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Tourism in a COVID-19 world

COVID-19’s impact on international travel is well documented – United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has reported a 22% drop in international tourist arrivals in Q1 2020 and is forecasting a staggering year-over-year decline of 60-80% in the metric for total-year 2020. UNWTO suggests there may be initial signs of recovery in late 2020, but it’s forecasted that most growth will be delayed until 2021, with domestic demand likely to rebound faster (assuming, of course, that the virus is under control by then).  

As part of STR’s ongoing efforts to support and inform the industry during these challenging times, we decided to speak to travelers directly to understand the underlying reasons that sit behind these trends and forecasts. A key question being: What are the expectations of travelers now?

So how do pre-and-post COVID-19 travel and leisure behaviors compare and contrast? To get a grasp on the issues that are shaping tourism in this “new world”, we conducted qualitative research via online focus groups among U.K. travelers.

Why domestic travel?

A prevalent theme that came from our research when we asked travelers about future holiday plans was a desire to stay much closer to home and to explore what was on their doorstep. Holidays abroad were being saved for 2021 and, for some, 2022. That said, highlighting a polarity in the response to the virus, a few were eager to travel as soon as possible and hoping that existing international bookings later in the year would still go as planned.

Given existing international travel restrictions and the potential implications of quarantine, among other factors, and the fact that a key cornerstone of VisitBritain’s suggested recovery strategy is a major marketing campaign focused on domestic travel, this move towards domestic tourism all feels very logical. However, what is driving this preference?

A sense of uncertainty and caution, health concerns, a lack of understanding of the guidelines for travel to international markets and concerns over the “local welcome” were all common reasons to holiday closer to home. Brexit only added to the complications and potential for a hostile reception.

In short, this means U.K. consumers are pragmatic and responsive in the wave of significant barriers to international travel.

Social responsibility is evident, but what do consumers expect in return? 

Interestingly, we also saw a real sense of social responsibility coming through with respondents reticent to travel too far, even within the U.K., thereby potentially putting others at risk. However, if consumers are clear about what is required of them and what is, and is not, permitted, this will help to encourage travel.  

Consumers also recognized that local businesses had lost out dramatically and were keen to support and help them recover. While this understanding extended to all tourism businesses, respondents also reported that higher charges for accommodation and leisure activities were not desirable or affordable. Those on tighter budgets and more financially impacted by COVID-19 stated that they simply can’t afford to pay more.

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Competitive pricing was viewed by all as a more realistic strategy to encourage people, who may be feeling unsure, to venture out.

The ability (or rather lack of) to book insurance was a consistent and major concern, even for holidays within the UK. Encouragingly, most felt being able to rebook holidays on alternative dates as opposed to getting an immediate refund was fair, accepting that this is unknown territory and understanding that accommodation providers cannot afford to lose business.

Boutique or brands?

Maslow identified long ago that safety is one of our most basic needs – and never has this been more relevant than in today’s world. Consumers often choose big, trusted brands over less well-known competitors for this very reason – and the tourism industry is no different, according to responses from our research. Many expressed the idea that they would be more likely to feel safe at bigger hotels of established brands who would be in a better place to implement the new rules and absorb any additional associated costs. Consumers also felt there would be more rigorous checks in these types of establishments to ensure adherence to government guidelines.

However, there was another set of consumers who prefer something a little bit different. While they didn’t necessarily disagree with the above, their preference was for smaller accommodation types, such as boutique hotels, which they felt were more likely to keep high standards generally, in part, based on previous experience.

The preference for big brands versus smaller independent properties, or vice versa, did not appear to differ pre-and-post pandemic. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given that brand choice tends to be based on personal core values and attitudes.

It was also agreed that all hotels could potentially improve their desirability by providing longer breaks between stays and being 100% transparent with their safety and hygiene procedures, as well as any incremental associated costs.

Experience still matters – striking the balance between safety and enjoyment is key

While safety and cleanliness are obviously key concerns, respondents also felt that traveling and leisure activities also now carried a “hassle factor”. For example, the need to follow arrows, the possibility of longer queues, having to wear a mask, etc. These findings highlight that travelers’ interpretation of leisure has been disrupted and point to the need for increased focus by businesses on the experience. Enjoyment and relaxation are still important and desired – this must not be forgotten!

While this feels like a big challenge, it is also an opportunity for all brands, no matter big or small, to lead by example by building reassurance and trust, while ensuring that experiential elements are not undermined.

Amongst those who were able to talk about recent outings and trips, there were common themes in terms of what constituted an enjoyable and safe experience:

  • Provision of clear direction and information, i.e. what is expected of you
  • Social distancing and hygiene measures in place
  • Staff adopting professional approaches to set the right tone and enforce rules
  • Staff warmth, friendliness and continually high standards of customer service

If the above criteria are met, it was felt that this would set the tone – thereby encouraging the public to behave in the same way, thus rendering the experience more enjoyable.

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Interestingly, those who had had a positive experience post-lockdown spoke very highly of the places they had visited and would recommend them to others, while the opposite was true for those who had negative experiences. If brands can get it right now, that could help build loyalty long term.

The rules and guidelines are changing on an almost daily basis, and the tourism industry is facing a huge challenge as safety and financial considerations override the desire to travel. However, with challenge comes opportunity to innovate and evolve. Luckily, history shows that the economy, and more specifically, the tourism industry, is extremely resilient and consistently demonstrates “bounce back-ability” from a crisis. Addressing consumers’ evolving needs is key. Professionalism, clear communication about what is expected and a warm welcome will go a long way.

We are excited to share more in-depth findings in the full report, Tourism & Travel in a New COVID-19 World - read now. In this report, we will share a wider range of insights and further detail on how best to adapt to the “new normal”.


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