of a time in the near future when a certain amount of people will get sick, recover, and become immune. Immunity is already being seriously discussed, and as the number of people with immunity increases, we will see parts of life and services returning to normal. This includes the travel industry.
With epidemiologists projecting when we can roughly expect new travelers, it is up to hoteliers to determine the who. David Eisen, HotStats’ Director of Hotel Intelligence and Customer Solutions, suggests that hotels should look very closely at their past guest segments and when they are likely to return. While I absolutely agree, we should also look deeper and account for the previously mentioned scenarios and expect that all travelers might not return, at least not in the short term.
In my opinion, regardless of the outcome, travel segments will initially be affected by the health & risk statistics of COVID-19. That means that the first travelers will most likely be young people (younger than 40 or 50 years) with their families, people with minimal pre-existing conditions, millennials (a group so desperate to travel they are happy to stare down death to do it), and business travelers. However, the latter might not be as big as it was before, at least for a while. Not only because of the upcoming recession, but because many businesses are realizing that their meetings can be held on-line.
The single undeniable takeaway remains: travel will prevail. It’s crucial that we keep our minds open to all possibilities and closely follow data. There are dark projections of long lasting periods of “no-travel” and quarantine, but I believe that we will start to travel again much sooner than people might think.
We just need to be prepared to hit the ground running.