COVID-19 is grinding travel to a halt. There are lessons for the travel community to learn from the downturn about the upswing.

At GetYourGuide, continuous learning is a core tenet of our culture. As a founder of the company, it’s hardwired into my DNA; at the junctures in our company journey when uncertainty has been highest, I double down on it. I’ve often said that as an entrepreneur, the ability to learn quickly is my only superpower.

The current global downturn in travel caused by COVID-19 is one of necessity: it’s critical that we all diligently follow the advice of authorities to flatten the curve and curb the spread of the virus. We at GetYourGuide are focused on being here for our community, first and foremost, and on publishing the latest information as we have it.

But we’re also focused on learning what we can from the downturn, in order to lay smart plans to make the future less uncertain for our industry when tourism demand returns. 

Below are a few of my own COVID-19 observations so far, and the key takeaways for the travel community.

1. Global uncertainty will usher in a preference for local experiences.

I’ve gained some striking insights from watching our data during the downturn of the past few weeks. What’s been most telling is not the standstill we’re at now, but the trends that came to life as our industry ground to a halt.

In the first two weeks of March, while uncertainty was high but the global tourism ecosystem was still running, we noticed that travelers started to opt toward experiences closer to home. Globally, interest in experiences easily reachable by ground transportation or short-haul flight ticked up by 7%. The trend was especially pronounced among travelers from larger, more remotely-located nations like Australia and the United States.

Takeaway: I expect this trend will re-emerge, and be here to stay for a while, after the immediate threat of COVID-19 wanes. You should start planning operationally for this new reality now by expanding availability and content in local languages, like Catalan for Barcelona-based businesses.

2. The flexibility to cancel gives travelers the confidence to book.

Our research has consistently shown that a flexible cancellation policy is one of the most critical details travelers look for that gives them the confidence to book. 

This is a general rule (even in the best of times, planning trips can be inherently intimidating) but it’s especially relevant now. In the first 2 weeks of March, our customer service touchpoints spiked to 300% above normal levels, and our cancellation rate was noticeably elevated in destinations around the world, even prior to the imposition of restrictions. 

Takeaway: Consider updating your cancellation policy to give visitors the opportunity to cancel anytime. (We’ve done so ourselves.) The value of the trust you gain will far outweigh the customers you lose, and you’ll increase your chances of securing last minute bookings when you open again.

3. Travelers still trust the authorities, and brands can learn from their communication approach.

Much of the past decade has seen a gradual erosion of the faith people place in their institutions. But in the past few weeks, governments have re-emerged as a source of truth and leadership (and, albeit inconsistently, comfort and reassurance). 

This is how the leading national and regional governments are tackling the issue. The responses from South Korea’s national government, and Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York State, are two of the best examples I’ve seen.

Our data shows us that people have followed the guidance of governments carefully. We noted an immediate drop in demand following Trump’s first directive against international travel, both among Americans looking to travel and those looking to visit destinations like New York. 

At this time, there are no ways to message around COVID-19, or to carry on with business-as-usual in spite of it. The only appropriate response from tourism businesses is to acknowledge the situation head-on, be clear and direct about the actions they are taking to ensure safety, and to uphold commitments to customers and partners.

Takeaway: Travel brands can do more to stay in lock-step with the comments of national leaders. They’ve got your audience’s attention. In Venice, spokespeople for key museums gave comments to the press before informing themselves on upcoming government directives. We have to play our part in curing the chaos by opting for consistency over opportunism in the media.

4. The visitors that walk through your doors post-COVID will be different from those you’ve known before.

My network in the tourism industry is eager for the world to “return to normal”, and understandably so. For many of us, daily interaction with our passengers, guests, visitors or participants is more than a livelihood; it’s the reason we get out of bed in the morning.

But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that our relationships with customers will never be the same. Just as all of our own personal habits are rapidly adapting to the new reality, post-COVID, attractions will need to adapt to a visitor base with new and different habits and expectations, and a world less tactile and warm than the one we knew just weeks ago.

Takeaways:

Solutions like timed entry and dynamic pricing will become critical for managing crowds, because they’re now more than an annoyance for customers; they’re a public safety concern.

Digital ticketing and contactless payment will become the new standard in order to protect both operational staff and visitors as they cross the turnstiles. 

In-app guides and multimedia players will similarly ensure visitors can engage deeply while touching only their own mobile phones — no more tangible maps or wearable audio headsets. 

COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, but for the travel community, it could also be opportunity to learn, adapt and lead the industry.

As difficult as it may seem to see beyond the present situation, remember that this will eventually subside, as all crises do. The travel industry has been here before, and we’ve always bounced back. This time will be no different — and we will be more resilient as a result.

If you’d like to speak with our team about how we can navigate COVID-19 together, please reach out.

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TaoTao_GetYourGuide_Horizontal_Front (1) (1)
Tao Tao is the Chief Operating Officer at GetYourGuide. He leads the company’s business operations. Tao co-founded GetYourGuide in 2009 while attending the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He has since led several strategic company functions, including Business Development, Supply, and Customer Service. Under Tao’s leadership, over 30 million tickets have been booked to date via the GetYourGuide website, mobile app, and partnership network. GetYourGuide has raised over $650M from investors such as the SoftBank Vision Fund, Battery Ventures and KKR. Tao is a native of Beijing, China, and studied economics at Tilburg University and physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.