The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the international travel industry. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is now expecting international tourist arrivals to fall by between 1% and 3% this year, resulting in an estimated loss of US$30-50 billion in international tourism receipts.
You might, quite reasonably, be thinking that now is not a good time to be a travel agent or tour operator. Yet, as with all crises, it is how you react and deal with the situation that will make the real difference.
In this article, we outline some strategies and actions to help you cope with the current crisis and prepare for the recovery.
Your chance to shine as an expert and professional
The spread of the coronavirus is proceeding at different rates in different parts of the world. There are still large geographical areas in Africa, North and South America, Russia and the Middle East where its impact so far has been minimal or non-existent.
International travel has by no means ground to a halt, although many airlines are cutting their capacity and major routes are being suspended. The situation is fast-moving and changing every day.
It is essential that you stay on top of the very latest developments in the destinations that you offer and that you are able to provide up-to-date information to your customers.
If you are US based, your main source of official travel advice will come from the US Department of State.
You could also encourage your customers to enrol in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that allows US citizens to register their travel with the nearest US Embassy or Consulate.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has useful information and updates. If you are based elsewhere, your government’s website will carry the latest travel and coronavirus advice.
Show that you care about the wellbeing of your customers and post practical advice (e.g. a guide to extra hygiene precautions during a flight) and updates on your website and through your marketing channels.
Be flexible and offer full refunds or changes at no extra cost
While it is obvious that you want to minimize your losses as much as possible, it’s important to remember that the coronavirus is a threat to public health.
You should consider giving your customers the option to cancel bookings and receive full refunds. Airbnb, for example, revised its policy to allow all reservations across the world made before 14 March, with check-in dates from 14 March to 14 April, to qualify for penalty-free cancellations.
If full refunds are not possible or appropriate, give customers full credit to re-book with you once things have calmed down. Treating your customers with empathy and recognising their concerns will help you retain their loyalty in the long run.
Your customers will want to be insured for new trips they are taking this spring and summer. Travel insurance policies can be complex but you are in a good position to offer advice to your customers and recommend that they purchase the maximum coverage possible. This is another area where you can demonstrate your professionalism and your bespoke customer service.
Deals, discounts, and bargains
Coronavirus has caused a significant fall in tourism numbers. Airlines and hotels are discounting heavily. For those members of the public who are willing to travel long-haul, there is a huge choice of bargains to be had. According to a New York Times article in recent weeks, there have been specific campaigns to attract tourists to Alaska, Japan, Philippines and Australia.
As a tour operator or travel agent, you are in a strong position to promote some great-value packages to take from now until May. However, although it might be tempting to shout from the rooftops about your amazing deals, now is not the best time for blanket marketing. Instead, find a way of identifying your customers who are interested in travel right now (March through May) and send your special offers only to them.
Domestic tours and the great outdoors
There will be plenty of people not prepared to visit an airport or take a flight but who still want a holiday. This is a great opportunity to promote domestic packages which couples and families can reach by car.
Our guess is that you live within five hour’s drive of stunning natural scenery and places of interest which you may have even overlooked!
As an expert on your immediate area, why not use your creativity to come up with some new tours and packages based on the great outdoors, sports/adventure, hiking, nature and wildlife themes. Holidays and leisure breaks including pristine scenery, good-quality air, outdoor activities and low volumes of people are likely to be more popular than ever this year.
Invest to protect your profitability
Even in a downturn, the travel industry remains intensely competitive. Whilst it may seem like a logical reaction to find ways to cut down on costs, this should be done with great care.
It is more important now than during the good times that you budget to meet the essential requirements of running your business. In fact, with careful planning, you should also be investing in your long-term profitability.
One significant area to look at is IT. Optimizing your IT operations will give you a significant competitive edge by introducing new ideas and technologies.
The founders of Hotelmize looked outside the travel industry to the very latest stock market trading technology for inspiration. They have created a profit optimization solution that automatically identifies when the price of a hotel booking already made on your platform reaches its very lowest, re-shops it and increases your net profits by at least 30%.
The software uses algorithms powered by artificial intelligence and based on data from 23 million hotel rates. Last year Hotelmize re-shopped US$132m worth of hotel bookings, creating an extra average profit of US$72.00 per sale for its clients.
Hotelmize is a simple way of boosting your profit margin thanks to the AI-powered re-shopping of existing bookings.
Advance bookings and pent-up demand
Encourage your customers to look ahead and book their trips for 2021 and 2022 now. You can make forward bookings more attractive to them by softening your policies regarding deposits and cancellations.
It is difficult to predict how the coronavirus will spread or how effectively it will be contained, although the latest news from China, where the virus originated, is encouraging.
In an effort to halt the spread of Covid 19, millions of residents are now having severe restrictions placed on their daily lives and movement.
As a travel agent or tour operator, you will need to be extra ready for the recovery. Once the current crisis is over, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand from millions of people who want to travel and enjoy their new-found freedom once again.
Marc, who graduated from Balearic Is. University of Tourism, is an experienced Business Development Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the leisure, travel & tourism industry. His skills in Negotiation, Hospitality Management, Customer Service, Sales, and Hotel Management, make him a strong business development professional in the Travel Industry.