As the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel grows brighter, we sat down with our CEO Florian Herrmann to look ahead toward international recovery. He told us what he’s expecting in 2021, 2022, 2023, and how small DMOs can set their destinations up now to get ahead in the international travel resurgence.
What’s the biggest challenge that would prevent quick international recovery for tourism?
Right now we have two patterns that need to be addressed.
The first is the understandable fear of traveling long distances. People worry about being stuck in a destination, managing irregular flight schedules and flight changes, and keeping up with changes in local policies around the world. The second is that we currently have immunization coming along with the rollout of vaccines, and it seems to be working in spite of new strains. But there isn’t widespread agreement on when a person can be classified as a safe, responsible traveler.
In response to these patterns, we need to develop new global health-in-travel policies. There has to be a global initiative from an entity like the World Tourism Organization to establish protocols for safe international travel. Though this has nothing to do with marketing, this is instrumental in resolving the uncertainty that is holding travelers back.
The same is true of vaccine requirements; there has to be international agreement on the standard of prevention. That probably comes back to the World Tourism Organization’s responsibilities. There are some big players—nations, international organizations, and industries—that have to agree on immunization requisites. An immunization pass or vaccine certificate is key to international travel’s recovery, and the quicker a protocol is developed, the sooner a pass can be defined and implemented.
Ultimately, global health-in-travel protocols are a worthwhile investment for the future. I truly believe this is not the last pandemic we’ll live to see, and if we have a system to turn to, we won’t face years of devastating travel interruption when the next virus begins to spread. I’m not placing blame, but we have had a severe interruption because we didn’t know how to respond to COVID-19. Now we must debrief and set up policies to protect travelers, businesses, and destinations in similar health crises. An immunization pass is essential for enacting and maintaining best practices for keeping global travel operating safely.
What’s your opinion on international recovery in 2021 and future years?
In the past, the speed with which travel rebounds after major events or scares has surprised us. Global travel has a record of recovering quickly because the desire is always there. I believe that as a consumer trend, international recovery is coming quicker than some people forecast. Many are predicting numbers returning to 2019 levels in 2024; I think it could be up to a year earlier.
We see a strong desire, and even a documented growing demand, for overseas travel. People are willing to take calculated risks to travel internationally already. As vaccinations are delivered more widely, people will feel comfortable visiting new places, especially destinations with fewer people.
In addition to vaccine availability, shifts in booking policies will continue to encourage travelers to commit to travel and experiences. Friendly booking regulations that don’t require pre-payment and/or allow cancelations at any time are on the rise and allow people to demonstrate their intent to travel. This not only is evidence of an earlier return to travel—it actually helps support a faster recovery of the industry.
Though airlines will have some hurdles to overcome like reinstating long-haul flights to some countries and pilot retention and/or retraining, consumer demand and consumer confidence will drive an accelerated response to those matters.
Do you foresee any kind of shifts in travel destinations or patterns?
Based on what we hear and see in online conversations about global travel right now, it’s clear that there is a prevalent demand for lesser-known destinations. Major cities serve more as gateways to fly in, but travelers are not necessarily staying in these hubs. Instead, they are going (or are planning to go) beyond to new places. That’s a pattern that is going to take off.
For the first time in Europe, for example, people got into RV travel in 2020 like they hadn’t before. This approach to travel also grew dramatically in the states last year. I anticipate significant RV travel from Europe and FIT vacations growing in the U.S.in the near future because it follows the existing trends of experiential travel and slow travel.
Recent research has shown that Australia, Canada, Indian, Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom travelers are more open to longer vacations after spending much of 2020 working from home, families’ homes, or rural destinations. As a result, we can expect that post-pandemic travel won’t be driven by a rush to get to a destination and back home on a strict timeline. I can foresee a willingness to spend extra time—and money—to get to know rural communities and public lands rather than rush through 10 cities in California. Smaller towns, national parks, public lands, and the outdoors have a big role in this and will have an enormous opportunity that they should be thinking about already.
Off the topic of the pandemic, I also recognize the younger generation have different travel desires that will shift demand going forward. Young travelers want to go where they can connect experientially: taste local foods at the farm, explore on a mountain bike or raft, immerse themselves in a different lifestyle at a guest ranch, or spend their holiday giving back. Additionally, the dramatic tech trend in photography is putting the spotlight on natural landscapes. Phones shoot such phenomenal photos and videos that people can really show off the scenery from their travels. This draws more attention to outdoor experiences and initiates a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations because it’s all shared on social media. On the flip side, this is already causing challenges for places that can quickly become overcrowded. This is a trajectory many destinations should be preparing for—both as an opportunity and as a hazard to mitigate.
What can tourism organizations do now in 2021, with minimal effort?
First, stay in touch with your core international audience through times of uncertainty and dreaming. If you continue to communicate with them—whether it’s via a newsletter, social media, or new outlets like the platform Clubhouse, you can generate conversations that ultimately lead to bookings this year or next. Destinations that are doing this now and and continue to do so consistently will outperform other tourism destinations in the next three years, for sure.
Focus messaging to this core audience on experiences and responsible travel. Responsible travel means two things: you respect us and we respect you. Let them know you’re staying in touch and will inform them of concerns and guidelines to keep them safe on their holiday, and guide them to best practices like staying on trails and respecting wildlife.
Second: Support your core travel trade partners. That means your tour operator media folks who might not be going on big sales missions at this time. Support them so they can find ways to do their work and endorse your destination.
Do you see any structure changes within tourism organizations going into the future?
In light of budget cuts that are likely to happen as a result of 2020’s precipitous drop in travel revenues, I expect downsizing, and I think that will be in the form of international departments merging into the marketing department. Destination brand directors may soon be responsible for overseeing international efforts as well as domestic. This is a challenge, of course, because these are two different strategies. On the other hand, it can help create cohesion and agility if destination marketers can build an informed, centralized brand approach.
Direct-to-consumer marketing is a major part of any DMO’s efforts, but smaller budgets will also allow some silos to be dismantled. Take advantage of this and give your audience options: book with a tour operator or go book your holiday on your own. Encourage your marketing partners overseas talk to tour operators but coordinate closely with overall brand development within your organization while the travel-trade serves as a booking platform. Identify your audience first, then establish an initiative with a coordinated domestic strategy and international strategy. Throw in partnerships with other destinations and with tour operators to create itineraries that can be marketed jointly and to different types of travelers.