Predicting the future, Conde Nast Traveler U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock noted, is a fool's errand.
Ashlock made the point near the beginning of a webinar organized by ASTA on Aug. 24, the day before its Global Live conference began. He joined CNN executive travel editor Brekke Fletcher, Afar editor in chief Julia Cosgrove and Wall Street Journal travel editor Scott McCartney for a panel discussion on "The Future of Travel Distribution." I was the moderator.
Hard and fast predictions were not forthcoming, but during an hourlong discussion, this all-star cast of consumer travel media did provide a great deal of informed opinion about possibilities.
To set the stage for insights into how travel may be bought and sold in the future, I first asked the group to imagine various unknowns, some at the intersection of travel and politics, others involving how tourism products may evolve.
And to begin with what may have the most immediate relevance to ASTA members, I asked whether the panel believed Congress would get its act together to bring economic relief for the small businesses that make up most of ASTA's membership. An extension of Cares Act benefits might also provide a lifeline to industry behemoths like airlines, who have already signaled the possible loss of tens of thousands of jobs should economic benefits not be extended.
The Wall Street Journal's McCartney suggested we look at external signs that seem to indicate a bill will be forthcoming. He said that the stock market, which on the day the panel was recorded tallied record highs, seemed to indicate that Wall Street believes Congress will act. And with an election coming up, "why wouldn't they do something to save the economy? It's in their own best interest.
"You assume," Ashlock mused, "that these are rational actors."
And speaking of the election, I asked how the occupant of the White House next January might impact the travel industry. I noted, for instance, that President Obama loosened regulations for visiting Cuba, President Trump tightened them again and a President Biden might loosen them once more.
A Biden administration, McCartney said, would have an immediate impact on the regulatory front. There would be enforcement of regulations on pandemic-related travel refunds. And if rules were imposed to, for instance, compel mask-wearing and, in certain circumstances, the taking of temperatures, "it will give other countries comfort that they can let Americans in."
"The industry needs to get to standard rules worldwide" around health protocols and border crossings, he continued. "A Biden administration would be more willing to work with the rest of the world in standardizing requirements."
On that question of a worldwide coordinated approach to international travel, McCartney believes what will unfold will be similar to the evolution of security, post-9/11: Once the U.S and Europe come up with sets of protocols, "the rest of the world has to adapt" to them.
To try to understand how destinations and travel products might change in the future, I proposed they think a year ahead to August 2021, into a world where a vaccine was widely available and travel was ready to restart in earnest. I asked them first to think about the evolution of traditional vacations; to Paris, for example, or Mexico or the Caribbean. To theme parks, all-inclusives and cruises.
CNN's Fletcher said she expects the first people to venture abroad will be intrepid travelers, and she imagines crowds will be thin. Overtourism won't be as pronounced, because bold, early adopters will head to places they haven't been before.
To her point on overtourism, Ashlock hopes wariness of the virus provides cover for destinations to regulate tourism and give primacy back to the resident population. Recently, consumers have cared "more about where their tourism buck is going, and that will be a motivator in choosing which experiences to include," he said.
On a similar note, Afar's Cosgrove thought that if marketers are using this downtime wisely, they'll be looking at what sort of visitation they'll seek mass tourism that could be parasitic or, alternately, arrivals who can spend more time, have a more meaningful experience and not be a negative factor on local life. "It's as important to be a good guest as a good host," she said.
As for mass tourism products, Cosgrove believes that the future of theme parks and cruise ships is tied to "personal risk tolerance."
"River cruising and smaller ships will come back just fine," she said. "And some bigger ships say they're sold out into 2021. You can't stop the 'cruisies'; it's what they want and how they want to see the world."
"And nobody is better at surviving a crisis than the cruise industry," Ashlock added.
Fletcher echoed that "cruisers gotta cruise," but McCartney provided a contrarian perspective.
The industry always needs new-to-cruise passengers, he noted, who may be harder to convince to board a ship following the media attention focused on shipboard outbreaks last spring.
"I do think the cruise industry faces some significant challenges on the regulatory front," he added. They will have to convince the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that there will be fundamental changes. And although they have faced challenges before, they haven't to this extent.
"They can't go back to what they were doing before," he said.
As tourism restarts, will consumers be expecting suppliers to roll out deals to kick-start travel? Or, I asked, will pent-up demand be so high, and capacity so restricted, that demand may surge enough to keep rates as they were a year ago?
Yes, yes, yes and yes; and no, no, no and no came the replies. All of them expect deals to flourish, despite oaths from suppliers that there would be no compromise when it comes to price integrity.
Ashlock went so far as to compare consumers' states of mind to post-traumatic stress disorder, and McCartney, looking at past crises, predicted that it might take a couple of years for demand to ramp back up.
In Part 2 of this column: the panel predicts how corporate travel and meetings and conventions will fare once the pandemic is under control. They also weigh the likely operating environment for travel advisors, OTAs, corporate travel managers and app-based platforms like Airbnb.