The path to recovery: How the worst-hit industries are overcoming COVID-19

The first few weeks of quarantine felt like the beginning of an apocalyptic movie: No planes in the sky, no cruise ships on the horizon…no toilet paper on the shelves. Thousands of businesses across the country struggled to adapt and remain open, but with stay-at-home orders in place, the travel industry came to an abrupt standstill.

Within a matter of days airports emptied, hotels became vacant, and Disneyland closed its gates for only the third time in history. By April of 2020, just one month into quarantine, hotels and motels had already lost nearly 50% of their monthly revenue, according to a recent QuickBooks study . Museums and other tourist attractions along with them. And travel agents immediately felt the pain.

Travel industry down 10 percent

“On March 13, 2020, I knew my business was going to be heavily affected by COVID,” said Keymia Sharpe, Creator of Key2MIA , a Miami-based tourism company. “A global lockdown meant no one was going anywhere… and my business needs travelers to thrive. I wondered how I was going to keep a roof over my head and feed my kid. My business was my primary source of income. What was I going to do?”

One year later, businesses in the travel and tourism industry have yet to fully recover. Hotels, museums, and attractions are still down more than 10% year over year — but things are starting to look up. As COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, people are turning to travel and tourism for a long-awaited escape. But their travel plans don’t look the same as they did before.

Staycations abound post-pandemic

“The way people travel is changing,” said Jenn Zajac , a hotel marketing specialist. “TripAdvisor’s late 2020 consumer survey showed that different types of trips, namely last-minute “staycations” and short-notice, quick getaways are in demand. Travelers want to stay within driving distance of home, and they want to be able to book less than 30 days out… or even within the same week.”

The survey found that the majority of today’s travelers are looking for wide-open spaces—destinations they can enjoy without COVID testing or quarantining. Ski resorts, seaside retreats, and other rural spots are among the fastest recovering businesses. In the US, destinations like Key West and Sedona are recovering faster than crowded cities like New York or Las Vegas.

“Two-thirds of survey respondents said that avoiding crowded places when traveling was more important to them now than it was pre-pandemic,” said Zajac. “More than half said they are more likely to choose an outdoor or nature-focused destination than they were pre-pandemic.” She advises hotels and motels to create attractive “staycation” offers to capitalize on this demand.

Travel industry promoting staycations

Of course, some travelers are taking the concept of a “staycation” even further—by staying put.

Of course, some travelers are taking the concept of a “staycation” even further—by staying put.

Virtual experiences reign supreme

In 2020, the businesses that thrived are those that were able to think outside the box. Gyms kept their virtual doors open by offering online workout classes and training. Restaurants turned to pickup and delivery services to keep their kitchens up and running. And retailers focused on e-commerce to keep their products flying off the shelves.

These businesses found success in the world of virtual experiences, and the travel industry is no exception.

“The first few weeks of quarantine looked like the end of Key2MIA,” said Sharpe. “But the more time I had to adapt to everyone being at home, finding ways to be together while being apart, I realized I could bring Miami to the masses.”

Sharpe came up with a few virtual ideas that would allow people to experience Miami from the comfort of their homes. The most successful of which is the “Taste of Miami” experience: a virtual cooking class hosted by local Miami chefs teaching signature Miami dishes. “We do kids parties, corporate team building events, girls’ nights, and date nights,” said Sharpe. But she didn’t stop there. “Key2MIA also birthed a trap yoga class, a “mommy and me” virtual spa party, and converted a popular Miami walking tour into a virtual tour,” she said. “My mindset was to adapt or perish. Adaptation would be the key to my success.”

And she’s not alone. Tourism businesses, large and small, adapted to give people everywhere the opportunity to travel virtually. Google Arts & Culture teamed up with thousands of museums and galleries around the world to create virtual exhibits. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History created virtual tours that allow visitors to take self-guided, room-by-room tours of current and past exhibits. And independent tour guides took to social media to take followers on live walking tours to satisfy their wanderlust.

Travel industry: Virtual tours

In many ways, these virtual experiences give “travelers” the opportunity to see and experience places and things they might never have the chance to see in person. Even as the world begins to reopen, these virtual options are here to stay.

“Post pandemic, I believe many of the virtual aspects that many tourism businesses put into place will somehow be integrated into physical tours and experiences,” said Sharpe. “Enhancing it that much more.”

In fact, despite loosened travel restrictions, Sharpe is reducing her physical tours and focusing instead on enhancing her most popular tours with virtual experiences. “Regardless of where my customers are, Key2MIA can still bring a little piece of Miami to them,” she said.

The future of travel and tourism

Beyond virtual experiences, and more than a year after the initial shutdown, the travel industry is once again picking up. But travel experts believe that pandemic-inspired travel restrictions aren’t going anywhere—especially for those hoping to travel internationally.

“Travelers should expect to comply with more stringent mitigation measures abroad than are currently mandated in the U.S.,” said Warren Jaferian, Dean, Office of International Education at Endicott College. “Many countries, unfortunately, do not have the same access to and distribution of approved vaccines. Therefore, when traveling abroad, be patient, understanding, and grateful for the privilege of being fully vaccinated, with the ability to travel.”

Immanuel Debeer, the founder of Flight Hacks , agrees. “While tourism is slowly getting back on its feet, we have to be mindful of the new normal post-pandemic,” he said. “Some destinations will reopen, but they will be very strict with health protocols to include masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing.”

With more than 200k miles under his belt, Immanuel has seen a lot of things. “The last time I traveled, I was so amused to see a vending machine selling face masks and sanitizer instead of the usual food items,” he said. “But this is a new reality.”

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