The COVID-19 has taken everybody in the tourism industry by surprise because it has already killed so many people, caused the world to pause and destructed everything we do globally. It is impossible to predict how long it will last, what conditions will be required for lifting restrictions, how many waves it will entail and what will be the operational and strategic requirements for the “new” realities.
In my 35 years in tourism and hospitality strategic marketing, we have never encountered a crisis such as this. Most crises, such as September 11, terrorism attacks, fires, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados, even the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, lasted for a short period of time, counted numerous victims, destroyed infrastructure and superstructure however, the industry bounced back into recovery phase fairly quickly. The COVID-19 has taken everybody in the tourism industry by surprise because it has already killed so many people, caused the world to pause and destructed everything we do globally. It is impossible to predict how long it will last, what conditions will be required for lifting restrictions, how many waves it will entail and what will be the operational and strategic requirements for the “new” realities. Thankfully it does not damage the infrastructure and the superstructure. Many people failed to realise the seriousness of the situation and even now remain in denial stage. Unfortunately, risk and crisis management are often an afterthought, rather than a well-rehearsed plan and these organisations are exposed to risk more than others.
Many colleagues and friends from around the world have asked my advice on how to navigate through these unchartered waters, survive this period and prepare for the future. Crisis management has primarily six stages, namely: preparation time when organizations take actions to prevent disasters and avoid crises; prodromal stage when it becomes apparent that the crisis is approaching and is inevitable; emergency stage when the crisis hits and urgent action is required to save lives and resources; intermediate phase when short-term needs must be addressed to restore some normality; recovery stage that repairs damaged infrastructure and superstructure; and the resolution stage when society and organisations adjust more to the new realities and reengineer their processes to fit the emerging market conditions. They also prepare for other possible threats. Resilience is about accepting the new reality fast enough and progress to the new conditions emerging. The speed of adapting, preparing and implementing strategies that address the new realities, rather than looking back, determines the competitiveness of organisations and their ability to survive in the future.
Being an academic and a researcher in smart systems and agility, I am always alert on contextual situations, seeking real time solutions to optimize outcomes. My research is always based on credible sources and decision-making is based on dynamic evidence, accessed in near real-time. I have been following COVID-19 since the very early days. As a result, I have introduced the Buhalis Rapid Communications on my blog to alert colleagues and friends of the seriousness of the situation and prepare them for the consequences. I started shouting BRACE BRACE BRACE and resilience: The global tourism should prepare for a major impact from Coronavirus COVID-19 as early as on the 3rd March 2020. At that time many colleagues were really upset by the cancellation of the ITB… On the 17th March 2020 I predicted that the global crash of the Coronavirus Tourism industry and called for humanity, resilience, solidarity and leadership. Greece went into lockdown and introduced its non-essential movement ban on March 23. On the 26th March 2020: I called again BRACE BRACE BRACE for Greek Hoteliers predicting that Greek tourism cannot open until July and flights, bookings, occupancy levels and income will be very limited. On the 1st April 2020, I changed my stance and predicted that tourism will reach GROUND ZERO.
I felt obliged to raise the alarm and aske industry to prepare urgently for this reality, predicting that tourism as we know it, will stagnate for the 2020 summer season. If we manage to have a short season before the virus reappears in Autumn, we will have to be very smart and agile to deal with last minute, short distance, primarily ground transportation and principally domestic leisure activities. I stated then that it is with regret that I do not expect any serious international tourism activity happening in summer 2020. That meant that I expected Tour Operators being unable to operate charter flights, whilst non-frills carriers will struggle to operate with low fares and low load factors. Airlines in general will suffer catastrophic consequences and will struggle to survive. Tourism activity will primarily be domestic and staycation will prevail. If we manage to control the virus, tourism will come back stronger in summer 2021.
Many industry colleagues and friends asked me to be more optimistic and “cold-blooded”. They told me that my predictions would be catastrophic and therefore they simply cannot materialize… because they will cause too much disruption. I still predicted a huge economic and humanitarian catastrophe and asked colleagues and friends to prepare for a hard crash. On a positive side, the COVID crisis brought forward a sense of solidarity where individuals, organisations and communities got together to support those in need and those on the front line of the virus with a range of acts of kindness. Kyros Asfis and I, established the 360TourismSolidariy community on Facebook to acknowledge solidarity actions of tourism and hospitality organisations to the wider community. To address COVID-19 effectively we need to be disciplined, exercise solidarity and humanity.
At this time, we require inspirational leaders who can take us safely forward into the next stage. Optimism and sticking our heads in the sand will not help. Neither will looking into the mirror to predict what is coming our way in the future. The new reality requires transformational leadership to urgently identify needed change, create a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and execute the change in tandem with all stakeholders. The best example comes from aviation. No pilot wants an aircraft to crash, but when you can predict an inevitable crash early enough, you can take urgent measure to minimize the damage of the impact. I am inspired by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger the US Airline pilot, who in 2009 successfully and single-handily ditched his Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River in New York, after a bird strike disabled both engines. He had 3.5 minutes or 210 seconds to make critical decisions to save the life of the 155 people on board the US Airways Flight 1549. In his many leadership videos and books, he emphasizes how critical teamwork is required in these situations. Although Captain Sully was the pilot in command, the team coordinated actions to make sure that no lives were lost. The co-pilot, flight attendants, and even passengers assisted each other. We need to learn from this experience and prepare fast for the crash through collaboration, altruism and solidarity. Captain Sully did not waste time, he disobeyed Air Traffic Control commands and was focused on one task only, to take his passengers to safety. In interviews he said “I was Sure I Could Do It !”
Now it is time to Reignite, Refocus, Redesign and Reengineer our global tourism industry: the new 4Rs of tourism!
Analysing the existing situation, it is evident that a range of factors will determine the 2020 Summer Season. This advice is only for those who need it and seek guidance on making it to the better days that will come after this nightmare is over. International travel in Summer 2020 will be largely restricted, to reduce spreading the virus between countries and regions. We need to examine carefully The Tourism System which is based on three regions, namely: the place of Origin where travellers come from; the Transit region which represent the transportation space; and the Destination region, where travellers go.
Place of Origin. Most countries have suffered a considerable loss of life, with the USA, UK, France, Italy, Spain, China, Belgium, Brazil and Germany leading the list. As the national health systems of the regions worse affected have exhausted their limits, Governments will be really careful and have proactively been advising their citizens to avoid leisure travel until the discovery of a vaccine that will reduce the infection and death rate. The health crisis has put significant pressure on health systems whilst lockdowns have significantly damaged national economies. Most governments had to reallocate their national budgets and cover the immense cost of the health crisis, purchase of PPE, creation of extra ICUs, ventilators, etc, whilst offering unemployment benefits and furlough pay to their citizens to survive the crisis. Against that background, governments will suffer from low tax income and VAT, since most of the economic activity is still paused. Most governments have provided COVID-19 Exceptional Travel Advisory Notices advising citizens against all but essential international travel indefinitely. They have strongly advised citizens to return now, where and while there are still commercial routes available. Many airlines are suspending flights and many airports are closing, preventing flights from leaving. Governments paid significant amounts of money for repatriation of citizens, testing, providing hospitality in hotels for quarantined travellers.
The cost and effort of repatriation has been enormous and it being financed by the taxpayer. BREXIT, ECONOMICS and the collapse of Thomas Cook will remain to be external factors in the current climate that will influence demand, especially from the UK. Disposable incomes will vanish for those who became unemployed or were unable to work as well as those still in employment due to the global economic recession. For many people, travelling will cease to be an affordable option or one that they have time for. Even when the coronavirus crisis has passed, many governments will be apprehensive in reopening their borders to avoid importing a second wave of infected travellers. We have seen this in China already. Countries that have suffered severe impacts from COVID such as Italy and Spain will be very reluctant to import new cases from countries that will have a COVID peak later, such as the UK or Sweden for example. This will have huge implications for insurance policies too. As many countries have still not seen the peak of the pandemic they are really nervous relaxing the restrictions. They are also uncertain of the impacts of the gradual reopening of the economy, schools and allowing leisure activities. It is very likely that countries will have to return to restrictions when their R0 value is increasing and that will mean citizens will be asked to refrain from travelling. Hence, leaders at the place of origin have made extensive statements advising their citizens “not to rush” to book their summer holidays. Insurance companies will also find it very difficult to insure international travel and this may be at very expensive premiums that will be Unaffordable or discouraging for leisure travellers. Voices for smart travel will encourage citizens to holiday close to home for safety and also in order to support the regional economy.
At the transit region, transportation services are perhaps the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 disruption, as travellers are afraid to board on inevitably crowded vehicles and travel in confined spaces. Already most airlines have grounded their planes and urgently seek methods to reduce the risk involved. Most countries have closed their borders for the foreseeable months and introduced strict controls to prevent the spreading of the disease. Airlines will take a long time to recover, if they ever survive. So far FlyBe, Virgin Australia, Air Mauritius, and Norwegian subsidiaries have failed. Alexandre de Juniac, the General-Director and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) explained that air transportation will have to suffer “de-densification” referring to social distancing in plane cabins and “neutralisation” that involves leaving seats empty on flights. Not only passengers are very nervous to fly but the economics of air transportation change rapidly. We need to consider the actions to regain passenger confidence and invite them back on board. Under these conditions, a lower load factor will mean that fares will need to increase to make sure that routes remain profitable. Effectively airlines will emerge as business carriers offering business class type of space, service and prices. Low cost airlines and charter flights will suffer most and this will have major impacts on destinations that depend on those, such as islands and peripheral regions. Other surface transportation modes may benefit from this situation. Train, coach, ferry transportation that can adopt the two principles above and can be more flexible in scheduling and cabin conditions will regain passenger confidence earlier. The principles of de-densification and neutralization will still force companies to increase their fares. More importantly it is the use of technology and smart systems that need to be used, specifically on the transit region where passengers feel more vulnerable, to protect them, as well as transportation and borders staff, as well as fellow passengers.
At the destination region the impact and stage of coronavirus depends on the preparedness of the region to deal with the pandemic. China closed its border to most foreign travellers to prevent the first outbreak and then re-closed borders to avoid a new outbreak of the coronavirus by imported cases. The restriction applied to foreigners holding visas or resident permits, as well as to those holding APEC Business Travel Cards. Badly hit regions such as USA, UK, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium that failed to protect their population will be unattractive tourism destinations until the situation stabilizes, perhaps with discovery of a vaccine. Regions such as Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Portugal that have performed well many be considered safer and may be able to open up more facilities to visitors. It is clearly a decision that epidemiologists should take together with local authorities, once they can establish the parameters for each particular place.
The contextual study needs to include geographical and urban planning characteristics, identify congestion areas and create suitable plans for social distancing. Regions that are easily accessible and can reach appropriate health facilities within a short period of time and at an affordable cost are predicted to be more open to external risks. Islands that may require support from larger hospitals in mainland may face more challenges and delays in reopening. The place of origin of tourists and key markets may be of particular interest as different regions had different COVID peaks. There is a major concern from local populations on whether they really want to open up their destinations to visitation and attract tourists, particularly from badly affected regions. This is the case in destinations where health structures are not in a position to deal a significant increase of population due to tourism. The number of available beds and intensive care units, as well as medical staff and equipment can determine the tourism activity that will be allowed by authorities in many occasions. Each destination is facing different level of challenges and therefore need to be treated differently.
There is no easy way forward until a vaccine and full medical treatment have been developed. There are no magic solutions for those regions and business that depend on tourism. Each stakeholder may experience the crisis differently but will all suffer in the short term and learn our lessons for the longer term. The level of suffering will depend on location, type of product, organisational structures and finance, marketing strategies, expertise, resilience and business continuity planning. Some business or regions may even benefit from the situation. I predict that domestic destinations that are within two hour drive/train ride from key markets, such as Bournemouth, the New Forest and Brighton in the UK may benefit from the expected staycation. Social distancing is almost against tourism where we travel to be in close proximity with our loved ones and also with people in different places of the world offering authentic experiences. We need to explore the tourism system in more detail and use smart and agile tourism methodologies in real time to manage tourism and hospitality organisations and destinations.
At the macro level there are ethical, social, cultural and economic implications. We need to establish whether we are ready to expose our communities to the extra risk that coronavirus patients may bring. We need to establish new carrying capacity for destinations, according to the capacity of health structures as well as the geo-distribution of tourism activity. New procedures are required at borders and at entry points. Those procedures need to be well designed and address all eventualities in a pragmatic way. Destinations need to protect travellers, employees and host populations. To do that they need to address all risks in the entire ecosystem. Hygiene rules should be applied and followed by all religiously, to protect everybody in the system.
Early detection systems should be in place and clear procedures for all eventualities. At the destination the flows of tourists, the transportation modes they use, honeypots and pedestrian routes need to be redesigned to ensure that the disease is not spread. Social distancing changes dramatically business models. More resources will be required for co-creating tourism experiences. For example, a hotelier may require double the housekeeping and waiting staff to offer services under the new protocols. This will balloon costs of production and delivery. Prices may have to increase dramatically to accommodate the new requirements, as fewer travellers will be using more space on given capacity, especially for transportation, hotels as well as food and beverage outlets.
At the micro level tourism and travel organisations are places where guests stay temporarily in close cohabitation. There is a risk of high degree of interaction among guests and workers, which requires specific attention in the context of COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued operational considerations for COVID-19 management in the accommodation sector on 30 April 2020. The document offers guidance to collective tourism accommodation establishments such as hotels and similar establishments, holiday and other short-stay accommodation, and campsites. These considerations provide guidelines as well as best operational practices for the management of accommodation establishments, as well as for specific front office housekeeping, recreational facilities and food and beverage functions. It also provides advice for handling COVID-19 cases in hotels and tourism accommodation establishments for both staff and guests. Simpliflyinghas done similar guidance for airlines. Although protocols and guidelines are useful each organisation needs to carefully analyse the process of service and all inputs and outputs throughout the value chain. They will need to analyse each step, identify the contact points and redesign processes to protect the health of all people involved. Processes need to be redesigned to deal with the challenges faced in real time and at the particular context, requiring smart solutions.
Tourism companies and regions are desperate to #ReigniteTourism around the world. They need to support the economy and enterprises to generate the much-needed employment and economic benefits. It is really painful to see so many aircraft parked on airports around the world and to see so many communities that desperately expect tourism income to survive. However, it is clear that this needs to happen very carefully to avoid more deaths. We need to be alert, observe all information, use smart methodologies and apply agility as we find a new normal in the tourism industry. Preparation, agility and fast and calculated reactions are key to survival. Technology empowered smart and agile management and marketing will support us to survive in the short term.
BRACE the future and time to Reignite, Refocus, Redesign and Reengineer our global tourism industry: the new 4Rs of tourism! In the immediate recovery the global tourism industry has several key preconditions that need to be observed in order to #ReigniteTourism.
People and health first. We need to ensure that the health of our guests, employees, local population in the three regions of the tourism system is safeguarded at all costs. The risks will cost dearly in human life and misery, if not all appropriate measures are taken and businesses rush to tourism for short-term economic gain. In any case, the economic benefit will be wiped out by the cost of health care and compensations as well as the damage in reputation if this is not observed with long term negative effects.
Holistic care for customers, staff, local populations. At this time of crisis, we need to engage the entire ecosystem to address the needs of our communities holistically and with solidarity. It is this holistic approach that can help deal with the disease, look after our communities and reignite our industry. This may be beyond our immediate areas of activity and may extend to acts of kindness to our extended communities.
Hygiene and cleanliness processes need to be reengineered looking at all eventuality and engaging every single person in the value chain. This starts from travellers that need to understand their own responsibility and every single person in our teams and communities. This is a collective responsibility towards all members of the value chain. It simply cannot be the responsibility of a single entity. Public health and safety training in the new conditions should include customers, staff, suppliers and all members of the ecosystem, with simple implementable instructions. We should also provide basic medical protection equipment such as masks, gloves, sanitizers as well as distribute sanitation amenities to passengers or in rooms. Although there is space for certification this should not be instead of alertness and constant reinforcement. It is not the badge that will protect us … but the thorough and continuous implementation of the measure.
Redesigning the tourism facilities may include de-densification, making little spaces and streets one way; eliminating spaces that cannot be supported, pre-determining and reducing capacity; marking spots to social distance, redesigning queuing systems. Perhaps markings on the floors, separations and different furniture may be required. We need to do this dynamically and observe flows, reactions and impacts to address all issues in real time.
Reengineer service process to address hygiene and cleanliness, ensure the relevant equipment and trained personnel are available to satisfy the new requirements; reassure and empower guests to be a central part of the disease defence mechanism. It is business as un-usual and new protocols need to be drawn dynamically and in real time.
Boosting health systems to make sure that they can deal with the extra requirements emerging from the flow of tourists. This means that health structures should be on a 24-hour alert and have the health care professionals and the equipment required to address issues. The capacity of the health system should drive the ability of the tourism sector to operate.
Business model As a result of the required changes and particularly the de-densification and the neutralisation, there are significant changes to the business model for tourism organisations. Not only they will need to reduce their capacity but the cost of servicing will increase due to the additional requirements. Tourism organisations will need to re-budget their operations, redesign their pricing strategies and perhaps refocus on their operational procedures and increased costs. This at the same time that tour operators and travellers will be pressuring for lower prices. Smart solutions will need to address cost elements and redesign pricing and service principles.
Booking conditions, flexible cancelations, refunds, vouchers are on top of the agenda of travellers. Organisations need to take measures to reassure consumers that they will be supported. Flexible cancelations and refunds are a key strategy to gain consumer confidence. Vouchers can only be used when consumers are happy to do so and are supported by guarantees and insurance. They should be used carefully if organisations would like to maintain their reputation and perhaps avoid law suits.
Relationships, Online Engagement and Social Media Strategies will enable organisations to engage closely with existing and future customers and support them during this difficult period. Messages and discussions should refrain from hard sell and advertising. They should focus on solidarity, dreaming of future travel and reassuring that travel activities are safe through sharing measures and real time conditions. Relationships are key in this period and loyalty clubs should be used extensively to bring tourism organisations and destinations closer to their consumers.
Smart methodologies and techniques Technology brings a range of smart tools to support us. COVID-19 has accelerated the use of digital tools and therefore travellers will be more familiar with applications and digital support mechanisms. Processes need to be redesigned to include touchless check-ins, check-outs, door locks and other service elements as well as to redesign the very essence of tourism, human touch. Smart techniques and methodologies will enable us to operate differently, remotely and more safely. On some occasions, robots may be used, especially for getting close and serve infected travellers.
The COVID-19 war that we are fighting will have many casualties I am afraid. Humanity should prevail to save human life and despair. The economy and industry will sooner or later recover to the new reality and that new reality will offer opportunities for those who can see the future first and prepare services and products that can provide value to all stakeholders. The trick is to understand this new reality early enough and Reignite, Refocus, Redesign and Reengineer our future.
BRACE the future and time to Reignite, Refocus, Redesign and Reengineer our global tourism industry: the new 4Rs of tourism!