Ten years ago, the Phocuswright Conference theme – Chaos Calls: Navigating the New – suggested that travel and tourism would at some point face a “Significant Surprise.” We called on businesses to prepare for the possibility that an unknown disruption would upend their operations or challenge their viability. Of course, this prediction did not point to a worldwide public health crisis that would decimate the travel industry and cripple major economies. And few, if any, travel companies could have prepared for such a startling scenario.

Yet this is where we find ourselves in 2020. Face-to-face with a sweeping global pandemic, companies large and small, some of which were already teetering, simply didn’t make it, or won’t. Many of those that remain face a long and painful climb back. Those equipped with deep pockets and the agility to traverse a daunting landscape will emerge stronger on the other side. But how long will it take, and what will travel even look like when we get there?

The theme of this year’s Phocuswright Conference – To the Brink and Back - confronts the extraordinary challenges that travel and tourism face, and sheds light on how businesses can ensure their survival. We invite you to join us in Phoenix or online in November, as we explore the issues and questions that all travel-related companies must address at this remarkable time:

When, Not If

Among the pundits and prognosticators, it’s rare to find a reasoned argument that travel will never recover – though there is general agreement that it may never be the same. It’s a matter of debate as to which segments and markets will bounce back first, and which will slog a painful path to regain their footing. Will corporate lag leisure, as per conventional wisdom? Will cooped-up consumers be ready to jump at their first chance to explore far-flung destinations, or will they play it safer and closer to home, giving domestic travel an early edge? Indeed, there have already been some positive signs, but the coming months are crucial. Timing is everything, and the implications are enormous.

Press Reset

Travel and tourism accounted for 10.3% of global GDP in 2019; one in four new jobs created in the last five years was in the sector. But the industry struggles to balance travelers wanting to explore the world, with destinations overwhelmed by overtourism and concerns around the environment and sustainability. The economic damage wrought by the virus grows more evident each day, and tourism will play a vital role in the recovery. But the debate around which road to take remains unsettled. Some argue this is an opportunity to build a new, sustainable future for destinations, but it will require rethinking conventional strategies and marketing. Others cite the need for quick bucks and jobs, making the case that tourism and business as usual must be encouraged despite the downsides. Divided as opinion might be, one thing is certain: decisions made now will set the stage for what follows in years to come.

Safety First

If travelers were asking “Are We There Yet?” in 2019, their battle cry in 2020 might well be “Are We Safe There?” When people do venture out again, they’ll insist on safety and some TLC, and will choose destinations, experiences and travel providers that meet their needs and have their backs. Now is not the time to give lip service to loyalty. In a post-pandemic world, duty-of-care takes on a whole new meaning. What will induce road warriors to travel to a meeting in 2020 and beyond? Will an empty middle seat be enough to win over skittish flyers who are now more concerned about health and hygiene than frequent flyer points? Will hotel guests stick with the brands they trust, or flock to the OTAs for more choices and the best deals? Does the demand for distancing give short-term rentals an advantage, or will hotels chains’ enhanced cleaning protocols reassure those seeking a safe stay? And how quickly can the cruise segment – which enjoyed one of its strongest years ever in 2019 – hope to regain the faith of customers? Understanding travelers’ attitudes, intentions and behavior is job #1, and tailoring an experience to match them is critical.

Tech’s Time to Shine?

It seems like virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) have been travel’s next-big-thing for so long that some have chosen to simply ignore the hype. Not anymore. With online meetings now the norm and companies embracing virtual conferences and trade shows, the moment for online tours, activities and events is upon us. Travel brands across categories are grappling with how to salvage market share and keep customers engaged. For many, VR, AR and other emerging tech can help them stay in the game – from inspiration and destination marketing, to trip-planning, shopping and the in-destination experience. But it remains to be seen whether, in the long term, technology can replace seeing and experiencing a place in person, or if it will mainly be a supplement to travel.

Down, Not Out

Closed borders and stay-at-home orders delivered a gut punch to travel in March, and all corners of the industry are still reeling. It’s not just the little guys that were blindsided; from household names to startups and segment disruptors, every supplier, intermediary and destination is under threat. Which companies will have what it takes to safeguard (if not future-proof) their businesses? With the big OTAs retrenching and smaller, regional players gobbled up, can suppliers seize a bigger share of online distribution? To what extent will this crisis prevent some game-changing ideas from seeing the light of day, or will it serve as a catalyst for innovation – or both?! Sadly, good old-fashioned resilience and determination won’t guarantee survival, without the ability to withstand once unimaginable market realities. The good news? History has shown that travel bounces back from cataclysmic circumstances, and for those with a solid road map and the staying power to be there when it does return, a tremendous opportunity awaits.

Come join us at the Phocuswright Conference in November, whether it's on-site or online, and help shape the future of travel and tourism – to the brink and back!

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Related article:
Update on The Phocuswright Conference 2020