Re-Starting Travel: Reputations & Frontlines

By Binu Philip / Tourism & Marketing Consultant

The biggest concern among travellers will be the (Covid19-inflicted) Reputation of affected destinations

More than a month after the Corona-lockdown season in India, which is now more uncertain than when it began, everyone ranging from children to CXOs are raring to go out and feel the air, walk on grass and just let themselves loose. Young Frida, BBC Travel Show’s youngest Reporter, and her dreams should give the industry a lot of hope.

As we continue our search for answers as to who is best placed to re-start the travel engine, here’s a little light on the #FrontLinesInTravel which may prove as important as anything, to start with.

There are two key FrontLines that emerge in the fightback by travel. The line that differentiates between both however blur at several points. And they are so very crucial for destinations, hotels/resorts, airports, airlines, tour companies, and anyone and everyone else.

Before we get to the two, let’s also understand that the mental make up of the travellers in an immediate post-COVID-19 situation. It will be a heady mix of the excitement to let oneself free from the barricades of the four-wall-siege of many weeks/months on the one side; and on the other, a bit of nervousness regarding post-COVID safety (as a health issue).

There are two major challenges the industry has to stand up to. The biggest concern among travellers will be the (Covid19-inflicted) Reputation of affected destinations.

The darker the shade, the more serious is the reputation crisis a destination and every other service provider connected with the destination gets affected. At this stage, it is safe to conclude that most places of interest have a very badly battered reputation. That needs fixing. It is a health-fixing and not PR-fixing that is required. To come out of this crisis may take time, if not ages. Most airlines and airports that have taken action believe that a pre-Covid19 situation is unlikely before 2022. So the Reputation Crisis of a destination is a real one.

The second big challenge, as in all other cases is that travel is changing forever. Travel is going to be a tad more inconvenient than what it is now, with stringent measures, seemingly unfriendly (when a lot of things change). Remember the huge changes in security protocols post 9/11? We are in a similar zone.

In order to overcome these two challenges and get the traveller excited enough to take the plunge disregarding the inconveniences and safety concerns, FrontLines will play a big rile. The two FrontLines in travel will be: one, the first line of travellers who will travel to various places and make use of several services; and two, the first touchpoints these travellers will encounter at these places or virtually.

The reason why these ‘FrontLines’ are going to play a crucial role is: no matter how much marketing is done and offers doled out for travellers, and no matter how loud destinations and services say they are ready or more specifically Corona-ready, ultimately what will matter is the confidence of travellers to travel. Such confidence among travellers will stem from how the ‘Word of Mouth’ from the first line of travellers spread. In an age of PR-hyped messaging, travellers are more likely to trust assurances from peers and friends, than a multi-media campaign.** Those who continue to stay home will gauge the situation from those who venture out.

In this situation, how destinations, its surroundings, facilities and also various service points appear in variation to its current reputation crisis will be a critical base for the future of travel, at least to kick start. This, irrespective of which segment makes a come back first. How must each segment of the industry take care of this aspect:

1) Destinations: Following up from my first article# on these issues, how ready or prepared destinations are, will be seen in view of how clean or less clean than desired (in a #NewTomorrow where cleanliness and the security one derives) they are.

In times when reputations across the board have been damaged owing to the deadly virus that drove people indoors, the first travellers who visit a place will be very watchful and observant of how destinations have taken pains or worked hard to ensure optimum and safe-feeling cleanliness. (Obviously, any travel decision will be taken only after vigorous pre-checks). Increased/improved measures adopted to ensure cleanliness, safeguards adopted in terms of say, increased frequencies in cleaning, processes followed, etc. will be watched. Strict implementation of guidelines, yet how friendly they are implemented will be watched.

Also important will be key physical distancing measures right from ticket counters (whether tickets will be made available online etc.), and at security check points like if security agents have gloves. Perhaps newer security systems that altogether avoid the need for an agent in close proximity may even come up or may have to be thought of.

Re-writing carrying capacity policies based on the new situation will be important.

A mess up here, will further damage already battered reputations of destinations.

All the more important for destinations to have been on top of the game by the time they receive the FrontLine of travellers to their attractions.

Airlines/Hotels/Resorts/Home Stays/Coaches: #NewTomorrow will demand fool-proof measures that ensures health safety. Improved food cleanliness measures and waste disposal, as well as sustainable practices that reduce waste and single use material; perhaps promote more use of personal stuff. This sector will be catering to those with increased sensitivities towards spic ‘n span cleanliness with regard to everything ranging from outward appearances, to even those who may actually lift the mattress or carpets to see if anything really is brushed underneath!

Also, will be interesting to see how physical distancing measures are taken. At restaurants, pools, lobbies and the like for hotels, and at other places like Airports, Railways.

Airlines like Emirates has already announced measures they’re taking in order to ensure passengers feel safe and confident to travel… both at the airport and on-board.

Delta Airlines has pledged its commitment towards ensuring cleanliness alongside being on-time.

How well these measures get implemented on ground when passengers start arriving at airports will send messages to potential travellers about the preparedness of the industry to receive travellers and ensure their safety.

At Touch points: Even as making the whole system ContactLess, there are yet points at which close interaction with staff are required.

One of the most important people at destinations and hotels/resorts and other places are the FrontLine Staff.

How well they are equipped with helpful, insightful information, and how cohesive their actions are with the rest of the staff in meeting customer needs in tune and keeping with the new situation will be a critical area of observation. Highly sensitised travellers will feel this more than quality levels and standards. Equally important is the way the FrontLine staff will behave (politely) and respond (assuringly and gently) to repeat questions, requests; how well they are informed of Dos and Don’ts (all in the interest of health-safety). Again following up from my first article, the current time of lockdown must be utilised to update customer interaction SOPs addressing possible safety-related questions.

That is exactly what many hotel chains are up to currently. Far-reaching changes to what we have been used to for generations are set to change. From protection shields at front offices and ‘no buffets’, to ‘Contactless experiences’ and training of staff for healthier stays by partnering medical players. Certainly, these are just the start but will play a big role in building traveller confidence. If a traveller knows that the hotel chosen for stay has an arrangement with a medical brand, what more assurance does one need that s/he is in safe hands?

But even before travellers reach here, Call Centres and Online Information Centres are in fact the very first touchpoints. This is where the first information is enquired and given. This is where providing true and accurate information as well as gentleness and subtlety, comfort and reassurance is most important. This is where the decision to travel is taken.

Without taking names, there have been certain calls in the recent past that seemed like a bit of an oversell. In total contrast, two mails and a call from Evolve Back Resorts stood out for warm, polite, and confidence giving tone and content. Marriott International has coined a fantastic name: We Care! How apt. Yes, the rules and situations are going to be more stringent, but we care.

Thus the well-informed FrontLine of travellers post Covid-19 who will come in first, that FrontLine of travellers, must be made to feel a more than an adequate sense of security if they are to spread the (good) word around. That will depend on how well the FrontLine staff in travel respond.

This will help build traveller confidence for the rest to follow. Far more important than a regular cosmetic rehash of SOPs etc. (which are also important), needs to cater to a completely new consumer with changed perceptions, new suspicions, and a sense of paranoia for cleanliness that helps them feel safe and confident to travel.

All FrontLine touch points need to equipped well enough to have FrontLine travellers feel confident to tell the rest: “… it’s absolutely safe to travel…”

** This does not negate the need for promotional campaigns by destinations and services brands. As much as WoM matters, marketing campaigns remind travellers about destinations and places to stay, things to do, and airlines to fly. So campaigns indeed play an important role in building destination awareness and are part of traveler-preference-lists.


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