We've never seen an impact on the travel industry like COVID-19, with significant travel bans, border closures and mandates not to travel taking a huge toll on Australia's tourism operators.
I particularly feel for local, small business ground operators who have gone from thriving to no travellers literally overnight, especially so soon after the bushfire tragedy in January, but in truth everyone in the tourism industry is hurting at the moment.
Having worked with hundreds of businesses across the Australian travel industry, I know our industry is resilient.
For travel operators to succeed in the months ahead, my advice is to focus on two key things: flexibility and emergent holiday formats.
Rebuilding travel with flexibility at the core
Moving quickly to respond to a significant increase in customer enquiries and booking changes was key for all travel operators in the first weeks of the outbreak.
At Luxury Escapes, our team had to quickly go from changing around 1,000 bookings a month to more than 50,000 since March.
To make sure we could work 24/7 to answer calls, emails and social media queries we increased staffing in our contact centre and redeployed and retrained staff from other areas of the business to support during this time.
We didn't always get it right and the speed of the downturn put a lot of pressure on everyone, but in general we have been humbled by the patience and understanding of our customers and suppliers during this difficult time.
As the situation continues to stabilise and even improve in the coming months, as intrastate and then interstate travel returns, customers will continue to expect a level of flexibility.
Many customers will want to rebook or organise new dates for their trip once they are able, even if that is to a different destination.
Travel companies should be prepared to enable booking date changes online and revisit their policies in light of the current state.
We re-introduced a 'Buy Now, Decide Later' feature, where customers can choose the destination or deal they'd like to book, without having to select dates upfront. We expect features like this will remain popular for some time.
New ways to take a holiday
We know Australians everywhere are keen to get out and see their own backyard, particularly after months of lockdown.
As we now begin to see an easing of restrictions across Australia, it's important for travel and tourism businesses to plan for the road ahead.
So far, our customer data has generally mirrored where the states are at in easing restrictions. Those that are further ahead in reducing travel restrictions are already seeing intrastate travel interest and bookings, and announcements in New South Wales and Victoria have helped to drive consumer confidence.
We can also expect the type of holidays Australians want to take will be shaped by the impact of COVID-19 as well as restrictions for some time ahead.
We'll see more driving holidays as people choose to see Australia in their own vehicle rather than on a flight and the earlier openings of national parks suggest camping, hiking and fishing holidays will bounce back quicker.
Historically, Aussies have chosen to take shorter and more frequent domestic trips compared with their overseas travel, but expect this to change with domestic travel likely to be our only form of travel for some time.
Some 8.5 million international travellers came to Australia last year, but Australians took more than 6.3 million overseas holidays last year (*).
While the road to recovery will take time, if enough Aussies get out there and see their own backyard this year, we'll be on our way to a stronger, more robust economy for travel operators of all sizes.
This article first appeared in the June issue of Traveltalk Magazine.
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