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My thoughts from 33 years in the travel industry on the implications of the COVID-19 coronavirus

Before beginning this article, I’d like to wish all our readers, their families and communities, a safe and healthy few months ahead as we all come to terms with the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. And for my many colleagues who work in the travel industry, I wish you all the resilience that will be needed to get through these difficult times. At a travel industry event I attended recently, people were saying they had not seen anything like the current situation since 9/11. I hate to say it, but I think this virus poses a much greater threat to the industry than was brought about by that fateful and tragic day. A bigger impact than 9/11? After the 9/11 attacks, stock markets around the world plummeted anything from 5-10%, even causing trading to be cancelled. Recently, we have seen multiple daily drops of that order and cumulative falls of some 30% in the past week or two. 2,977 victims were tragically killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. Double that number have already sadly lost their lives due to COVID-19. US tourism saw declines of up to 50% in the immediate aftermath and the last 4 months of 2001 saw a global tourism decline of 11%. Goodness knows what the impact of the COVID-19 will be upon tourism in 2020, but even at this stage I’d be confident that it will be significantly greater. The moment President Trump opened his mouth and declared there was nothing to fear by saying “we have it totally under control” and “it’s going to be just fine” should probably have been sufficient cause for concern. In my opinion, the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus is already much greater than that of 9/11 and I suspect will be felt for some time to come. Airlines are closing operations and laying off staff, hotels (and entire regions) have been quarantined, cruise ships have been unable to dock, countries are closing their borders and more. Whether you see it as media hysteria or a serious threat to human health is immaterial. There has never been a threat quite like this to the travel industry in modern times. Without doubt, there will be many travel businesses that are unable to withstand this turmoil. CAPA Centre for Aviation – one of the world’s most trusted sources of market intelligence for the aviation and travel industry – has already warned that most of the world’s airlines could be bankrupt by the end of May without help from the government and industry. For travel businesses that can weather the storm, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. They say that in times of crisis, it is those that keep marketing and who are creative with their business strategy, that win through in the end. Of course, this is hard to justify – if not impossible – when no income is coming in and there is no apparent sign of people booking travel. So how long will it be until the travel industry bounces back? How long is a piece of string? One person in the industry I spoke to said the travel industry would be reeling for decades to come from this virus. I strongly disagree with this assertion. Of course, confidence within the industry is at a very low ebb – the lowest I have ever known. But the industry has shown many times how resilient it can be. Not only has it come through 9/11, but it has also faced many other challenges such as volcanic ash clouds, SARS, swine flu, bombings, terrorist attacks on hotels, hijackings and more. Have these events stopped people travelling? Sometimes, yes. But not usually for long. I am a little reticent to make predictions about the year ahead. It will depend on multiple factors: the seasonality of the virus, the control of its spread, statements from the World Health Organisation, government policies around the world and people’s willingness to travel to name just some. If there is to be an upturn later this year, it of course won’t compensate for the many losses that will have already been experienced by the industry. Looking further ahead, and assuming no other crises or unforeseen events, I anticipate that we could be looking at anything up to 18 months before we start seeing any return to normality. At some point next year, we will hopefully have a vaccine that has successfully undergone clinical trials in order that it meets with regulatory approval. Time will tell, but I certainly don’t foresee it taking decades – or even several years – for the travel industry to recover. Where does this leave travel businesses in the meantime? For some, this will sadly be too little too late. That might seem very pessimistic, but it is simply the reality. There are bound to be a number of casualties. For others, the temptation will be to cut costs in every way possible, to lay off staff, put an end to any spend on marketing and do whatever is possible to ensure survival. Pulling the plug on marketing is a seemingly natural reaction – especially when there is nothing to immediately ‘sell’ – but will not necessarily be the wisest decision for all. The CMSWire has a good article on marketing in a time of crisis if you are interested in some further reading. Just because you might not be selling flights, hotel rooms, tours, etc. doesn’t mean to say there aren’t things you can be doing. Just remember that the travel businesses that truly persevere through these tough times will be the ones that are best positioned to reap the benefits when tourism finally picks up again. Whther you’re making some strategic changes to the way your business runs, fixing your website, working on your SEO or preparing some blog posts, there is plenty you can be doing, assuming you can weather the financial turmoil in the interim. Just keep in mind that the travel industry WILL recover… it just may take time. In the same way, there will also be opportunities for investors in travel stocks, but knowing when to invest and which companies to invest in will be the tricky part. As one reporter put it recently, when the markets are in freefall, it’s like trying to catch a falling knife. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. If you are involved in the travel industry, what have been your experiences to date? Can your business survive? How long do you think it will take for the industry to recover? If you are a traveller, how long will it be before you choose to travel again?

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Telegraph.

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  1. I totally agree with your view that much of the travel industry will keep on marketing. The travel industry has always sold dreams and aspirations.

    How many of us see an advertisement or read an article and immediately decide on that destination or hotel for our next travel adventure?

    For most of us our travel purchases result from researching and collecting information over a period of time. For instance, for some time now I’ve been leaning towards a safari. Those plans are sadly now on hold. However, reading the recent piece on A Luxury Travel Blog on flying safaris, was just another piece in the jigsaw for when I finally come to book that safari trip.

    1. Exactly, Roger! Travel marketing isn’t just for the ‘here and now’. Some of the most popular articles on A Luxury Travel Blog – even to this day – date back several years. So any activity that’s done now in these lean periods can still reap rewards much later.

  2. Thank you for your measured and sane words in this crazy and unprecedented time. Resilience is key as well as looking after existing and past customers. Strategic marketing will eventually bear fruit. This too shall pass and now is the time to not waste a crisis. Looking ahead to a bright future in luxury, curated travel.

  3. We all like to think that as human beings we take logical and rational decisions. The reality is far from that belief, particularly with travel. Look at the number of people who give up job and home to “go travelling”.

    Even more importantly we are all individuals, there will be some people who will travel the moment that borders are open again and a minority who will never leave their homeland again. The great help for most travel businesses is that many people have short memories. Within weeks of the virus easing off people will be queuing up at the departure gates again.

    1. Very true, Elizabeth. And even if they do have longer memories, I think most people appreciate that this a highly unusual situation and not likely to recur, and cause this same level of disruption again, any time soon.

    2. One of the saving graces for the travel industry is that it isn’t all about travel! Most of my friends spend a lot of time reading about travel and watching film clips before making up their minds on where they are going.

      As people have to self isolate and spend more time at home, many of them will be working on their travel plans for the future.

      Travel businesses who can feed that passion for travel during the dark days with exciting passionate material will be the ones that will thrive when the upturn eventually arrives.

  4. Excellent, well written article on an issue which is affecting everyone on the planet. At a time when certain elements of the media are losing their minds, it`s comforting to see Paul has written a measured and intelligent piece on what is a life changing subject for millions of people and thousands of businesses in the travel industry.

  5. Paul, people are scared and then there are some who couldn’t care less.

    It will be tough for a long while, so we just have to try to get through it.

    9/11 was tough, but this is worst I think as it will take a little longer for people to travel again.

    Once the infection rate reduces, we’ll be good, but who knows how long that will take.

    In the meantime, try to move only if you have to and remember that there are others who are at high risk, so dont be insensitive.

    1. Very good point, Kerwin. In the early days of the outbreak, I saw a lot of people posting that the whole situation was “ridiculous” and they didn’t care if they got a little bit ill because “it was just like flu”, but really the concern needs to be for those who are elderly or vulnerable that they might come into contact with, and not necessarily themselves.

      Here in the UK we seem to be taking a different course of action to many, not being quite so drastic in closing schools early, etc. in a bid to not put too much strain on the health service at any one time and in order to develop ‘herd immunity’. It has come in for quite a bit of criticism but, if you look at the science behind their thinking, I think it could have some merit. People who are more vulnerable are being urged to take more drastic measures of self-isolation, even if they don’t have symptoms, but not everyone.

      Once things settle down, it will be interesting to look back and see which countries are deemed to have handled the situation best, from both a health and economic perspective.

  6. I’ve worked in the media for 20 years, on the travel side for 15. Like you, I think it WILL recover, it will just take time. I thought my career in magazines was shot in 2008, but it just took a little pivoting at the right time to stay afloat—I think the same will happen now, too.

  7. Tough times, indeed. I’m currently located in Vietnam and they were clear of cases for about three weeks until a plane flew from London to Hanoi carrying 21 infected passengers. Since then, the government has done a good job of tracking down infected persons, getting information about where they went and who they may have come into contact with. So it hasn’t been anything like what other countries in the region are facing. There were quarantines and cancellations in place for Chinese and South Korean tourists and just in the past week or so I’ve already seen a few of them around town in Da Nang again. I think the short-term has been demolished but what seems to turn things around is proper testing, lockdowns and allowing medical personnel to do their jobs. Some countries are better at that than others. I think the next month or two is going to be challenging for most but once the summer hits, I think things will begin to change drastically for the better just as they did for the worse, recently. I agree endurance is key.

    1. I heard about that in the news and it sounded like they were very quick to isolate passengers from that plane. To date, Vietnam seems to have done remarkably well with the containment of the virus given that it shares a border with China.

  8. Great article Paul. Uncertain times ahead for sure. It’s now that we should rethink strategies and ‘work smart’ to ensure that the industry not only survives but is ready to bounce back once this is all over. Stay safe and see you on the other side!

  9. So what will people be going with all this extra time on their hands now that many of them are not commuting, going to pubs, clubs and restaurants etc?

    One thing’s for sure they are going to be spending a lot more time browsing the internet. If they can’t travel then they’ll probably be fantasising about travelling.

    It will be interesting if traffic for sites like A Luxury Travel Blog increases and also whether people will be spending longer on the site. Reading a post all the way through and not just skim reading it.

    1. Yes, Kenny… it will be interesting to see. I canm’t help but think that it will most likely dip but, as you say, if people are isolated and have more time on their hands to casually browse, then the reverse could be true… we shall see!!

  10. We Indians always believe”This too shall pass”.you have written a brilliantly . India which is known to be one of the fastest growing outbound travel market is positive as people here are resilient and also have “Itchy Feet”and Indians will start traveling once this situation improves borders ooen , travel advisories are removed and flights start operations lets be positive.

  11. There is no doubt that the world will be a different place in a few months time. Whether you are a believer in Charles Darwin’s theories or not, there will certainly be an element of survival of the fittest in not just the travel industry but throughout our economies.

    Businesses that merely bemoan bad luck are likely to go the wall. Those that are more agile will develop and probably thrive rather than merely survive.

    Marketing departments will need to be proactive and ingenious over the coming months. They must adopt a mindset of using this difficult period to gain competitive advantage with their creativity, energy and resilience.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Gerald. Sadly, though, some marketing departments will be dispensed with in a bid to control costs. That won’t necessarily be the best thing to do in the longer term, but for many it will be a time where it is difficult to see the bigger picture.

  12. There are certainly unprecedented measures being taken for something that I never imaged seeing in our lifetime. It’s constantly evolving every day but I’m so angry that more wasn’t done sooner. The ramifications are tremendous. Like you, I’d be confident the knock-on effect will be huge, hard to fathom really when you consider every aspect that has been and will be affected. Worryingly there’s no real idea of how long this will continue at the current rate of shut-down, nor whether it will repeat itself. I don’t think it would take decades to bounce back at all (unless we get this same thing happening each year, with no vaccination or ‘cure’, which I can’t really imagine either, but who knows).

    The government can or will only do so much in their ‘rescue packages’ for travel companies and other businesses. It’s not going to be enough and it must be awful seeing a business you’ve worked so hard for struggling or going under because of the effects of the virus.

    My friend owns a small B&B up north and they’re still open but with extensive precautions and they’ve had such a drop in business. They’re holding off on closing for as long as possible but they’re not sure on whether they could claim on insurance. The first issue they haven’t had official shut down from government and the second being they don’t trust their insurers to cover something so unusual as this situation. Worrying times indeed. I’ll have to talk to her later today and see if the situation has changed. Wishing everyone in the industry all the best to get through this.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Kelly. With our government now warning against all but essential travel, I think even small B&Bs will struggle and most will (if they haven’t already) face closure. In many ways, they owe this to their clientele as much as anything, given how things are changing so much as easy day passes.

  13. Corona virus spreading all over the world has destroyed all the sales of many travel agencies and companies as the drastically spreading virus has left no option for the people to cancel all their important works and meeting and sit back home to avoid further spreading of the virus. It was great hearing from you about your experience in the industry where you have gained so much experience working for so many years.

    1. Thanks, Vivek. I see the travel industry being regularly cited as being hit hard by all of this, and of that there is little doubt. But actually I think pretty much all businesses (unless you manufacture hand sanitier or toilet roll, it seems!) are not escaping the various knock-on effects. Whatever rescue packages governments are able to come up with, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be many, many business failures both within and outside of the travel industry.

  14. I work in the travel industry myself and very much affected by this. Hardest — and the first — to be hit by this pandemic. We are in the process of “tightening our belts” by cutting down on promotions and putting on hold payments for third-party tools that we use in our daily work. We are now confined in our homes, working in our home offices for what may be a few months so we can save on electricity. Can you say, cabin fever? We have also considered stopping all marketing efforts and doing ads altogether, but decided to keep a few running still. As you say, we need to also prepare for when the industry, and the world for that matter, bounces back. We would all need to travel or manufacture goods again. Insightful post, Paul. I pray for everyone’s safety.

    1. Yes, there will be a recovery, I’m sure… but precisely when and how strong may be difficult to predict. I would have thought, though, that there will be plenty of pent-up demand from people who have been unable to travel for a prolonged period. What remains to be seen, I guess, is how much people will be prepared to spend, given the financial turmoil.

  15. It is a crisis for sure, and one we haven’t faced yet (at least to this extent) in the travel industry.

    My guess is that we’ll have to sit it out for a few months before we can start travelling domestically, which in itself isn’t a bad thing as most of us don’t even know what’s around the corner of our own street.
    Internationally is going to take a bit longer (once again, just my two cents) as the fear (and risk) for a secondary gulf of infected people from outside the country will be to big.

    My biggest worry is continents like Africa where there’s not always the possibility to inject billions into the economy to kick-start it once everything is over. It will be up to us (avid travelers) to invest in travel adventures to these places in order to partially help their economy and locals to keep their jobs.

    Strange times but what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, so keep positive, use the time we have now to make travel plans for the future, rethink that bucket list and don’t wait till we’re old or celebrate a specific birthday before we go on that “once in a lifetime” holiday.

    1. Hi Kristof… yes, I think you could be right with those timescales, but we’ll have to see. We don’t really know enough about the virus yet to know what it’s longer term impact is likely to be. If it supressed by higher temperatures, as most viruses tend to be, then maybe there is hope in the months that lie ahead.

  16. As a travel agent, when the hammer fell that flights to Europe were cancelled was the night of my grandmothers visitation. I had a frantic bride call me crying. I didn’t know what was happening.

    Since this began I don’t think I’ve taken a full day off of work, the first few days I worked 18-19 hour days trying to middle through everything, and reassure everyone that they were okay, and I was taking care of things.

    I think we will still see fall outs from this, and it will take awhile for all of us to recover. I was in the business for the last recession but not 09/11. This will be more impactful, than 09/11; then we changed regulations. Now we are seeing travelers stranded by online companies that won’t respond to their customers. In some perspectives this will cause a resurgence in the brick and mortar agencies. This is the time that clients will really understand having the relationship with a valued travel agent.

    1. I’m not sure about a resurgence in brick and mortar agencies. Afterall, it’s an added cost for the agent to bear at a time where businesses are looking to operate as leanly as they possibly can. Rather, I think consumers will be looking to book with trusted brands and names that come with safeguards such as those offered by ATOL and ABTA here in the UK. But who knows? Time will tell. Whilst there will be likely to be pent-up demand, I think travellers will also be cautious about how they spend their hard-earned money.

  17. I really hope it’s just 12-18months before people start travelling again. I’m not going to stop blogging in the meantime. Similarly, I’m worried there will be an increase in domestic tourists as opposed to international ones.

    1. Hi Alexandra

      Why does an increase in domestic tourism worry you? I think it’s likely in the short term when restrictions are gradually lifted but borders are perhaps not fully open or people are maybe a little nervous about travelling further afield.


  18. I used to run a luxury travel business and my advice to clients would be to not book a cruise – now proven to be a germ spreading machine. I would advise to only book direct flights to airports that have lots of flights per day and more than one airline operating that destination. Most return problems were in destinations where you can to stopover and countries closed their borders. This or a similar virus could return so best make sure you can get home easily.
    I hope our Government will take the opportunity to look at the massive reduction in pollution brought about by, amongst other things, virtually no flights to the UK. Hopefully positive things can come out of this pandemic and a greener future could be one of them. Maybe people should only be allowed one return long haul flight and a short haul flight per year for pleasure? Hopefully, business will have changed and realised they can do most meetings online and will reduce business flights? I may be kidding myself but I have to have positive thoughts in this tough times.
    For future business I think rail travel needs looking at in terms of investment and expanding the market for leisure travel.
    Companies that will offer more sustainable travel will do well. I noticed Sunvil are offering no fly holidays to Greece.
    In the luxury market clients will be looking for hotels with lots of space and great room service as social distancing will be with us for some time.
    Just a few thoughts?

    Regards Catherine

    1. It’s interesting that you mention rail travel shortly after air travel. There’s something that’s surely not right when we can fly to places like Spain much more cheaply than we can travel the length of the country on a train. I’m not sure about outright restricting how many flights people can make per annum – that feels a little draconian to me – but to have a pricing/tariff/tax structure that discourages excessive air travel is certainly one way that I think this issue could be tackled.

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