Changes in travel are likely here to stay. And that's a good thing


David Harris is the CEO of the Ensemble Travel Group.

As the world finally starts to reopen and we emerge from the pandemic, there are so many things that have been altered or impacted by Covid-19.

For us in travel, we were among the first industries that had to adapt and introduce all the sweeping changes or measures to be Covid-safe. As we all look to return to normal, there are several measures that will likely be long-lasting, permanent and even -- dare I say -- welcomed ones.

Cleaning/health/safety protocols: Much like the security standards for travel following 9/11 -- standards that remain in effect today, nearly 20 years later -- so, too, is the next iteration of global health and safety practices. I think we can all agree that cleaner is better. Now that hotels and airlines have adopted enhanced measures, there is going to be increased expectation that those will continue. As a result, consumers are likely going to gravitate to those companies that continue to put increased emphasis on cleaning and safety protocols permanently. At the same time, travelers will want the services and amenities they loved pre-Covid, but with the new adjustments.

It is also worth noting how cruise lines, which took the brunt of attacks during the pandemic, had many of these protocols in place before the pandemic. Cruise ship passengers have long been accustomed to seeing hand sanitizers placed throughout the ship, with crew regularly encouraging/requiring passengers to use these stations whenever returning to the ship, going to restaurants or other public areas. Furthermore, to my knowledge there aren't medical staff and facilities in every hotel, which, of course, is standard for ships and are now being enhanced.

Say goodbye to self-serve buffets: Whether it's the midnight buffet on a cruise ship or all-you-can-eat breakfast at your hotel, travelers have had a long-lasting love affair with self-serve buffets. Now that the buffet line is behind plexiglass with an employee as a designated server, it will feel different. But now that we all think about that from a different perspective, I think we can agree that it's probably better this way. It's a small change that won't really impact the overall experience and will set a standard that is likely better for overall health, during or after a global pandemic.

Flexible booking/refund policies: If there is one thing travelers have loved during the pandemic, it has been the ability to book no-risk travel. Refund and rebooking policies have become more flexible. It's going to be tough to turn back the clock on this. To keep it going, our industry may have to seek a compromise that encourages consumers to book a trip without the risk of significant cost if they need or want to move their dates.

Insurance: Every traveler should have it, full stop. While we all hope another global pandemic won't occur in our lifetimes, travelers have really come to appreciate the importance of having a CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) policy as we all learned that you never know what is going to happen. While many consumers may push back, thinking that a once-in-a-generation pandemic isn't likely to repeat itself anytime soon, the lesson learned is that nobody can predict the future, and just as consumers have insurance to protect other investments, having it to protect their vacation is just as important.

Reservations and limited capacity for tourist attractions: Travelers embraced the concept of attractions and museums requiring reservations and limiting capacity. While it was needed for safety and social distancing concerns, I don't think anybody wants to go back to the days of waiting in line for hours only to have several hundred people all trying to view the Mona Lisa at the same time. New technology combined with consumer demand will likely expedite the inevitable movement to virtual lines and a more efficient and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Smaller, less populated destinations will remain popular: Small ships, small group tours and boutique properties were already growing in popularity before the pandemic. And while travelers may have chosen smaller, more remote destinations offering more natural social distancing during the pandemic, the interest in getting off the grid and, for instance, visiting national parks, remains in high demand. While this may be partially due to the global challenges faced by some of the most exotic destinations whose recovery will take longer, bookings for well into 2022 and 2023 reflect that this trend is here to stay in the near term.

At Ensemble, we have seen increased demand for domestic travel as well as for experiences that reflect these trends, and we've adapted by introducing new suppliers that focus on these types of small group and small ship experiences,as well as tour operators specializing in destinations that take travelers off the grid.

Travel is a critical economic generator: While there may be a perception by some that travel or taking a vacation is a luxury or self-indulgent, the reality -- demonstrably proven during the pandemic -- is that travel is a critical economic driver. In addition to the number of people employed directly by travel, the impact on local economies was critically affected when the world basically shut down.

Entire communities, dependent on travel as the main source of their economy (particularly in developing countries), had little or no income for critical services. Many of their citizenry were unemployed, causing a ripple effect that translated into a startling demand to provide basic care. It will take years for these areas to rebuild and recover. It also put a spotlight on how critical it is to support local businesses when traveling and how our vacations can translate into someone else's economic stability.

At the same time, and in the current phase of the pandemic, it can also translate into someone else's overall health and wellness and is something we must also be mindful of. While wealthier places like the EU, the U.S. and Canada have been able to achieve relatively high vaccination rates and access to vaccines for citizens to provide a higher level of protection, many countries that have already taken an economic hit are also seeing spikes in infections and mortality rates.

The reality here is that residents who work in the travel/hospitality industry in these less fortunate countries must return to work, as they have little option; they rely on tourism as the primary source for their income. Many of these workers likely don't have access to vaccinations, and our travel has the potential to put them and their families at risk for contracting the disease, spreading it or worse. As citizens of the world, we must consider if traveling to these destinations may pose more of a risk to the health and safety of these populations and if it is more responsible to not promote certain travel until we can do so, for their safety and ours.

One thing is certain: travel is going to look and feel different after the impact left by Covid-19. But that doesn't have to be entirely negative. In fact, I think that many of these changes will serve to enhance the traveler's experience while making it safer and more enjoyable. Travel has always evolved, and it always will. Travelers have evolved, too, and I think we've all learned that we are more adaptable than we ever imagined we could be.

As we welcome the reopening of the world, I believe and hope that we will all embrace these changes. Perhaps even more importantly, I think that the perception of travel will be different with a newfound and deeper appreciation for the freedom and ability to travel as well as for all the people who make it possible.

More Forums by David Harris:

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