Emergence of COVID-19: The Big Bang That Changed the World for All

By Vishal Suri, Managing Director at SOTC Travel

Our industry faced acute challenges due to the pandemic—an unprecedented and unchartered territory for all of us.  Travel was brought to a halt as countries shut borders, suspending flights and movement.

India is a vast country; we went through different and dynamic protocols to protect citizens from the virus.

In India, we witnessed the great migration of labour back to their hometowns since living in metro cities with reduced earnings was daunting. The loss of jobs and businesses led to survival—survival of the fittest both at organization and individual levels, whereas certain industries were pushed into an existential crisis.

This Health Crisis eventually snowballed into a major global Economic Crisis.

Humans are quick to adapt to situations and so did all of us. Most of us were dealing with a situation like this for the first time ever. Consumer mindsets started to evolve prioritising mental health as primordial, and so was spending quality time with family—virtually for some who had either their children or elderly parents living in different locations.

There was an accelerated change in consumer behaviors as well. Consumption patterns shifted with rapid digital adoption, and they no longer were apprehensive to explore and transact online—rather, it was the need of the hour.

We witnessed The Great Divide—the affluent spent more, while the mid and lower strata curbed expenditure.

Our industry continued to be relevant in adversity

We were one of the few industries that were the first to be impacted and the last to recover. The pandemic resulted in profound changes in the way we functioned. We used this downtime to realign the organisation, enhance knowledge and support the core. Understanding customer voice and critical insights assisted us to plan a better comeback/revival.

Some key areas we focused on were the implementation of a robust safe travel program. Leveraging strong brand equity to build trust, many travel and hospitality companies helped instill confidence to travel again. To make it a simple and one-point stop for customers, we consolidated 360-degree overarching safety programs for airlines, hotels, on-ground service providers, etc.

What worked really well for us was our effective communication strategy. As a first, we deployed strong internal communications for our employees. Second step, kept the communications ongoing with our partners, external stakeholders and most importantly our customers. Whether it was updated travel protocols and guidelines, virtual customer connects and social media campaigns on overdrive, we wanted each one to know we care and we are there for you. Reminiscing their travel memories, understanding our customers’ future travel requirements, or understanding our employees better led to great insights and helped deliver what each stakeholder was looking for.

Critical for all companies was enhancing tech capabilities. Though the pandemic threw unique challenges on us all, we leveraged technology for our survival and growth—for example, productivity improvement through process automation to reduce the service burden, use of predictive analytics for customer acquisitions, contactless processes and customer journey cycles, and channel coherence to deliver a seamless omni-channel customer experience. Travel of the future should be contactless while guaranteeing safety.

We all navigated this challenge and through the gift of vaccines, we moved to easing restrictions and reopening country borders. As we reopen to travel again, now is the time to rebuild travel and tourism to connect to the world again.

The most positive outcome of the pandemic is that challenges were converted into unique opportunities and the future of travel evolved. All of us planned and prepared for the bounce-back.

Rebuilding travel

We benefited as we used the downtime to re-imagine the business post pandemic—the use of digital solutions and a positive outlook for recovery.

We were quick to scale up and garner market share and supported our enterprise customers with travel solutions focusing on seamless processes and cost savings, being a catalyst to their turn around. We are proud that we were the first to market and assure customers of safe travel protocols.

Enhancement of the omni-channel experience to leverage the power of both our physical networks and digital footprints leading to a consistent and seamless customer experience across channels.

From the power of self-service apps, to digital assistance, virtual agents and store locators; we empowered customers and customer touchpoints. Exciting advancements in artificial intelligence and other new technologies played a critical role in delivering proactive and personalised services.

Broadening the project range led to the discovery of new trends that are here to stay. There was growth of micro-customer segments who were keen to travel and focused on new ways of immersive travel:

  • staycations, workations, close-to-home drivecations
  • away from crowds—outdoor & adventure (camping, trekking, biking trips and safaris/jungle experiences)
  • private journeys (private van tours for family/extended units)
  • exploring India’s hidden gems—underleveraged locations and non-standard accommodation (private villas with a chef/concierge services; colonial bungalow, plantation villas amidst tea-coffee estates; tree houses, forts, palaces)

Domestic business has been a pillar of our recovery. We also focused on mass customisation—products tailored for varied customer types/occasions and curated new products to align to shifting customer behaviour and needs.

Most importantly we built in flexibility and easy re-scheduling /cancellation /comprehensive insurance to cover any eventuality, for enhanced peace of mind.

Our efforts paid off, customers were quick to adapt and rediscover the beautiful world of travel. Some of the pandemic-induced changes are here to stay, but with the world now open, the skies are ready once again and so are we!

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