Reflecting on COVID-19’s Impact on the Travel Industry: What We’ve Learned and What’s Next

Guest

Last Updated: April 7th, 2021

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COVID-19

Guest Post by Sheryl Pflaum, President, Americas at Collinson

One year from the WHO’s confirmation of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, the world has shifted and responded to unforeseen challenges in ways we never could have predicted. 

Like many organizations, when the virus first started to spread across the world, our traveler experiences company immediately adapted to the changing travel ecosystem. We used our global expertise in medical assistance, including epidemic and pandemic management, as well as our knowledge of traveler experience to support getting the world traveling safely again.

Now, after a year of living with the pandemic, we’re thinking back on what we’ve learned — and asking important questions about what’s coming next for the travel industry. There will continue to be implications for businesses across the travel industry and within the finance sector as well, including small to large businesses within transportation and hospitality, as well as financial services like credit card companies with travel rewards. 

A man sitting in an airport looks out a window to see an airplane

Lesson #1: Collaboration beats competition

As it became clear that COVID-19 would not be contained within borders, we saw challenges arise as organizations and governments around the world attempted to collaborate in unprecedented ways to protect public health, and address how to restart travel with health and hygiene as the priority. While efforts at collaboration did not always succeed, the partnerships that did have led the way in responding to the pandemic. 

Collinson's efforts included launching the first COVID-19 testing centers in the UK’s biggest airports and partnering with Singapore Airlines for its pre-departure testing offer. These would not have been possible without collaboration. We continue to work closely with governments across the globe, airlines, and other key industry players in order to make these initiatives a reality and to constantly adjust our service to meet the swiftly changing needs of destination governing authorities to comply with their latest requirements for travel.

Closer to home, we’ve been encouraged by many of the steps taken by the U.S. government in recent months to help travelers, including President Biden’s Executive Order in February 2021 requiring individuals to wear a mask at TSA airport screening checkpoints and throughout the commercial and public transportation systems. We look forward to continuing conversations with U.S. officials, U.S.-based airlines, and U.S. airports to offer testing and other solutions to help travelers feel safer on their journey.

Looking ahead, collaboration will only be more important for the travel industry: across teams, across sectors, and across the world. Tackling the challenges of a safe return to travel necessitates a global approach. We will need standards around requirements for vaccines and testing and a feasible way to certify travelers’ status.

Each country around the world will need to help develop these standards around vaccines and testing, but the private sector has a role to play too and is currently leading the way in terms of innovation aimed at recovery through its various collaborations.

Digital health passports, for example, are likely to become an important tool in helping the industry to rebuild. The key to introducing these passports will be to remove obstacles to a passenger’s right to travel, ensuring travel is boosted rather than restricted. This is why Collinson is already collaborating with leading providers, including CommonPass. However, global coordination and bilateral agreements between worldwide governments and travel companies are paramount to ensure these can prove successful in the long run.

Key Takeaway: Government agencies can’t facilitate travel recovery on their own. Travel companies need to work together — and with global governments to create solutions that help travelers feel safe. Global standards and procedures that are agreed to by travel industry leaders and governments — such as digital health passports — may be key to the post COVID-19 recovery. 

Lesson #2: Recovery starts with testing 

In 2020, testing emerged as indispensable to keep people and borders safe while restarting trade and travel; enabling travelers to comply with various country-by-country requirements and in some cases bypass or reduce quarantine restrictions that may have otherwise prevented the trip. With no clear end in sight for the pandemic, the move into testing on a global scale can now be seen in departure and arrival testing facilities in airports around the world, "rest and test" offers from hotels, and test-to-release centers outside the airport. 

While we’re all hopeful for widespread vaccine rollouts and verification protocols, it won’t happen overnight or in equal pace across the world. Even then, vaccination and testing will no doubt co-exist for some time, as healthcare and policy situations continue to shift.

We already know from a Priority Pass survey that 74 percent of frequent flyers identify quarantines and border controls as their top concern about returning to travel and half are willing to pay for a COVID-19 test to help ease travel restrictions; indicating the important role that testing will continue to play in restoring traveler confidence and re-opening travel routes. 

Moreover, testing itself is quickly evolving for the better.

First, there has been a considerable shift in attitude from government authorities across the globe as they better understand the varied roles played by different testing technologies and how these can be used to ensure public safety while supporting the aviation sector and all those sectors and livelihoods that rely on it.

Second, testing technology itself is evolving. Six months ago, approved tests were largely limited to RT-PCR — still a great option and the gold standard test — but today, test services can be further bolstered with rapid testing. RT-LAMP tests, for example, can deliver sensitivity and specificity rates very close to RT-PCR, but with results available in as little as 90 minutes, compared to the several hours an RT-PCR test requires. 

Rapid testing is therefore playing a key role in airport environments. Access to these rapid tests in both airports and other locations will only become more essential as travelers make the gradual return to air travel amidst an ongoing pandemic and shifting country requirements. In the same way you can buy a toothbrush at the airport should you forget it, very soon, travelers who aren’t test-ready will expect to be able to get a test at departure.

For travelers coming to the United States, having this type of easy access to rapid testing is a high priority, since the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires all air passengers entering the U.S. to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days​.

Key takeaway: Even with the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, COVID-19 testing will be a component of travel for the long-term. Travelers will expect easy access to testing facilities and it is incumbent upon the travel industry to ensure that tests continue to be made available to travelers throughout their journey. 

Lesson #3: Confidence comes from the customer journey 

Last year we saw the importance of traveler confidence for the industry. If travelers don’t feel safe to travel, no special discount or exclusive reward will change their minds. This led to considerable action from brands across the travel ecosystem: introducing health and hygiene standards, contactless solutions, and other initiatives aimed at helping travelers feel safe, comfortable, and reassured.

For example, in the United States, these initiatives have included everything from the installation of face mask vending machines to the use of Gita follow-along robots that are being used for contactless delivery of meals and retail items.

However, there’s still great opportunity for brands to reduce stress and friction and create even more confidence at multiple touchpoints in the traveler’s customer journey. Health and the customer experience must work hand in hand because while heightened health protocols are here to stay and travel must consequently evolve to take this into account, the overall quality of the customer experience must also be taken into consideration. 

Airlines can seamlessly connect passengers to a COVID-19 test-booking platform as soon as they purchase a plane ticket, as in the pilot service launched by Singapore Airlines and Collinson. Further information surrounding testing can also be introduced into the ‘ready to fly’ pre-flight checklist, FAQ, and check-in process, as demonstrated by Collinson’s airline partners in Europe, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

Airport lounges, key locations for alleviating customer stress, can pivot to digitally-driven services that deliver the little luxuries travelers expect but with less contact, such as the ‘Ready 2 Order’ Food and Beverage solution that is currently piloting in select Priority Pass lounges, including The Club JAX at Jacksonville International Airport.

Through this program, lounge visitors can scan a QR code or tap an NFC-enabled device on signage at each seat/table within the lounge to select their food and beverage order from the lounge-specific menu. Once the order has been assembled, it is then either delivered directly to the visitor’s table or to an assigned pick-up point. Ultimately, it’s about placing travelers at the heart of the journey to ensure that industry recovery is built with them in mind, thereby avoiding a situation in which the hassle of traveling outweighs the benefits.

Enabling traveler confidence is also imperative for the financial services sector. Pre-pandemic, the evidence was clear that premium-card holders placed substantial value on travel-related benefits. Over the past year, card rewards pivoted to bring new points-based shopping options to grounded travelers. Yet surveys show that consumers miss travel and intend to resume traveling as soon as possible.

Banks and credit card companies are therefore united in their goal of helping their customers return to the travel they love: so in the year ahead, we should expect to see an expansion of card rewards that directly tie back to traveler confidence, such as access and discounts for testing when traveling. More medical travel benefits from cards will create a halo effect for all, as more testing means more confidence, which means more travel and spending.

Key takeaway: To get back on the road, travelers need to know that the travel companies they work with are committed to safety. It’s incumbent upon the travel industry to help travelers feel safe and secure throughout their journey. As a baseline, the travel industry can help travelers feel safer by adopting health and hygiene standards and by employing contactless solutions for ticketing and food and beverage service.  

Final thoughts: Working towards the new normal 

As we look to the future of travel, we know that the road to recovery for travel-related businesses will be less of a bounce back and more of an uphill climb to reach a new normal. It will take consumer education, particularly surrounding testing — most of which is an entirely new concept for customers — as well as trust and renewed customer loyalty to get there.

For brands, flexibility, resilience, innovation, and collaboration will all continue to be critical in adapting to ever-changing situations and ensuring the travel experience is as smooth as possible. We all know the pandemic was unprecedented and the travel industry has already changed in response to it. But as we focus on the lessons of the past year, we are confident that travel will recover. 

Sheryl Pflaum is the President of Collinson, Americas, and has been with the company since 2005. Collinson is a global leader in the provision of traveler experiences including airport lounge access, medical and security assistance, and travel medical services. Collinson’s traveler experiences include the world’s leading airport lounge and experiences program, Priority Pass, as well as travel insurance, identity assistance, flight delay, international health, and travel risk management solutions. 

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