The future of travel: An optimist's view

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Paul Metselaar
Paul Metselaar

I left my law practice 36 years ago to take over a small, family-owned travel agency and since then have experienced multiple crises, including two Gulf Wars, the SARS pandemic, 9/11 and the global financial crisis. But the Covid-19 pandemic we are all now struggling with is the most devastating event to ever befall the travel industry.

My experience in past crises has convinced me that we Americans have an innate, culturally based optimism that enables us to persevere through these existential challenges. And that optimism and perseverance will get us through this global pandemic, as well.

So how does an unreconstructed optimist like me find green shoots and silver linings? How does one find the light at the end of the tunnel when many political leaders, scientists and some travel company CEOs speak as if travel will never come back? Or that it will come back, but not until after a protracted period and at only a fraction of demand?

These pessimists base their predictions on the combination of fear and further contagion. Some even believe the soaring use of Zoom is contributing to a lack of desire among people to get off their couches and move around the world again.

I emphatically and respectfully disagree. Here is why:

First and foremost, human beings are social animals, and we require a high degree of personal interaction to thrive. While the current lockdowns, quarantines and calls for social distancing are essential until authorities sound the "all clear," they are anathema to our intrinsic nature. Everyone I know is suffering from some degree of cabin fever and can't wait to escape and resume something close to "normal" life.

If I'm correct, that means pent-up demand for travel will be fierce. Our company's travel advisors are beginning to have conversations with clients expressing a desire to travel once they receive the "all clear."  

While Dr. Anthony Fauci keeps repeating, correctly, that "the virus kind of decides whether or not it's going to be appropriate to open or not," when things start opening, everyone who has spent the last few months dreaming about their next vacation will be motivated by travel suppliers offering incredible added value.

Some of you are probably now scratching your head, saying, "Are you kidding? I'm afraid to visit the grocery store, and I sanitize my UPS packages within an inch of their lives." To that, I say the following:

The very first to travel will be millennials and Gen-Zers, who, like my kids, generally feel invincible. Many have either had the virus and recovered after experiencing very mild symptoms or will be happy to grab that reduced fare that we may initially see, to fly coast-to-coast to visit friends.

Once those early adopters begin posting on social media that they were able to secure that low airfare, and that they're not only having fun again but lived to tell the tale, their friends and followers will become envious. Their FOMO, fear of missing out, will serve as a major catalyst in the travel industry's return.

The ripple effect will have their parents start wondering whether it's "safe to go back in the water." Those parents, baby boomers and Gen-Xers, will start booking vacations again for fall and winter in order to take advantage of offers that will include added amenities such as increased food and beverage credits and free nights on longer stays (e.g. fourth night free); however, they will buy plenty of travel insurance just in case things take a turn again. 

Those who act first will get great deals, and by the time late entrants wake up and realize they didn't act fast enough, all the best deals will be gone. My prediction is that by fall, because of all the capacity cutbacks by major airlines, demand will be chasing supply, and fares will go through the roof for those who are dilatory.

At the same time, business travelers will start noticing that planes are fuller and begin to lobby their company leaders to let them travel again -- first domestically, then to international destinations that have done an excellent job of testing, sanitizing and ensuring health and safety, without requiring quarantines upon arrival. 

The most important route to sanitize first is the New York/London corridor.  When travelers see they can safely travel to Heathrow, the rest of the world will begin opening up to business travelers.

Yet the most important ingredient for business travel to experience a resurgence is competition. While FOMO is key to getting younger travelers back, a combination of FOMO and competition will spur the business traveler's return. The competitive nature of clients like those we serve in my business -- leading lawyers, bankers and entertainment executives -- will ensure travel returns sooner rather than later.

Of course, the trillion-dollar question is: when will this combination of pent-up demand, frustration, serendipity, FOMO and competition reach a tipping point and a semblance of normality return?

Much depends upon the most important ingredient, which will be the match that ignites this combustible brew of resurgence: trust. Leading suppliers have already begun implementing health and safety procedures to restore trust and confidence in the travel experience.

Airlines, for example, are promoting social distancing on flights, blocking middle seats, requiring face coverings and even providing masks to passengers. Major hoteliers are partnering with health providers to bolster cleanliness standards for safer stays.

These proactive measures from travel industry leaders, in collaboration with health experts, will instill further confidence among the traveling public and have them buckling up once again. Unlike the doomsayers, I'm unapologetically and enthusiastically optimistic that once travelers' faith is restored, their optimism will breed additional optimism exponentially.

Paul Metselaar is chairman and CEO of Ovation Travel Group, No. 16 on the 2019 Travel Weekly Power List. He founded the company in 1984.

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