How the Industry Needs to Evolve to Regain Travelers’ Trust and Survive Post-Pandemic

By Dr. Zongqing Zhou

As the tourism sector has been hobbled by the pandemic, the industry has also been presented with an opportunity to reevaluate and improve its practices, a necessity if businesses are to attract and gain the trust of both existing and prospective customers.

The impacts of COVID-19 have posed significant challenges to the travel and tourism industry. Airline sales are expected to drop by $314 billion, and hotel room vacancies have eclipsed 50%. For these industries to survive, they must rapidly invest in new initiatives to keep their current customer base engaged, while improving conditions for their employees to deliver world-class service. Companies should be investing in updating company pledges; enhancing loyalty programs; prioritizing public safety and security; and optimizing technology use.

The pandemic has made consumers wary of travel—and these companies will need to earn back the trust of their customers.

In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” consists of two Chinese characters, “danger” and “opportunity.” In every crisis, there are opportunities for those who can see them and are able to take advantage of them. The bigger the crisis, the larger the number of opportunities.

If there is one crisis that fits this bill, it’s COVID-19, which has been unprecedented in modern history. COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow to the hospitality and tourism industry, one that has never been dealt with before and is heavier than 9/11 and SARS in terms of lasting impact. Every company, from large corporations to small businesses, can’t simply go back to their old tricks and expect to salvage their old customers. Something must be done before customers, old and new, feel secure and can trust a company’s measures to be effective and efficient.

So, what is that “something”? Here’s a list of things they can do:

Peace of mind pledge

  • Sanitation pledge: daily thorough professional cleaning of the environment, depending on which industry sectors you are in, including but not limited to nontouch temperature checks for all guests, and disinfection and sanitizing protocols. Add free room sanitation amenities.
  • Food safety pledge: starting from food suppliers to the kitchen food preparation, serving and delivery
  • Basic medical protection equipment: masks, gloves, sanitizers provided either free or at cost
  • Special cancellation policies pledge: for bookings/orders that have already been made, cancel without any penalty and the credits can be used any time within the next 12 months, and the rates will stay the same for similar types of services and products. For new bookings/orders, cancel anytime without any penalty with two options: either a full refund or a credit for future use within the next two years. Implement many other similar peace of mind measures.
  • Government COVID-19 guidelines pledge: will strictly follow the guidelines issued by local, state and federal government; will practice social-distancing even at the cost of reduction of number of customers at a particular date or time

Enhance loyalty program to keep old customers and attract new ones

  • Crisis benefit pledge: add free sanitation amenities to the existing loyalty program without raising fees, if there are any, for existing programs. Make a point to say that no phone calls or any other actions need to be taken in any crisis restricting travel. Refunds and/or credits will be made automatically.
  • For new customers: These benefits start immediately and will be valid for the next three years, even without a crisis. After three years, this benefit will kick in during any crisis. This is probably the best time to recruit new customers who will be looking for safety, security (including financial security) and flexibility.

Make public safety and security the center of management, marketing and operations

  • Hire a Chief Safety Officer (CSO): This person must be a public health and safety professional.
  • Create a training program: All managers, from the top to the frontline supervisors, must go through a training program and acquire a “certificate of completion” in public health and safety. All new hires in any managerial position will need to have this certificate before being fully employed.
  • Public relations campaign: Publicize the above two measures. All marketing and promotion should place public safety and security as part of the message.
  • Revise the old operational manual or procedures (create one, if one did not exist) to streamline the public safety and security operation.
  • Procurement of equipment, services and products must be in line with revised or newly created operational manual or procedures.
  • Customization: pay special attention to the new needs of the travelers. The majority of these needs will be centered on public safety and security; social distance; small crowd travel products and services; on-site temperature testing and/or other assurance of a virus-free environment.
  • Create innovative social distancing products and services.

Use of technology

  • For large corporations, use of big data to better understand customers. Two pieces of information are especially relevant and important: age and geographical location. The reason is clear: COVID-19 affects older people more than younger people, and it affects some countries and regions more than it does others. For example, the older the people are, the more concerned they will be with health-related safety and security. This information can be used in promotional incentives, customizing marketing messages and providing special services.
  • Implement touchless check-ins, checkouts, door locks and other service elements.
  • Streamline feedback for marketing, promotion, booking, reservations, check-in, checkout and post-travel, either through the internet or by creating a proprietary app, or both. For destinations and theme parks, the concept of carrying capacity is particularly important to understand. Once you know the carrying capacity of your destination or theme parks, you can use the technology to require pre-booking to be able to visit your sites, which in turn enables you to control the crowd daily.
  • Accelerate the use of virtual reality; augmented reality; video conferencing programs such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, Skype for Business and Cisco WebEx; and event management programs such as Cvent. Many of these programs were made popular and became household brands due to the lockdown policy of COVID-19. Customers are likely to accept them if offered or made available. These technology tools are very useful and effective in presenting intangible services and products offered by the hospitality and tourism industry. They are also great tools for social distancing, customization and market targeting.
  • Implement smart tourism, smart hotels and smart food service.

The bottom line is this is not a time to prioritize profits; it is a time to focus on establishing trust, highlighting benefits, keeping current customers engaged and recruiting new ones. This is the time to think about how to retain valuable employees by finding ways to maintain basic cash flow to pay them. This is not the time to try and maintain the status quo, but to think about re-engineering your management practices; operations; marketing and promotion; human resources strategies; organizational structures; automation; and smart technologies.

Dr. Zongqing Zhou is a professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management of Niagara University. He is currently the president of the International Society of Travel and Tourism Educators (ISTTE).

This is a contributed piece to Hotel Business, authored by an industry professional. The thoughts expressed are the perspective of the bylined individual.