June 16, 2020

Some thoughts about COVID-19 and the future of travel

Matt Ingwalson

For three years, we’ve heard rumblings. The ecological cost of leisure travel was unconscionable. Millennials couldn’t wrap their heads around things like paper passports. The era of peak travel was coming to an end.

And then, 2020. And all those rumblings turned into that train from Snowpiercer.

For consumers, 2020 might represent a seismic shift in collective consciousness. But for travel marketers, it’s more like an acceleration of five trends we were already grappling with. (Or, in some cases, trends we hoped would go away if we twiddled our thumbs long enough.)

#1. We are all SI/SO now

In mountain towns, accommodations are sometimes labelled SI/SO. Ski In/Ski Out means no schlepping gear through town. And suddenly, just as important, it means no steamy buses or sardine-tight gondola lines. Right now, every travel destination needs to ask itself what its own version of SI/SO is.

Maybe you’re running accommodations on a resort property or in a walkable downtown area. If so, the answer to this question is obvious. And you should look to create package deals with nearby attractions that let travelers get from their beds to their experience with a minimum of operational friction and human contact.

Smaller Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVB) might not find obvious answers, but they’re out there. Americans are craving nostalgia and have an ongoing love affair with mom-and-pop shops. Put those together and you can design a bunch of new experiences, from drive-in concerts to farm-to-sidewalk outdoor dining. And destinations could use streaming technology to sell virtual ticket options to experiences that have limitations on the number of visitors.

The upside to designing SI/SO experiences? People pay more for them.

#2. Travel sans surprises 

In one of my talks, I joke that Baby Boomers and Millennials are the same. They both expect someone else to do everything for them. Boomers use travel agents and Millennials download digital concierges, but both groups expect a curated vacation.

This tendency is probably going to pick up steam among Gen X families seeking to quell their anxiety about exposing their kids to coronavirus. And it’s guaranteed to force seniors online. Before 2020, 68 percent of seniors said they bought something online at least once a week, but 80 percent preferred to shop in person. COVID-19 is going to change that, pushing seniors onto the Internet to consume more content and make more purchases. With 99 percent of Boomers planning annual leisure trips, you can expect them to start learning the same digital techniques that have made travel so much more accessible to Millennials.

#3. #StayCloserToHome 

America’s always been Road trip Nation. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of people taking road trips increased by increased by 64 percent. And, according to a 2020 travel trend report  released by a global collection of 750 independent hotels, "microcations" were rising in popularity among all age groups.

And that was before coronavirus.

Resonate recently released a survey that stated that even after stay-at-home orders are lifted, only 11 percent of people would feel safe traveling internationally. But 52 percent would feel safe traveling within their own states. As travelers start dipping their toes back in the water, their first excursions are likely to be those they can drive to.

There are two ways to take advantage of this.

First, advertise not just to home-state audiences, but your neighbors. Your first customers might be people within just a few miles, who trust you specifically because they see you on their way to work every day.

Second, make yourself part of a curated road trip. Create tools that let travelers reach you without airlines, and show them how much fun they can have along the way.

#4. Your face is your passport 

Organizations like the World Economic Forum (WEF) have long advocated digital identity tools that’d let you manage a profile, collect digital “attestations” of your identity and decide what to share.

United States Customs and Border Protection is using facial recognition to match travelers to passports. And reaction has been mixed, with companies like IBM and Amazon being forced to scale back in response to privacy concerns. But fast forward to today. Travelers might start advocating for biometrics so they can get through security without touching anyone.

Back to the WEF. “In a COVID-19 context, a traveler would be able to securely obtain and store trusted, verifiable health credentials such as immunizations or their health status in their digital identity wallets. This would be combined with other trusted, verifiable identity data from public or private entities.”

This is one of those trends that went from being ten years out to two years out in the space of a month. Every time you hand someone your driver's license, paper ticket, phone or passport, you run the risk of contracting a deadly disease. Consumers will be watching to see how fast destinations offer biometric check-in, digital passports, contactless payment, medical screening and robot cleaning. And once early adopters pave the way, the rest of the industry will have to get onboard.

#5. Make healthcare part of the pitch

When you work with luxury vacation properties or ski resorts, there’s often a whispered understanding that somewhere in the decision-making process, someone (often referred to as the Chief Mom Officer) will ask “Where do we go if one of our kids breaks a leg?” And when you work with airlines, there’s always that one traveler pulling a Naomi Campbell.

COVID-19 will turn these whispers into shouts. Proof of sanitation and access to emergency care will help consumers feel confident about being away from home again. And destinations should consider sharing that information on their websites.


Matt Ingwalson is VP, Creative Strategy at Heinrich. He’s led marketing efforts for more than a dozen CVBs, travel companies, state tourism commissions, hotels and attractions.