Will the travel industry heed the COVID-19 pandemic’s ‘wake-up call’ as it recovers?

If there were ever a time to feel sorry for the travel industry, it’s now. COVID-19 has wiped out enormous parts of the business. Airlines are bankrupt. Hotels are shuttered. Travel advisers are out of work.

Consider the situation just a year ago. It was a booming holiday travel season. And the industry’s overall attitude was: If you don’t like our prices and service, just stay home.

But now travel companies are practically begging us to return during one of the most dangerous times of the pandemic.

Travelers have mixed feelings. Darren Butts, a retired facilities director from Green Valley, Arizona, just returned from Honolulu. He found deserted streets and empty restaurants, which left him feeling sympathy for the tourism business. But he’s also pleased with the changes. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude so common before the pandemic had disappeared was replaced with employees eager to serve.

“I think the industry needed a big wake-up call,” he says. “COVID supplied it.”

Will the travel industry ever get over COVID-19?

The travel industry will bounce back. In fact, it already has started to, according to new research from Deloitte, which suggests consumer sentiment bottomed out in October, though with a new surge in COVID-19 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation not to travel for Thanksgiving, that could change.

“The travel industry will recover faster than people expect,” predicts Max Leitschuh, a senior transportation analyst at WorldAware, a security consulting firm. 

For example, airline passenger counts in China are above where they were at this time in 2019, and China’s biggest airline turned a profit last quarter, he notes. VivaAerobus, a major Mexican airline, just announced that it restored all its pre-pandemic capacity, although COVID-19 is still a significant concern in Mexico

“If a vaccine takes hold in the first half of 2021, we can expect airline passenger numbers to be above 90% of their pre-pandemic numbers by the end of 2021,” he says. “And we also expect similar trends in the rest of the travel industry.”

So the answer to the question, “Will travel recover from COVID?” is yes – and maybe a lot faster than anyone thinks.

Now travel companies ‘will make sure that the service is on point’

In the meantime, travelers aren’t eager to offer a helping hand. 

“Personally, I am enjoying the comeuppance,” says Andrew Chau, an aviation blogger. “This is because of the rude service and bad behavior some of the giant companies have exhibited.”

Chau says the 2017 incident in which airport security dragged David Dao off a United Airlines regional jet in Chicago is emblematic of the travel industry’s customer-hostile attitude. These companies have asked for government bailouts and implored their customers to return but offered nothing meaningful in return. 

Maybe hard times will change that.

“Now, with the companies struggling to survive, they will make sure that the service is on point and make our travel trips a much more enjoyable experience,” he says.

Tommy Vekhayn, a health technician from Saint Michael, Minnesota, says he doesn’t feel sorry for hotels that have had to cut their rates during the pandemic. Before the outbreak, he remembers hotels “in the middle of nowhere” that routinely charged rates of more than $400 a night.

“And when I tried to ask why they were charging so much, I got the good old take-it-or-leave-it attitude,” he says, noting the exorbitant rates were “unfair to the customer.”

Now he says those same hotels have lowered their rates to less than $100 a night, and their service levels are outstanding. 

Travel industry vital part of global economy

Many in the travel industry say they understand the fury that travelers feel toward the travel industry. They haven’t always treated their customers well.

But Kathleen Panek, owner of the Gillum House Bed & Breakfast in Shinnston, West Virginia, said if travelers don’t support those businesses, and they perish, things could get much worse.

“If the big airlines get their comeuppance, and the smaller airlines go out of business, there will be no options,” she says. The strongest travel companies will turn into monopolies, able to set prices and reset service levels back to the Soviet era.

“The travel industry deserves our sympathy and support now more than ever,” says Limor Decter, a travel advisor with Ovation Travel Group.

That’s because the travel and tourism industry is a vital part of the global economy, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people. Its downfall would have a ripple effect, hurting economies, businesses – and ultimately, you.

The travel business will recover from COVID-19. But will it come back as an industry that has learned a lesson about not taking its customers for granted?

What travelers do now matters. By supporting the businesses that get it, they can determine who survives the pandemic. Yes, you should care about that outcome.

Which travel businesses need your support most?

The travel industry is no monolith. For every giant airline receiving government bailout money, there are thousands of smaller operators whose struggles get almost no attention. They need your business.

Travel advisers. There are so many stories of travel agencies struggling to make it through the pandemic. It’s heartbreaking. “If consumers feel they’d like to support a travel agent, I can assure them that it has never before been so welcome,” says Shylar Bredewold, owner of Odyssean Travel. “You may find those businesses actually have more time and attention to share with you in exploring your travel dreams as part of the purchase process.”

Small businesses. The major airlines and hotel chains may have deep pockets. “But most of the industry are small businesses who for no fault of their own have no route out of this mess until the pandemic is contained,” says Mark Whitman, founder of Mountain IQ, a travel company. “These are small locally run travel companies, local hotels and activity-based operators. They have seen their businesses destroyed and, in most cases, don’t have access to support.”

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.

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