Travel will make a comeback. The only question is when.
It’s no secret that the travel industry — and especially the group travel industry — has born more than its share of the economic hardship inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic. Government restrictions shut down travel through much of the spring and early summer. And even as some intrepid travelers began to venture out again in the late summer and fall, continued uncertainty has led many people to postpone their planned trips until 2021or later.
There is widespread hope that a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine will be available early in 2021. If that proves true, it would help turbocharge travel’s comeback. But even before a vaccine arrives, government leaders, tourism professionals and travel planners can take some strategic steps to set the stage for a 2021 recovery.
Here is a roadmap of smart policies and proactive steps for bringing the travel industry back to prosperity.
Government regulations in most states severely limited travel early in the pandemic, and federal regulations kept cruise ships docked through much of the fall. Although many of those regulations have been loosened, governments still have an important role to play in tourism’s recovery.
Here are four policy priorities that everyone involved with tourism should support.
• CERTS Act Passage — Among the most critical problems facing tourism is the lack of government relief for motorcoach operators. Federal stimulus and bailout funds helped airlines stay liquid during the worst of the crisis, but no similar assistance has been made available to motorcoach companies. The CERTS Act would provide $10 billion in relief to struggling coach operators.
• Expanded PPP — The Payroll Protection Plan enacted with the first round of stimulus payments helped many small businesses stay afloat during lockdown. But most destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and tourism nonprofits didn’t qualify. A second round of PPP funding should include those overlooked entities.
• Targeted Support — Economic hardship during the crisis has not been evenly distributed; and tourism, hospitality and events have been especially hard-hit. Instead of another round of checks for taxpayers, the next stimulus program should strategically support the industries that have been affected the most.
• Vaccine Deployment — No other development will aid tourism more than the delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine. State and federal governments should make plans to fund and distribute vaccines en masse as soon as they are available.
Early in the pandemic, DMOs faced a funding crisis and had to make many difficult decisions about staffing and marketing to ride out the storm. But with clearer skies on the horizon and a palpable demand for travel, DMOs should take the following steps to begin filling the pipeline with group travelers.
• Release Funds — Many DMOs retain emergency funds to support their communities in times of crisis. Some DMO leaders, however, have chosen not to release those funds during the pandemic, preferring instead to hold on to them in case of natural disasters. This strategy is misguided, though, and will leave these destinations starved of staff and resources. Organizations with emergency funding should tap into it now to begin a successful comeback.
• Retain Personnel — The group travel industry runs on relationships, but many DMOs and tourism companies eliminated their group sales professionals when the funding crunch hit. Without those sales professionals in place, groups will find other places to travel. It’s time to bring these team members back to work.
• Reveal Plans — Recent surveys have shown that groups are ready to begin traveling again, but planners are unclear about where they’re allowed to go. Destinations and attractions must work much harder to spread the word about what is available and how they’re keeping travelers safe.
• Resume Promotion — Since it often takes six months or more to plan a tour, group travel buyers are shopping now for trips they’ll take in 2021. Travel industry organizations need to resume marketing to these planners, or they’ll risk missing out on the travel rebound.
Travel Planner Playbook
Tour operators and other group travel planners have a role to play in the industry’s comeback. Here are practical steps to ramping up to a full slate of tours in 2021.
• Modify Procedures — Until the pandemic has completely passed, group tour operators will need to take steps to keep travelers safe and make them feel comfortable. Planners can refer to guidelines published by the American Bus Association for a comprehensive set of safety protocols.
• Build Confidence — Travel companies can restart their operations by offering short programs, such as day trips and one-night departures, that will demonstrate that travel can still be safe and fun during the pandemic.
• Scale Up — As health conditions and passenger demand allows, group operators should ramp up their operations to include longer trips and more diverse destinations.
• Bounce Back — Travel operators can use this time to prepare for the flood of pent-up demand that is likely to hit once a COVID-19 vaccine begins to suppress infection numbers.
Travel’s comeback is going to happen. By taking smart steps now, policymakers, destination marketers and travel planners can speed its coming.