Travel spending in the U.S. this year will be down 45% from 2019, according to the latest U.S. Travel Association estimate. But the pandemic is nevertheless providing opportunities for innovative travel companies, according to panelists at the Phocuswright Conference 2020 on Tuesday. 

"Now is the time to make sure that your business is jumping ahead," said Rachel Barger, senior vice president of global enterprise sales for the technology provider Cisco Systems. 

Speaking in a one-on-one session with PhocusWire editor in chief Kevin May, Barger said that the changes in consumer behavior brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for technology-driven travel vendors, including travel suppliers, to capture an unprecedented amount of information about their customers. 

Related report: How the Covid pandemic inspired this year's Lee Prize winners

Suppliers, she said, can see better than ever what consumers are thinking about and even when they are engaging with sales channels. Such knowledge can enable companies to increasingly personalize product offers.

"What are those unique offers that we can really inspire them to take action," Barger asked rhetorically.

May, though, questioned how much companies can really learn about a customer's behavior right now, since people are doing things differently as an adjustment to the pandemic.

"It's not normal right now, but there is going to be that next normal," Barger responded. She elaborated that behavioral patterns, including travel patterns, will be different than they are now after the pandemic, but also different than they were pre-Covid. For example, more people are likely to work at home, which will shape their future travel decisions. 

"Taking a look at some of the preferences now and extrapolating them now can give us some insights on new business models," Barger said. 

She cited as one possible example subscription travel services, noting that consumers in general have become more accustomed to subscription services in recent years, fueled by tech offerings such as Netflix. Within the travel sphere, Barger cited the v.pass offering from Mexican discount carrier Volaris, under which subscribers sign up for monthly flights at a set rate.

Leveraged by the new data that airlines and other transportation providers are gleaning from consumers, the time might be ripe for more subscription deployments in the travel sector. Combining personalization and subscriptions, Barger said, could provide strong synergy with customers. 

She encouraged travel companies to continue investing in innovation during these lean times, but to do so judiciously and in a focused manner.

"Now is the time that new business plans are going to be developed," Barger said. 

Doug Lansky, a travel journalist who advises destination marketing organizations, cited another way in which the Covid-19 pandemic could be setting the stage for innovation. He said tech tools that have proliferated to help with issues such as booking early for a seat at a bar or space in other common areas could be used post-pandemic to sell less crowded environments as a premium experience. 

In other words, he said, such tools can help travel far into the future.


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