Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

In Part 1 of my column this week, consumer travel editors Jesse Ashlock of Conde Nast Traveler, Julia Cosgrove of Afar, Brekke Fletcher of CNN and Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal explored the intersection of politics and travel, as well as the possibilities of how leisure travel may change in a year's time. Next, they turned their attention to how travel advisors, corporate travel managers and meeting planners may fare, as well as supplier direct channels, OTAs and booking apps.

The most durable threat the pandemic poses within the travel ecosystem may be for those involved with corporate travel. "There is going to be lasting change there," travel editor of the Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney said. He recalled that former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall had observed that during previous downturns, new technology that had seemed to be a threat to travel actually ended up stimulating travel -- that the connections, enabled by technology, inspired people to get on an airplane and meet in person.

So he called Crandall recently to ask if that would likely be true post-Zoom. This time is different, Crandall said. Video now is ubiquitous, and no special equipment or training is needed. That, coupled with health concerns around getting on a plane, may leave permanent change in the business models of commercial aviation.

The one bright spot in corporate travel, ultimately, could be meetings and conventions. CNN executive travel editor Brekke Fletcher believes strongly that nothing can replace sitting next to another human being and making a connection. "I miss it so much," she said.

Conde Nast Traveler's U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock felt that, with a vaccine and effective treatments, some meetings will return, but many will be a blend of Zoom and in-person. "A core contingent will go, but you won't see the same volume."

McCartney was more bullish. "You need to go to a trade show to see what a competitor is doing. At a conference, dinners are where ideas are exchanged, you make contacts." But he concurred that vaccines and treatments will be a prerequisite to "go to CES and see what's new and see what's going on and not be afraid to be around 10,000 others."

But other types of meetings will see reduced volume. McCartney suspects that if a corporate board used to meet six times a year in person, it may be twice in person, the rest over Zoom.

Clockwise from top leeft: Jesse Ashlock of Conde Nast Traveler, Scott McCartnery of the Wall Street Journal, Arnie Weissmann, Julia Cosgrove of Afar and Brekke Fletcher of CNN.
Clockwise from top leeft: Jesse Ashlock of Conde Nast Traveler, Scott McCartnery of the Wall Street Journal, Arnie Weissmann, Julia Cosgrove of Afar and Brekke Fletcher of CNN. Credit: Arnie Weissmann

When it comes to the channels of distribution, Afar editor in chief Julia Cosgrove believes travel advisors will have advantages. "The best are almost like therapists," she said, "empaths who know their clients well, know where they are on the spectrum of risk tolerance and can tailor trips for individual travelers. No bot can do this."

Advisors still need to be talking to clients to say, "I'm here when you're ready," she said. She doesn't see a "great linear reopening," but one that may be uneven. All the same, agents who stay front and center now and acknowledge current uncertainty can also message that it's not a matter of if travel will resume, but when.

Ashlock, too, sees agents as masters at combining information and inspiration. Selling expertise and access to information that is individualized for a client is incredibly valuable, and he believes there will be a greater appreciation for that value than ever before.

McCartney foresees a moment of incredible opportunity for advisors who assisted their clients through the travel shutdown. "If they helped make a refund happen, word of mouth will bring clients in." He believes that, going forward, a premium will be paid not just for advice but for monitoring trip safety and being there if things go wrong. "That will be a huge worry," he said.

Focus on "duty of care" may, in fact, be the bright spot for corporate travel managers, McCartney added. "Companies will look to them to make sure hotels are clean and safe and seating on airplanes is appropriate to protect the health and safety of an employee. It will not just be about, 'get us the best deal' and booking flights, but about keeping us healthy."

On the other hand, Afar's Cosgrove sees OTAs suffering even as travel resumes, squeezed out by the expertise advisors supply and appeals to buy direct from suppliers.

CNN's Fletcher suggested it might spur OTAs to increase service  "a face, not a bot"  and offer at least the appearance of "phone a friend" assistance if the traveler runs into trouble.

McCartney, however, was dubious. "That's a different business model, and if they start taking on cost, it doesn't really work."

Cosgrove and Ashlock saw upside for direct bookings for travelers who were looking to certain brands that provided assurances about safety and health protocols. "Brand loyalty will be a more critical factor in future travel decisions than ever before," Ashlock said.

The two also agreed that Airbnb and other booking platforms will recover well, though their focus may go back to their core products and shift from urban apartment to vacation rentals.

Luxury will be the first sector to return, with travelers eager to take deferred celebratory trips. "You'll see high-end pent-up demand return there first," Cosgrove predicted.

But the spike in private travel experiences  hotel buyouts, private jet travel, yachts  may not have legs. "Once the crisis passes, it will be less compelling," McCartney said, and Ashlock believes what remains might be tied to what's connected to sustainable travel rather than some indulgences that "are incredibly harmful to the planet."

An hour after it began, the fool's errand -- predicting the future -- was complete.

It's useful to remember how unpredictable this particular crisis has proven to be; remember in March when common wisdom held that the spread of the virus would peak in mid-May?

I'm aware of the degree that my own biases influence my expectations and know that's why I seized on certain threads of the conversation: Cosgrove saying it's a matter of when, not if, travel returns; Fletcher's understanding of the need for human connections; Ashlock's underscoring the enduring value of information combined with inspiration; and McCartney's rational explanation of how the world will come together on travel protocols.

A year is a long time to keep my fingers crossed, but I'm putting a note in my calendar to check, on Aug. 31, 2021, how much of this has played out as I hope it will.

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