As we come to the end of the year, a few questions get tossed around about the tourism industry.
First, are there any new trends that have evolved out of the pandemic?
Second, are there any silver linings we can see?
And third, What Next?
First – did any strong trends emerge from the pandemic? I will say no. There has been a great rush of pundits claiming that people will look for more solitude and remoteness in their travels. Staycations will become the norm of the future. People want to prioritise safety over all else. If anything, the trends on the ground are actually showing quite the reverse.
Whichever city or destination has opened, people have thronged back to their old habits. Bars are busy; beaches are teeming with people; amusement parks have lines; shopping malls see increased footfall – human behaviour will not change easily. Yes, there are those that want more ‘resorty’, secluded places, but that consumer base was always there. It’s not new. Also, these spots of isolation tended to be somewhat pricier, to begin with, so its customer base was always different. Did the pandemic create a whole new accommodation category? NO. Did the pandemic create new hotels to fill demand? No. Did the pandemic give travellers more money to spend? Certainly NOT. So, logic dictates that this segment will see a short-term spurt from pent-up demand but will gradually peter-out to their normal pre-pandemic interest levels.
There has been positive news of Pfizer having high success in its vaccine, and that means others will follow soon. (A specialist on CNN stated that this success is an affirmation of the novel genetic approach taken that is a first and that other researchers are following the process as well. So, the base theory has been proven. That is a huge scientific leap). This is excellent news. It will not be long before when preventive measures against COVID will be more accessible, and that will boost interest in travel. I expect people to rush back for the excitement travel gave them – the adrenalin of exploring, of seeing and of touching. The desire to walk on the streets, to sit at cafes, to listen to concerts; all will return. These emotions are at the core of travel. Isolationism which so many are pushing will never prevail.
Second, are there any Silver Linings? Yes, there are, and some of these are ironically not so pleasant for many. The excess of business decisions in the past has been trimmed to the core. Corporate fat has been shed. Bloated companies across the tourism industry have let people go, not only because of the lack of business but also to take advantage of the lower hue and cry from corrective measures which they could never have gotten away with in better times. We will probably see companies across the spectrum become leaner and hopefully, more efficient. Still to be seen.
Sadly, not everyone will survive the pandemic. We will see bankruptcies and closures of all shapes and sizes. This is ‘THE’ shake-up of our generation and only the nimble and fittest will survive. This is the Law of Nature. Humans are fragile. We need to adapt to the changes in our external environment. Otherwise, we get cast aside.
One unintended but perhaps most valued part of the pandemic (if I may loosely say so) was that it gave everyone a brief respite from the dog-eat-dog world we live in; an opportunity to detach from the daily grind. People got to spend quality time with their families, learnt a language, took up a hobby or just got in touch with the memories they lost. That is not a bad consequence of being locked up in our homes. Many have changed their outlook on life; others decided that the status quo suits them better. Either way, there is no right or wrong on how you dealt with the past many months. Personally, I got to spend quality time with my love of 32 years, and our relationship has only strengthened. So hey, my silver lining is shiny. Hope for many of you as well.
I also personally believe that even though the virus hurt tourism, it was more our lousy myopic pricing strategies of making tourism a low margin business that ultimately did us in. From airlines to hotels to cruise companies to tour operators and so on, everyone found themselves with very little in their banks to be able to withstand the crisis. That’s because many were living on thin retention of earnings. Especially true in India. They say every business should have six months of cash on hand to survive a crisis. How many did? We will likely enter 2021 with fewer players in the tourism industry. This may be good for some, bad for many. Will lower competition help the consumer? Who knows. Will the shake-up bring in better pricing behaviour, I certainly hope so. What I do think is that now buyers and consumers will be a lot more careful in vetting whom they give their money to. Credibility and track record will be important. So, a silver lining probably lies for those who followed ethical, moral and good business practices and will be in a better position to recover. The shake-up should lead to some better business practices. Let’s see if we learn anything from the crisis.
Third, What’s Next?
Damm, I wish I knew. Anyone who professes to predict what will come next is spinning a tale. There have been surveys after surveys and papers after papers released over the past many months. Some say tourism will recover soon, some say in a few years. Anyone who has studied Market Research knows that research is only as good as the questions asked, and I feel the quality of research in India is generally horrible. Numbers can tell us whatever we want them to.
The tragedy in India is that we are probably the ONLY major economy in the world where tourism got ZERO support from the Government and has cruelly been left to die. To make matters worse, a bulk of the industry is still in a FORCED lockdown due to the non-operation of flights and visas. So, we can’t generate revenue even if we want to—such a sad state of affairs.
How will we revive? What will happen next in the way we function and operate?
At a very base level, each one of us, without exception, will see our organisations change. This will be inevitable. Our employee base has been decimated beyond repair. I am very heartbroken about that. Our client base has been severely impacted as well. So many old partners have gone out of business. So many friends have been let go. Airlines have reduced routes, especially in key emerging growth markets that were of interest to India. So, we have to start afresh in many aspects of how we operate, how we sell and how India is to be positioned.
What I do feel strongly about is that we are very behind the curve in creating an industry-wide revival plan. The Government and the Industry associations should have by now gotten the stakeholders together to work on a strategy to implement as soon as we get some timelines on when we can get closer to our pre-pandemic operating rules. Our competition is way ahead of us. This is a race and we are currently in the last place. We cannot afford to be complacent. I hope the private sector would push hard and demand their respective association to wake up. The slumber is deafening.
What can you do as a business operator? If you wait for the Government and trade bodies to act, you can wait a long time. So, take some action on your own. I do not feel technology is a replacement for a lot of what we do, but it will most certainly be an enabler in bringing out efficiencies. So, look at what you can do to simplify and better manage your back-office processes. Are there any software tools out there you can use? Train your staff in new skills or help them improve old ones. That will only help you. Relook at your marketing material, your brand look and feel and your messaging. How can you improve that? And at a base level, what can you do to improve your own skills as an owner or senior manager? There are tons of online courses on basic things that are cost-effective and easy to digest. Go for it!
If I had a crystal ball, I would be the richest man. Right now, all we can do is guess and my guess is that when our borders open and flights start, India will see travel restart sooner than most believe. Indians want to travel, and foreigners want to visit us. Will it happen overnight, probably not. Will it take years, probably not either. The recovery will be short to mid-term. This is what my heart tells me. We just need to hang on for a few more months.
Doing your best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment. Have faith that the best is yet to come.
I want to share something I read recently that I found inspiring.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain
Happy to get feedback and thoughts on this issue.