When the Future of Travel Meets the Reality of the Present World: Big Takeaways From Skift Global Forum 2020

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After listening to 65-plus global travel executives over three days at Skift Global Forum 2020 this past week, here are my takeaways — mixed with my opinions — on where the travel industry is today in this pandemic era.

Keep in mind this doesn’t mean that’s where the travelers are because this is the voice of the industry and their interpretation of where traveler sentiment is. Obviously there’s no single voice for the globe of travelers to begin with, and the different parts of the globe are in different stages of crisis.

  1. The travel industry overwhelmingly believes that we are in for this scale of downturn for another two years only, and then recovery will definitely come back quickly. No one wants to even entertain a longer three to five-year recovery cycle.
  2. Travel industry CEOs and top executives are finally finally serious about Black and other forms of diversity in their executive suits and boards, knowing that they really fall short and are working actively on this beyond lip service of previous years. The good part is specialized orgs in travel like the Black Travel Alliance and others have been actively working with companies and constructively helping them figure out the way forward. Let’s see if this sustains in coming years.
  3. Every industry leader, knowing the political leadership in most countries in the world will never get their acts together, has finally internalized it, and really hopes the science saves all of us.
  4. The sobering reality is that government aid propping up companies and travel sectors is coming to an end now almost everywhere, and it’s time to move on from the pleadings for aid.
  5. Every rational leader in travel gets the excesses of the pre-Covid era in travel, and wants to move away from mass tourism and its hugely extractive effects on the planet, and hopes to steward a new more responsible travel sector from here on. Well, so they say now.
  6. Business travel is in for a permanent change, that much every CEO and travel industry executive understands and has reconciled with.
  7. International long-haul, especially ultra long-haul, is going to be dead for a long time to come, and airlines that retool quickly to cater to this new reality will come out better. In general, airline sector WILL be smaller, maybe permanently, coming out of this. No one doubts that.
  8. This is a cliché across all businesses but also true for travel companies: What used to take six months to build and execute at large companies now takes six weeks. And everyone hopes this agility becomes permanent.
  9. The hotel industry was and still is behind airlines in adoption of contactless tech but is catching up during these times.
  10. Hotel check-ins are a vestige of the past, everyone gets it, it’s time. Hotel keys are a vestige of the past and finally mobile keys will become a reality for a good portion of the industry.
  11. China will be an outlier in the world on travel for years to come, the domestic business there is big enough for demand to come back to almost normal.
  12. The hopes of hundreds of millions of Chinese travelers moving around the globe has dissipated, but the travel industry doesn’t yet know what will replace it.
  13. Finally, finally, domestic travel has its place in the sun, and not surprisingly the industry wasn’t ready for it and has to retool to cater to it.
  14. Even though leisure travel has been the savior of the travel industry from absolute zero demand, no one has really thought about families traveling, especially young families, a sector whose needs the travel industry has never understood. That continues to be the case when the sense of feeling safe for young families is so much higher.
  15. The large players in travel are capitalized to the wazoo and will be survive this, don’t expect any big iconic brand closures.
  16. Don’t expect tons of M&A yet in the market, particularly in hospitality, the uncertainty of outcomes pretty much takes care of that.
  17. Everybody in travel hates work-from-home. Well, let me rephrase that: CEOs of a certain age in travel don’t like WFH and can’t wait to get back into offices. Even if their companies may have a portion of their teams being remote permanently, big CEOs want to feel like big CEOs in their office fiefdoms.
  18. Everybody gets that there is a big opportunity for the travel sector in a business world gone remote, permanently, but no one is sure how big and what creative opportunities exist beyond some of the obvious ones of offering hotels rooms for anyone who wants to work from there type packages, the most basic and boring idea here.
  19. Everyone gets there is a hygiene theater element involved in this push for cleanliness all across the travel ecosystem, why it is there, and why that matters for consumer confidence reasons.
  20. Everyone in travel-sectors-not-called-cruises is just happy they are not the cruise sector. At least there is that going for them.
  21. The tour operator sector knows there isn’t much to discuss: it is the worst-hit sector, no crossing of borders will be possible for a while and domestic organized group travel will be a tiny market for them, and that is the start and the end of the discussion for now. It is the worst of the worst hit sectors, to the detriment and in so many cases complete decimation of so many small and very local businesses dependent on the ecosystem of the tour operator sector.
  22. Freakin’ QR codes, right! I mean, who knew??

Photo Credit: A screen grab highlighting some of the evocative sessions at Skift Global Forum 2020, held online. Skift

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