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8 Lessons We Learned from COVID-19 in 2020

Last updated on January 11, 2021
14 minute read
Key Takeaways

  • Challenges the travel and tourism industry faced throughout 2020 due to COVID-19
  • Important lessons we learned during 2020
  • Ways to take our learnings and apply them to the coming year to be stronger and more resilient
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As we begin 2021 it’s hard to believe that almost a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic began. Much has changed, especially in our beloved travel and tourism industry. Without question, there have been negative impacts, but this past year also taught us lessons that brought about positive innovations and new ways to evaluate success.

In 2020 we witnessed the resilience of our industry, celebrated the amazing operators who worked tirelessly to provide safe tours and activities, and saw individuals and businesses come together to support their local communities. Let’s take a look back at 2020, reflect on the lessons the pandemic taught us, and take our new learnings to prepare for 2021 and the return of travel.

Challenges Our Industry Faced in 2020

COVID-19 had a negative financial impact on all of us. Widespread job loss impacted discretionary spending, and for many, those items deemed “nice to have” versus “need to have” – such as entertainment like tours and activities – were eliminated from household budgets. This circumstance directly impacted tour operators whose businesses require customers to survive. Looking ahead, it’s likely that we will continue to see reduced discretionary spending and long-distance travel, at least until a vaccine has been widely distributed and safety concerns are tempered.

The greatest losses our industry faced were those businesses that were not able to weather the storm. We all thrive in a diverse market with friendly competition and our industry is a true community. Despite the many trials our industry faced this year, the pandemic taught us some valuable lessons and prompted us to rise to new challenges and become more resilient. Here is what we learned.

1. People still want to travel!

Many of us canceled travel plans in 2020, and doing so has made us even more eager to plan future trips. In fact, according to Booking.com –  

65% of travelers are excited to travel again.

61% have a new appreciation for travel.

If travel was something people took for granted before, that’s certainly changed due to the pandemic. 

New Places

Future travelers plan to visit new destinations, with 53% of Booking.com respondents saying they have a heightened desire to see more of the world.

Special Occasions

Visiting loved ones and celebrating life’s special moments are also big motivators for future travel plans – 38% of respondents plan to make a trip to celebrate a milestone they had to miss during the pandemic (like a birthday, wedding, or annual holiday plans).

2. Travelers spent differently, with many being more budget-conscious.

One of the biggest challenges we collectively had to endure this year was the negative financial impact of the pandemic. Individuals, households, and businesses alike will feel these effects for some time to come – and this means travelers will be more selective about the trips and tours they participate in and have a greater focus on their budgets.

62% of travelers will be more price-conscious when planning a trip.

So, how can you attract customers while keeping reduced budgets in mind?

  • Offer discounts through email marketing, social media, and other channels – 55% of people are more likely to hunt for a deal these days. 
  • Make sure your cancellation policies are as clear as possible – 74% of people want travel booking platforms to be more transparent about refunds, trip insurance, and cancellation policies.
    • Create a page on your website dedicated to your company’s COVID-19 response where you cover these topics. Learn more in this guide.

People who are willing to travel and spend money on entertainment in the near future will likely be spending differently, so businesses need to adapt accordingly. In most cases, this means offering private and small-group tours, since 59% of people are willing to avoid crowded destinations. Private accommodations and experiences will continue to attract travelers who are wary of large groups and shared spaces. Fortunately, you can charge more for these kinds of experiences.

Keep in mind that just because people are being more budget-conscious doesn’t mean they don’t want to support their community. In fact, 67% want their bookings to help rebuild communities, and –

70% of people want to support the industry in its recovery. 

After being cooped up at home during quarantines, people are eager to have some fun, and they know that their contributions are helping our industry. Check out our guide to appealing to budget-conscious travelers for more tips. 

3. We don’t have to go far to have an adventure.

Before the pandemic, hopping on a plane and going somewhere new didn’t require a second thought. But because of travel restrictions and the fear of visiting crowded airports, travel is happening even closer to home, proving that you don’t need to go far to have an adventure. People all around the world have discovered local businesses and fun things to do right in their own backyards – during the next 7-12 months:

47% of people plan to travel within their country. 

43% plan to explore a destination within their region. 

(Booking.com)

Arival predicts that the return of local and domestic tourism is expected to happen before international tourism. Many travelers will opt for drive-to locations and COVID-safe activities near them, like outdoor tours, private excursions, and drive-thru holiday light displays or zoos/safaris. It’s important to remember that recovery will not be linear. Some regions may recover and reopen sooner than others, so paying attention to what’s happening in your market is essential. 

The shop local trend is here to stay, at least for the near future, so be sure to read our guide on appealing to the local booker and marketing to your local communities.

4. Health and safety measures are major deciding factors when it comes to booking a tour or activity. 

We know the topic of health and safety was discussed continuously throughout 2020, but it is worth reiterating. It is hugely important to be transparent, clear, and concise about the safety measures you have implemented – the public expects tour and activity operators to take specific health and safety precautions and communicate them effectively. According to Arival, roughly a third of travelers say they want to see strict capacity controls, staff health checks, and other physical changes at the facility to ensure social distancing. Watch this video to learn how to communicate health and safety standards to have the most impact.

Even as travel restrictions ease in 2021, the decision to travel and participate in tours or activities will remain a personal one, as everyone’s comfort level around the pandemic is different. In June of 2020, cases in some regions dropped significantly, and we saw bookings for tours and activities increase as a result. If the past is prologue we can expect to see this trend continue as the weather warms again. 

Pro tip: If you offer outdoor, socially-distanced and/or COVID-safe activities, consider increasing your hours of operation or, if you are able, invest in additional equipment or staff for the coming spring and summer seasons.

5. Hospitality made a comeback. 

It was difficult to commit to any plans in 2020, and understandably many travelers did not feel comfortable making a reservation or putting down a deposit without some reassurances of what might happen should they need to cancel or reschedule. If we reflect honestly, our industry hasn’t always been the most flexible when it comes to refunds or cancellations – businesses stand to lose money if they’ve already made preparations for a booking that gets canceled at the last minute. However, 2020 brought with it a need to be more flexible to provide bookers peace of mind and to show that you care about your customers. 

Pro tip: Help to provide a safety net for future cancellations and refunds by offering gift cards as a form of credit and by adding trip insurance as an add-on option during the checkout process. These work in tandem with advance booking to make the industry more customer-friendly overall. 

6. Travelers care about sustainability more than ever before. 

At the start of the pandemic, when lockdowns and restrictions were widespread, carbon emissions and air pollution in general decreased. This made it starkly clear how much transportation contributes to pollution, which forced many to reconsider the environmental impact of travel. Sustainable travel was already a growing trend in our industry, and the events of 2020 have made it an even bigger priority for travelers. 

When thinking about future trips –

53% of global travelers said they want to travel more sustainably. 

70% expect the travel industry to offer more sustainable options. 

(Booking.com)

Just a few ways you can make experiences more environmentally friendly include:

  • Using sustainable modes of transportation (such as walking, biking, or paddling)
  • Encouraging customers to bring reusable water bottles & eliminating single-use plastics from your tours
  • Offering the option to purchase carbon offsets

Sustainable travel is not just about making better choices at the destination — it also involves thinking about the environmental impacts of overcrowding a destination during the high season – think Venice in the height of the summer season. Many travelers want to help reduce these impacts, and accordingly –

46% want to see more attractive off-season packages.

(Booking.com)

Well-crafted and properly priced off-season packages can go a long way to encourage guests to travel at different times of the year and relieve some of the high-season burdens for popular destinations. Bonus – more guests for you in your slow season!

7. Virtual tours gave us a new way to experience the world. 

We all spent way more time at home in 2020, and virtual experiences provided a way to enjoy everything from live music to tours of destinations around the world. While a virtual tour is not the same as seeing a place in person, this new trend expanded the reach of many tour operators who were able to connect with customers around the globe.

If properly monetized there is no reason for virtual experiences to cease after travel restrictions are lifted. If you’re interested in virtual offerings, read our guides on how to market your virtual experience and how to take your virtual experience to the next level

8. Community is everything. 

2020 forced us all to think about the things that truly matter – like spending time with loved ones and supporting our communities. This has changed our priorities in many ways, from where we live and work to how we travel. 

In 2021 and beyond, travelers will be more intentional about choosing local tour operators and supporting the communities they visit – 67% of travelers want to know how their travel choices will support a destination’s recovery efforts from the effects of the pandemic, and – great news! – 

55% of travelers want to see how their money is going back to the local community.

 As an industry, we focused on supporting our local communities and ensuring we contribute to the recovery of the destinations we love. Community is at the heart of the travel and tourism industry, and it will be more important than ever as we work together to rebuild our industry to be better and stronger than before.

Looking Ahead to 2021

As much as we’ve learned this year, we still can’t fully predict the lasting changes to our industry caused by the disruptions of the pandemic. Vaccine distribution has sparked hope that life will return to “normal” soon. However, Arival predicts that tour, activity, and attraction bookings won’t (fully) return to pre-COVID levels until 2023. These are the stages they expect travel to experience (or continue to experience): 

  • Lockdown: Travel demand is zero.
  • Easing: Some travel returns.
  • Returning: Travel demand grows as the economy recovers.
  • Recovery: Travel demand approaches pre-COVID levels.

As we have already experienced, these stages may not always happen in a straight line, and it will likely take time to reach the final stage. However, there are choices you can make now that will set you up for success in the future, such as applying for business loans and reviewing your current budget and operations to find ways to save money. These actions have positive long-term effects and will benefit your business even after the pandemic is over. 

The resilience and creativity seen in our industry fill us with optimism for 2021 and the years to come. Let’s make 2021 a year of working together to lift up our industry as a whole. 

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