Post-pandemic travel: What are new norms?

As vaccines continue to be put in arms, restrictions are lifted and COVID-19 cases decrease, the hotel industry readies itself for a quicker recovery than what was expected. Weekend demand is surging to close to 2019 levels and some business travel has returned.

But, there is a question about what the travel will be like post-pandemic: Will there be vaccine passports? Will cleaning protocols continue to be as strict as they were at the height of the pandemic? How have guests changed the way they find destinations to visit?

These topics and more were discussed during the latest Hot Topics virtual session, “New norms: What to expect with post-pandemic travel,” with sponsor support from Delos.

Moderated by Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, the group of panelists included Jim Alderman, CEO, Americas, Radisson Hotel Group; Bryan DeCort, COO, Hotel Equities; Peter Scialla, COO, Delos; and Dr. Zachary Pope, research scientist, Well Living Lab.

Vaccine passports have been a hot-button issue since the vaccinated were handed their cards. Some people are for providing them when traveling, while others say they’re a privacy concern.

“I know there was widespread discussion several months ago around somebody like Apple or Google creating that within the health app, but from a corporate private sector standpoint, I think it’s gonna be very difficult,” said DeCort. “You start to get into HIPAA and shared information. I just think it’s going to be really tough.”

Alderman said that the issue of data privacy will keep vaccine passports from becoming a reality, adding, “It’s really interesting that, within our company of however many hundreds of employees that we have throughout the country, how many HIPAA experts we ended up with. ‘Oh you can’t ask me because of HIPAA.’ That’s absolutely not true—I can ask you. I’m not, but I can. I think it’s more about the data leaving the U.S. No one’s going to get at the front of that train. Anything that smacks of a global passport really starts to make people a little bit nervous.”

For some travelers, the idea of booking that first vacation post-pandemic may be a little scary. Pope said that it should come down to what personal risk they are willing to handle “because we’ve turned the corner on really needing to worry about such widespread infections and, therefore, if you’re less risk averse at this point—especially if you’re fully vaccinated—there’s really quite low risk. We have very safe and effective vaccines, which have been rolled out fairly well and we’re really in a new place, a place that I think is hard to imagine.”

But, from a scientific perspective, he added, “We as scientists need to get better about communicating, I think that’s the first thing, and I’ll be the first to raise my hand. The CDC is doing what it can, but a pandemic requires a very nimble and quick approach to making sure the science is good.”

The pandemic has made air quality an important issue for hotels and other built environments. Scialla noted, “What COVID has done—besides the horrible tragedies and stress that the world has felt—is change behavior by making people aware that air quality is important to human health and well-being. Raised awareness is going to be a long-term positive for the spread of disease, for the prevention of disease and, certainly, for overall healthcare costs, which are the world’s largest liability.”

Alderman asked Scialla a question about the effects of light on the human body, since most of the employees at his company—like others—sit in front of computers indoors for most of the day.

“Doctors recognize that our eyes are not just vehicles to see; they’re also vehicles to tell our body what time of day it is,” the Delos executive replied. “We have our natural sleep-wake cycles: We’re supposed to sleep in complete darkness, and then there’s increasing temperatures and gradually increasing light with highest, brightest light midday. There’s an amber glow in the afternoon as the sun sets and then, again, darkness. All of that is giving a signal to our eyes, which then govern things like cortisol production and melatonin secretion. This has got to do with energy and sleeping patterns, and certainly susceptibility to long-term disease.”

He added, “So, what happened 100 years or so ago, we not only built boxes around ourselves, but we started to rely heavily on indoor artificial light. The result of that is we are walking around like it’s a constant twilight. We have far too little daylight during the day because we’re inside, and we get way too much artificial light at night, especially after 8 or 9 p.m., when the lights coming into your eyes are telling your body, ‘It’s 11 a.m., go outside!” and you’re supposed to be preparing for sleep. That can’t be good. The good news is that LED does not need to be harmful and can be used to actually mimic those color spectrums—a wonderful tool to actually get the benefit of outdoor lighting and bring it indoors.”

Pope called lighting “the next frontier post-pandemic” for scientists, and added, “We really do need to think about—just like we have during the COVID-19 pandemic—what gives you the most bang for your buck to make your spaces well. We think so much about how we make people well within a space; well, that starts with the space. You need to make your space well so that the people are well when occupying that space.”

The pandemic has also put a focus on the digital space in the hotel industry, especially the booking process and how social media is used.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of money spent over the course of the last 12 to 15 months in telling a really compelling story in order to try and differentiate destinations for consumers who are shopping in a non-traditional way that’s become very traditional,” said DeCort. “They want to read reviews and see what influencers are saying. It’s about the experience—and so not only do folks want to experience, but they want to share the experience. Everything is about telling that personal story and the best way to do that is robust digital content.”

Alderman said that hotel companies should use the technology available to them to give their guests a comprehensive visual experience online.

“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to see the room I’m getting,” he said. “I know I’m going to be in room 302. Well, what does room 302 look like? I want to see the view out the window. I want to see the neighborhood. That’s the level that we’re going to have to start to put forward because if we don’t, Expedia or people with budgets that are 50 times what ours are will. I don’t want them disintermediating us out of the space and taking all the reservations. Of course, we love all of our partners who book rooms, but those come with an additional cost vs. booking direct through our channels or directly with the hotel.”

He brought up the effect influencers have on prospective guests. “If [popular podcast host] Joe Rogan told people he was going to be coming to Minneapolis and everyone should go stay at the Radisson Red or the Radisson Blu because he’s playing around the corner, he’d fill our hotel up,” Alderman said. “He has [around] seven million people who listen to him. You go south of the border, there are people six or seven times his size, but they’re teenagers with 36 million people who subscribe to them. That’s three times the size of our loyalty program in the Americas! People want to be suggested where they can go. It’s one of those things where, ‘They look like me and I would like the places that they like.’ I think we’re headed for some amazing new digital experiences on brand pages and hotel pages.”

DeCort pointed out that the technology that will enable hotel websites to provide a virtual property tour is out there. “It’s being used in commercial real estate and to purchase tickets in large venues,” he said. “I think you’re going to see that technology resonate with the Airbnbs and the short-term rental companies and then, very quickly, you’ll see our big brand partners do the same thing. The ability to go in and see all of the amenities and what the view from your guestroom is is really appealing to the consumer.