- Customer Experience
How travel and hospitality brands are adapting with the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global economic shutdown hit with a speed and force no one could have predicted, and travel and hospitality brands have been weathering its devastating impacts to their industry for months. In the U.S. alone, more than half of the 15.8 million travel-related jobs have disappeared, and unemployment rates for the sector hit 51% by the end of May. Globally, job losses in the travel industry could reach more than 100 million this year — or about 30% of all tourism jobs, according to an analysis by the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Travel and hospitality brands have had to become increasingly agile and demonstrate tremendous flexibility and ingenuity in order to take care of their employees during this time, while simultaneously addressing their customers’ quickly changing needs. First, they needed to scale up customer support to process trip cancellations and postponements. Then, demand dropped steeply by more than 90% with the global population under strict stay-in-place guidelines. Now, the International Air Transport Association is expecting a multi-year recovery as the world awaits a vaccine.
As the global economy starts to show the first glimmers of what will be a long, protracted recovery, many in the industry are scrambling to identify opportunities to engage and inform their customer base. Many of these opportunities require the ability to quickly and effectively scale customer support operations as needed, integrate more work from home agents, and hire more “super agents” — changes that will continue to be essential to survival as travel slowly resumes.
Driving short-term revenue and long-term loyalty
Hospitality brands are presently tasked with figuring out how to staunch the revenue losses they’ve experienced because of the collapse of tourism. Finding a solution will enable them to rehire staff and gradually scale up the booking components of their customer service operations, but it’s no easy task.
They can’t simply carry on as ‘business as usual’ as the pandemic is still very real and very dangerous. “This year, there are varying thoughts on whether it is safe or not to travel, and each medical expert shares their own opinion on this,” says Chris Elliot, founder and CEO of Elliott Advocacy, a non-profit consumer advocacy resource for travelers. “Airlines and hotels can’t go against these schools of thought, so they need to responsibly woo customers back, ensure cleanliness, and continue to build business, all without ‘pushing’ customers into taking a trip that may not necessarily be safe.”
That means brands need to get creative, and be more compassionate than ever before.
Building goodwill into customer support to help retain as many customers as possible has always been important, but now it’s an intrinsic part of new strategies, says Alex Miller, founder and CEO of travel publication UpgradedPoints.com. “Right now, acknowledging customers and building trust is super important. It’s essential that airlines and hotels become ‘human’ and empathize with the challenges customers are going through,” he says. Those challenges — job losses, economic hardship, family illness— need to be met with the utmost understanding and compassion. Flexible cancellation, refund and credit policies can spread a lot of goodwill. For instance, in Canada, Air Miles waived change and cancellation fees for travel booked using miles for its customers between the months of March through the end of July 2020.
Modifying traveler loyalty programs to account for current circumstances is also a way for brands to maintain their relationships with customers. Beyond extending elite status to make up for fewer travel opportunities, Miller says most travel and hospitality brands have also decreased requirements to achieve service upgrades and other perks. He also expects more brands to introduce immediate incentives, like more miles, to travel this summer.
In some parts of the world where travel restrictions are slowly easing up, some people are choosing to travel locally for their summer vacation plans. In these instances, clear, consistent and mindful messaging both in promotional ads, customer communications and supporting materials for frontline customer service agents is vital. This will help ensure travelers are well-informed of new safety protocols and guidelines, and feel comfortable during their visit.
Why a sound ramping strategy benefits brands
The ongoing economic shock of this pandemic has hit the travel and hospitality industry harder than the 2008 financial crisis, says Kory Laszewski, vice-president, global sales at TELUS International. That said, the travel industry has evolved to become much more resilient since then.
Over the last 10 years, Laszewski says most major brands in travel have made inroads into outsourcing, so that “when volume fell out of the market, they were able to dynamically reduce headcount immediately.” Instead of furloughing or laying off thousands of workers, outsourcing firms with diverse client portfolios have been able to redistribute experienced talent to brands experiencing increases in volume.
At TELUS International, this resulted in significantly fewer job losses overall. As clients across different industry verticals either ramped up or scaled back their customer support levels due to fluctuating consumer behavior, the company remotely retrained and transferred 2,100 team members between accounts to keep them employed.
Travel and hospitality firms are also seeking to develop higher concentrations of “super agents” in their customer support teams - agents who are able to handle the most complex customer inquiries. Many of these super agents work for outsourcing firms, rather than directly for travel companies, as a way to ensure ongoing job security in a rapidly changing time for travel.
The pandemic also hastened the evolution toward work-from-home (WFH) arrangements for many frontline workers, and Laszewski says most large airlines and hotel brands were already in the process of making that transition. Through WFH, those firms can offer employees greater flexibility and a better work-life balance, and the employer gets access to a much broader, more diverse workforce, geographically and otherwise.
“I would be surprised if we don’t see companies begin to shift and merge outsourcing and the work-at-home model,” he says. “That way, workers, brands and outsourcing companies all increase flexibility, as uncertainty is nearly certain to persist for many more months.”
The pace of change brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is truly without precedent. Without the benefits of a crystal ball, agility, empathy, up-skilled agents and remote work models will be key to airline and hotel brands’ survival as demand for travel will continue to fluctuate on the world’s and the industry’s long road to recovery.