Nothing like a global pandemic to cause a seismic shift in the way travellers buy and consume travel for now and the foreseeable future.
Of course, major changes were expected, but consumer behaviour has become so erratic, it’s tough for travel businesses to respond to the resulting commercial ‘Coronacoaster’.
Buying behaviour has adapted to suit needs – remember the panic buying of toilet paper? Many months on, consumers continue to stock up on “pandemic pantry products”. Consumer confidence is low, and people are spending less on non-essential items.
So, where does that leave travel?
- We know that consumers are a lot more risk-averse in times of COVID than they were prior to COVID.
- We know that travel is the lens through which the spread of the pandemic is viewed.
- We know that people’s habits have changed, been forced to change, very quickly as a result of restrictions on movement.
- We know that largely people are afraid and need more support.
- We know that the new normal is a COVID-normal and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
And what do you need to know about your new COVID traveller?
1. We’ve all become germophobes
If you’re viewing the world through a new COVID lens, you’re in good company. Gone are the days of seeing a scene from a movie with or a photo depicting a crowd of people without thinking about the fact that they’re not observing social distancing.
Travellers will have major concerns over health and hygiene, not only when they travel, but in their interactions with you if you’re a bricks and mortar business. Their expectation will be contactless service provision and technology.
Expect queues, dense crowds and over-tourism to be a thing of the past. Travellers will seek destinations with low-density, outdoorsy travel and travel contained within their own social bubble – family and close friends.
2. Budget is tight – corporate or leisure
Whether for business or leisure, travel budgets are going to be tight. Expect your customer to turn that penny over twice before they spend it. Value and peace of mind have become more important. Due to the increasingly risk-averse nature of your traveller, they will be suspicious of anything that seems too cheap or too good to be true.
As a result of lower disposable incomes, stress and anxiety about the future, spending will focus on necessities. The phrase ‘conscious consumption’ has emerged where purchasing is centred around those basic needs. There’s also an aversion to wastage.
As well as being more cautious and selective in their purchasing decisions, customers will practice thriftier and more self-sufficient lifestyles, as they move away from conspicuous consumption and reassess their needs, values and priorities.
3. Online or bust
From 0 to 100, COVID has forced even the most Luddite of us to digitise. It seems necessity really has been the mother of invention and even those customers who were reluctant to go online have been forced to do so, quickly getting used to transacting online during the lockdown.
The virus has acted as a catalyst. So instead of an organic gradual shift to digital, consumers were subjected to a tsunami of digitisation which meant that overnight we were all pushed into online commerce and engagement. Business meetings that previously just had to be done face to face, were now conducted successfully on Zoom, Teams and other online meeting platforms.
Will this shift to a different channel be permanent? It’s too early to claim that, but with new hygiene and contagiousness concerns, it is possible that people will reconsider leaving their homes to go into public with the same carefree level as before.
Customers are also increasingly open to new digital offerings as a result of the pandemic – even those customers who weren’t before. So, those brands and businesses that emerge out of this pandemic will be those that are prepared for digital consumer engagement, e-commerce and cashless payment.
And of course, the added advantage to more customers being online is that you have access to more data about your customer than ever before to make decisions about your customer and their needs in an erratic environment.
4. Caring for our fellow humans
The superheroes of our new normal are those who have rushed to the frontlines and cared for their communities – nurses, carers, doctors, essential services.
People who care for others as a career have become the focus of our admiration. The mood in the room in a COVID world is around solidarity, community, collaboration. There’s a level of humanity that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic.
Amidst the uncertainty all humans face today, organisations need to take steps to become more human themselves, which means starting with re-evaluating their own values. They need to understand who they are before responding authentically based on a new order of priorities: trust, safety and connection. Organisations also need to deeply understand those they care most about – their customers, workforce and partners.
How this is affecting the expectations on business is two-fold:
- There is an expectation that companies put the safety and wellbeing of their staff and customers first, before profits.
- Those brands that are authentic in their desire to help others and make a difference – not just to get marketing mentions, but really to make a difference – will win hearts and minds.
5. Caring for our planet
The COVID pandemic has created space for a ‘do-over’. There’s the sense that we have an opportunity to start again and put greater focus on what’s important, like saving our planet
As such, customers don’t just want businesses to care about them, they also expect companies to care about the planet and to be accountable for environmental and social impact.
The pandemic has sharpened customers’ desire for sustainability and transparency, and they will acknowledge and support companies that attempt to do good.
6. Self-care – because you’re worth it
COVID has upended the daily routines of your customers, their future plans and lifestyles. They have become fixated on how to manage stress, sleep, physical activity, eating well, being more productive and taking care of themselves.
Customers are also looking for the exhilarating and refreshing to soothe the psychological impact that the long and indeterminate lockdown has caused and relieve the stress of house arrest.
As a result, there have been a ton of articles about how to take care of yourself with tips ranging from practising positive self-talk to enjoying the healing power of baking.
7. Flexibility in times of uncertainty
When the situation is uncertain, consumers want greater flexibility. Brands that are less strict about fees for changes and cancellations and more focused on providing flexibility in their T&Cs will do better.
Shorter booking windows, last-minute travel decision-making, flexible policies and free cancellations are some of the trends we can expect to see emerge.
Your business needs to be agile, read the mood in the room and respond based on where your customers’ mindsets are in this extremely fluid situation. In a COVID world, the top 3 customer service qualities that consumers value during the pandemic are empathy, flexibility and the ability of agents to answer questions and arrive at resolutions quickly.
8. A return to the expert for support
A recent study by McKinsey indicates that now more than ever, consumers need extra information, guidance and support to navigate a novel set of challenges. They want a resource they can trust, that can make them feel safe when everything seems uncertain, and that offers support when there are so many unknowns.
To be successful you have to ramp up your customer support and highlight your value proposition of holding your customers’ hand in a complicated environment.
Research has shown:
- 64% believe it’s important for brands to provide them with guidance.
- 55% think it’s very or extremely important for brands to support them in making the right purchase decision.
- 84% wish search identified their needs and narrowed down results to 5 – 10 choices.
- 70% want brands to interact with them on a personal level.
9. We have more screen time and we’re using it
All over the world, people have flocked online as a key source to understand the latest updates on the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Non-stop news has become even more pronounced than usual.
Now more than ever, our online audience has become highly engaged. They are consuming massive amounts of online content across all generations and genders. Online videos and TV streaming are in. Physical press and podcasts are out.
Usage of social media, especially video-based like TikTok and WhatsApp have increased dramatically. Social media has evolved into what it was meant for in the first place – social connection.
Similarly, connection and events on virtual platforms like Zoom, Teams, Skype, etc. have soared. How many virtual meetings do you have a day now instead of just picking up the phone and making a call?
10. How we travel has had to evolve
Stringent health and hygiene protocols have become ubiquitous across the travel value chain as the industry seeks to de-risk itself. So, of course, that’s going to impact the way that people travel in ways like:
- Increasing the length of time to get through the airport check-in and aircraft boarding process.
- The cost of travel as more layers are integrated and expenses arise to keep people safe.
We’ve seen that it’s not necessary to be in the same place for a meeting or even a conference. We see that a new kind of travel – the travel of living – will emerge. Instead of taking a holiday, you may decide to work remotely and enjoy your work and play at the same time – a workcation, in other words.
Domestic will outpace international as we wait for different parts of the world to be ready at the same time because, remember, travel is quite literally a 2-way street. Goodbye fluffy business trips, hello travel for essential purposes.
Companies will be forced to put even stricter policies in place to safeguard their travelling staff and duty of care will become even more of a consideration.
Here are seven tips to reshaping and reframing your travel business to deal with the changing COVID traveller:
- Be customer-centric: This was the case before COVID-19. It has endured through the pandemic and will continue beyond. Ask your customers what they need and want.
- Track leading indicators: Identify what indicators are important to your customers and business and track these religiously.
- Take action swiftly: Be agile. This extremely fluid situation requires supreme flexibility so make sure you’re monitoring what’s happening and have a team that can move quickly to ensure you’re taking the right action.
- Repair while you fly: Done is better than perfect and if you are waiting for perfect before you start flying, you’re going to miss the boat – or flight in this case. Better to draw a line in the sand and move forward even if you have to fix the plane while you are mid-flight.
- Accelerate digital transformation: If you weren’t focused on your digital strategy before COVID-19, you now have no choice but to give it renewed focus.
- Be kind, true and caring: Your customers can sniff inauthenticity and self-promotion a mile away and they are extremely averse to it. Find the humanity in your brand and make sure you’re connecting with your customers from a place of true empathy.
- Remember that with constraint comes creativity: You never need to evolve, grow or change when you’re in your comfort zone. COVID has rocked our comfort zone to the core, but presented an opportunity to see business through a different lens.