The biggest post-pandemic challenge in travel


How is travel changing? That question is really two questions, with two completely different answers, one for the traveling public and one for the travel industry.

In the near term, consumers are facing uncertainty: a shape-shifting landscape of border closures and testing mandates; the potential linkage of vaccine requirements to places and products; the specter of spikes and variants.

Their risks, however, are somewhat mitigated by flexible cancellation and rebooking policies.

If you’re a travel professional, you must develop, over and above your traditional skill set, an expertise in all of the above. You must keep up with day-to-day changes in destinations, guide consumers through available options and have Plan B alternatives available at a moment’s notice should arrangements be disrupted.

But the ability to do that well is connected to what I believe may be one of the biggest changes in — and challenges for — the post-pandemic travel industry landscape.

Earlier this week, I watched the Youth Digital Travel Summit, a three-evening program produced by a nonprofit called I Am Cultured. The organization sends under-resourced high school students abroad in their junior and senior years to expose them to the life-changing impact of international travel.

The trips were canceled for 2020, so organizers put together a virtual program that featured tourism officials from Italy, Costa Rica and Singapore; celebrities talking about their experiences traveling; and travel professionals — suppliers and agents — talking about what it’s like to work in the travel industry.

The common thread among the professionals who spoke was a focus on the importance of relationships within the travel industry. Relationships, they emphasized, are the industry’s foundation.

I fear that foundation has cracks that may make recovery more difficult for a period.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates 4.5 million American travel and tourism jobs were lost in 2020, and the World Travel & Tourism Council worries the global toll could reach 174 million. Part of the value that travel professionals, advisors and suppliers alike, bring to consumers is their connections to others in the industry. It’s a significant piece of their professional equity. Most travel professionals have spent years, and many have spent decades, getting to know not just the places consumers travel but the people in those places.

Many of those connections have now been severed. There were hotel general managers, now laid off, who reassured us that standards would be high no matter where they were posted. Among the missing are concierges who we trusted to recommend the best restaurants to clients, not just the restaurants that gave them a kickback.

And, speaking of restaurants: among them are ones we’ve recommended for years but have now closed or lost a gifted chef.

There are business development managers at cruise lines, deep water and river, who advisors knew would act to resolve a client’s problem but who have, in the past year, been let go.

And some tour guides — the ones who clients remember long after other details of a trip have become hazy — have been forced to find other work during the pandemic and will not be returning to their previous position.

Reliable hotels have closed and won’t be reopening. Boutiques that were on the must-shop list are now out of business. Bars, pubs, tavernas that we knew would not disappoint have been shuttered.

There has, of course, always been churn among the people, products and places of travel. In any given year, we’re disappointed to hear about changes that have meant the loss of a relationship or enterprise. But the scale of loss that has occurred in the past 10 months is deep and wide.

Nonetheless, there’s reason for optimism. Over the next 12 months, our trusted colleagues who have lost their positions will, in many cases, return or resurface somewhere else.

And there’s a reason that relationships have become so important to travel: This is an industry of extraverts. Relationships didn’t become the foundation of the travel industry because it’s the natural foundation of every industry. Travel attracts people who want to be of service to others. It’s why all segments of the industry look to hospitality, in particular, for best practices in customer care.

Going forward, the void left behind by the friends and colleagues who have moved on from the industry will be filled by new people who will, soon, become not just industry contacts but part of an ecosystem of trust and support. You’ll meet them on post-pandemic reconnaissance trips, at conference receptions and, yes, over Zoom.

Travel Weekly’s recent cover story about people who have been laid off from the industry included remarkable optimism and resilience in the face of adversity. It’s a tough industry to leave, and I suspect that many who may have lost their positions are going to return. The foundation of the travel industry may have fractures now, but its foundational promise is inherently valuable, powerful and renewable.

Courtesy of Travel Weekly