Embracing the Unpredictable
Booking.com hosted a roundtable to share experiences of the pandemic and thoughts on the future of travel
(Singapore January 18, 2022) In her welcome and keynote address Laura Houldsworth, Managing Director & Vice President, Booking.com APAC said she is getting her groove back after having Omicron which she is now over. “It was very mild, and I recovered quickly,” she revealed.
Ms Houldsworth (far right) introduced the panel that consisted of Dr Walter Lim, Deputy Country MD of Fullerton Healthcare (far left) Campbell Wilson, CEO of Scoot, (second left) and Kerry Healy, Chief Commercial Officer for SEA, Japan and South Korea, Accor (second right).
Two years into the pandemic Ms Houldsworth believes "we are coping better with it than we did at the beginning." A Booking.com survey of 24,000 people globally found If their budget allows it, 78% of people would say yes to any vacation opportunity. “There is pent up demand for travel.” To another question 67% of respondents don’t mind where they go. “They are open to something different,” she stated.
Mr Wilson said the past two years, “have been a frustrating grind. We would take one step forward and one step backwards.” Mr Wilson joined SIA in April 1996 and was previously the founding CEO of Scoot. “We knew what we needed to prepare for post-COVID, but post-COVID never actually came.”
He continued, “We all entered 2021 with the expectation that vaccinations would be the beginning of the end. But it didn’t prove that way. We did see progress, we saw some reopenings - Scoot went from 14% level of pre-COVID capacity to 33% pre-COVID capacity.”
Ms Healy, who oversees Accor’s operations across 400 hotels in 12 countries, spoke to how COVID has impacted business: “It has been incredibly challenging for the industry, especially for our Heartists® on the ground. (Accor considers each employee a “Heartist®”, a master of the art of hospitality who serves others from the heart, with curiosity and inventiveness.) We became experts on things like opening and closing hotels, repurposing hotels, for such things as vaccination centres, or hospitals with private medical organisations, quarantine hotels or other needs. Hats off to the teams at the hotel level because you’re in a constant state of flux.
“If I look back on 2021,” Ms Healy continued, “if I said it was colourful –I probably meant brutal. The reality is, we’ve had one country open and that was the Maldives and it flourished. Sure, we had testing, sandboxes and VTLs going which we welcomed, but it all came quite late in the year and certainly with a lot of restrictions. It’s tough, Southeast Asia relies on cross-border travel and an interesting stat for us in terms of what we had to pivot to in the last 12 months was that in 2019, domestic business would have been 36% at best of our business, last year it was over 80%.”
Dr Walter, who has 20 years experience in Singapore and Asia-Pacific health care, spoke on what’s next for the travel industry: “Among all places, Singapore should have grounds for cautious optimism. We are fortunate here to have more than 90% of the eligible population vaccinated - including children and vulnerable populations. In many countries, access to COVID vaccination is not so evenly distributed. Testing will not be going away in the near term, but we are seeing trends of PCR testing regimes shifting to antigen rapid tests to keep testing affordable and provide quick results - here is and will be - a responsible way to travel as long as we adhere to testing and infection control protocols.”
Looking at the future of travel Ms Houldsworth made some interesting points: “Tech is playing an increasing role in travel. It is providing more predictability.” She talked about ‘Vitamin Vacay’. “85% of people say that having a vacation planned has a positive impact on their emotional well-being. 75% want authentic experience where they can get into the local culture. 65% want travel to be beneficial for local communities. They want to be able to give back to the places they visited. 76% want their vacation to be work free.”
Ms Houldsworth noted the demand is there and travellers’ preferences “will continue to evolve over time”, as “consumers continue to prioritise travelling flexibly and safely, given the uncertainty travellers continue to experience. The value of flexibility will continue to be on the rise and opens up an opportunity for partners that adapt their pricing, availability and flexibility to set up for success in a way that works for their business.”
Ms Houldsworth added that the “lack of clear and consistent regulations related to travel has been, and will remain, one of the biggest challenges our industry will face. While industry players undoubtedly play an integral role in reducing travel friction, governments have to work together to create harmonized rules to keep travellers safe without restricting their freedom of movement.”
Ms Healy agreed: “There needs to be more collaboration; it seems like everyone is making their own rules throughout the region independently from each other. Given that the tourism industry is vital to Southeast Asia and represented 12% of the GDP in 2019, we definitely need more harmony to ease the admin and process hassles and for governments to collaborate.”
Mr Wilson acknowledged that COVID is not going to be eradicated soon. “We are very confident that once externalities like border restrictions relax, there will be a fast recovery in short haul travel. Indeed, we’ve seen short-haul flights overwhelmingly supported when VTLs open up.” He also noted that how people respond to surveys does not always translate to what they actually do.
“Governments,” Ms Houldsworth asserted, “have to consider providing additional support for key destinations as they aim to rebuild and grow their travel and tourism sectors. In line with this, public-private-community approaches will be essential, and present great potential for spearheading change in the industry.”
Mr Wilson acknowledged what governments “have done right.” He said, “As a beneficiary of job support schemes and various other levels of support from the government, we’re very grateful, and in fact, much of the industry wouldn't be here without that. Governments are legally accountable, so each jurisdiction has their own response. That said, they can get on the same page to an extent. For example, the commonality with respect to which vaccines are recognised, to the period for travel that vaccinations are recognised, and even what constitutes an acceptable QR code.”
Dr Lim mentioned, “The one positive behaviour borne from the pandemic is how it brought forward awareness amongst the public on preventive health, testing and vaccination.”
Booking.com’s research shows that travellers want to travel more sustainably so they launched the Travel Sustainable Badge to help travellers search for sustainable properties and acknowledge local properties for doing their part for the environment by introducing sustainable practices. Ms Houldsworth emphasised: “As part of our mission to make it easier for everyone to experience the world, at Booking.com we are taking important steps to make sustainable travel choices easier for both accommodation providers and travellers. We believe our industry has a real opportunity to fulfil its potential as a key sector in our transition towards a more sustainable future.”
Ms Healy agreed: “People are definitely looking to travel with more of a social conscience. We have thousands of hotels active on their sustainability actions. It is important to get rid of millions of (plastic) bottles of small amenities, and you can imagine, when replicated across the world, it is pretty impactful.”
She pivoted to what travellers will want when they can travel freely once again. “Local experiences, local content, instantaneous communication of what’s going on, hyper-personalisation - these are some of the trends that we see... Around food & beverage people want much richer access to information - where’s your produce from; who’s cooking it – and how are we operating within the communities that we operate in.”
Mr. Wilson echoed the same sentiment but cautioned, “Sometimes we can overthink what people actually expect. By and large they want the same experience they had before, delivered well, with quality, at a reasonable price. People can actually feel much more comfortable with a sheet of physical print-out compared to having everything on an app. Sometimes, people just want simplicity and assurance.”
Dr. Walter closed off with how he has “a great deal of respect for the resilience and flexibility of the travel and hospitality industry throughout the pandemic. A dialogue like this is something we have not had before and is something we should continue moving forward. I think there is much cause for us in separate industries to continue this dialogue even post pandemic, which will certainly improve our preparedness for the future.”
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