Rebuilding Confidence: How COVID-19 Fostered a More Resilient Future for Travel
By Rajeev Menon, President Asia Pacific (Excluding Greater China) at Marriott International
The reopening of borders and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions have been shining the light on one narrative—the undeniable power of travel.
Travel is here to stay. We are a resilient industry and have stood the test of time. From the Great Depression, 9/11 to today’s pandemic, we have shown that we can bounce back, twist and turns notwithstanding.
The long-awaited travel recovery in Asia Pacific is finally happening, and although headwinds are strong, reports have shown that pent up demand could be even stronger. In markets such as Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and India, we are seeing revenge travel driving demand beyond 2019 levels.
With continued excitement for how travel looks beyond the horizon, here are my views on some key learnings we have brought forward in building a more resilient future of travel.
Hyper-localisation is one of the key strategies that has powered the travel industry through the pandemic and continues to play an essential role in sustaining consumer engagement despite the lack of travel.
The past two and a half years has seen how international travel was impacted, resulting in our need to shift our focus to driving domestic travel which was largely through staycations and ramping up local F&B segments. However, moving forward post-pandemic, even though domestic travel remains important in many markets, the industry needs to look beyond that.
We need to better cater to the way travelers search and book, with an integrated travel experience that is seamless. This also includes the need to develop and enhance in-language websites, so travelers have the option to book trips in their native languages, supporting a fuss-free booking experience.
Co-branded credit cards are also a great way to attract new customers in local markets and enhance customer engagement. It keeps members active through everyday purchases and not just when they are travelling—an activity which was limited through the pandemic. During the span of the pandemic, we launched two co-branded credit cards with Shinhan Bank in South Korea, and two with AMEX in Japan.
People First: Family Takes Care of Family
More than any other industry, people are the foundation to the success and growth of the hospitality industry. J. Willard Marriott, the Founder of Marriott International has set industry standards by proclaiming that if we take care of our people, they will take care of our guests, and the business will eventually take care of itself—and this very culture has kept us strong during the pandemic.
The pandemic was a tough time for our industry to say the least, but we have stood together, and we have helped each other out. Where possible, we should now welcome former employees back to the industry as travel and tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Today, emerging post-pandemic, mental health continues to remain a priority and we should continue to offer the flexibility and resources that focus on enhancing both physical and mental well-being.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)
In addition, DEI should be an important focus and core of a company’s culture. By driving inclusivity and diversity, businesses benefit from enhanced problem-solving and better decision-making. According to McKinsey & Company, more than 40% of companies with diverse management exhibited higher profits; and companies with racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to outperform their peers.
Continued Focus on Innovation & Partnerships
Meanwhile, innovation continues to be key, and through the collective efforts of employees and business partners, ideas would be realized from the ground up.
During the pandemic, we were faced with the challenge of restrictions, mandates, the need for heightened cleanliness regimens—all these juxtaposed against how as a business we needed to continue to inspire travel and drive ‘heads to beds’.
Several initiatives were introduced to pivot our traditional business model. Some highlights include:
- Mobile-first: Reducing close contact through mobile chats, keyless check-ins., and freeing our employees’ time so that they can focus on delivering exceptional service quality
- Food delivery: Bringing restaurant-quality food to the comfort of homes when people could not travel: This has become an additional revenue stream for many hotels.
Looking Ahead: Inspiring a New Generation of Travel
Through it all, we have also come to realise that the pandemic has shifted how travelers think and behave. Consumers have had the time to reflect and (re)prioritize and we need to prepare ourselves for a new generation of travelers: Gen Zs.
Whilst Gen Z consumers are willing to spend more on travel, their needs and priorities are slightly different. They engage with brands whose values resonate with their own, and these values have become more of an expectation rather than a ‘nice to have’ by companies. Inclusiveness, positive social and environmental impact, and authenticity are just some values that are a must for these set of travelers. With these values becoming more important, we are seeing the rise of the “Experiential Traveler” and the “Conscious Traveler”.
The Experiential Traveler
The Experiential Traveler is motivated by the quality of the experiences and not the product on offer. Reports shows that 38% of Gen Z travelers consider unique experiences an essential element of a great vacation. To develop unique and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, businesses need to think outside of the box and explore collaborations with like-minded brands.
The Conscious Traveler
The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards conscious consumption, and 95% of APAC travelers today desire sustainable travel options. Google searches related to sustainability has increased by 45% in 2021 as compared to 2019.
According to a study by Booking.com, when booking a trip, 54% of Gen Z-ers considers the environmental impact traveling has on a destination and over 50% are willing to spend more to ensure their selection has a low impact on the environment.
Building a More Resilient Future of Travel
Overall, it is a collaborative effort to build a more resilient future of travel and we need to do so in a responsible fashion, together as an industry.
The hospitality sector currently accounts for 1% of global carbon emissions, which is set to increase according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Most industry players already have sustainability on their agenda, but there is much more that we need to do to reach the ambitious targets ahead.
According to the latest Economist Intelligence report, “Environmental, Social, and Governance” (ESG) has become a necessity, which beings the need for a stronger public-private collaboration. Our industry needs to come together with Government bodies to accelerate the adoption of green technologies and emissions reductions to meet our sustainable development goals.
We have weathered one of the most, if not the most, grueling periods in the history of travel. But we have shown that we are resilient as we continue to bounce back up every day. The pandemic will not be the last unforeseen challenge that the industry sees, and therefore we need to cultivate a culture of testing and learning, creating a culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes and learn.
One thing for certain is that the tenacious people-centric culture, and the ever-inspirational power of travel has held many of us together and will continue to do so. The transformative power of travel is second to none, and it is the reason why many of us remain in this industry.
As we approach the new era of travel, opportunities are abounding and it is our chance to take the wheel to shape the travel of tomorrow, together, responsibly.