“As COVID-19 wraps tourism boards, associations, leisure, and events travel companies in the wishful thinking of when the good old days will return, we believe that there hasn’t been an event in recent global times that has potentially forced small, medium and large companies back to the starting line. We must rethink how tourism survives this pandemic, recovers from it and thrives thereafter. For a long time, we have been stuck in the perfect “instagramable” marketing moment but it will be a while until long-haul travel kicks back in; definitely the earliest being next year.”
I will come back to this statement in a moment.
21 more days of lockdown in Uganda
We just got served with 21 days of lockdown. Two days ago, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni extended the 14 day lockdown period by an extra three weeks for the absolute correct reasons. Dates continue to be pushed further in other countries around the world.
We are relearning how to do life and are living in some interesting days; nothing like we had seen before or anticipated. COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) is a rapidly evolving landscape having its mark on how we do life.
A friend of mine was just the other day telling me about how quickly I am changing my mind these days. I have known to say yes to something at 8 am and change my mind by 10 am. Stuff gets real and unreal pretty quick.
Fortunately, in most parts of the world, Governments and Health Authorities are playing a focal role in slowing down the spread of the virus, and contributing to the eventual “flattening of the curve”, and we must commend them for a job so far well done.
I have been lucky enough to do lots of reading, attend meetings and events remotely, listened to podcasts and commentaries; with a special bias to the travel and tourism industry but above all done a lot of introspection. A thought that has kept me going is that although COVID-19 enforces barriers, reading breaks them down.
In this rather long Blogpost, I will share some thoughts on what tourism could be like, going forward, and what we can do about it. Note that I have deliberately said less about Government contribution to resilience and will intentionally focus on sector ecosystem and individual company level.
Please leave your thoughts as well in the comment section.
All back to some form of Ground Zero
Many small businesses in the travel and tourism industry have complained about not having an outlook of when things will be back to normalcy. But this is also the case with airlines, big hospitality brands, large travel companies and leading Professional Conference Organisers (PCOs).
Has there been a time in the past half a century, when all tourism destinations, tourism boards, and associations are confronted with the hard decisions of how to make sense of a crisis; how to make their tourism sectors SURVIVE, RECOVER and thereafter THRIVE.
Well, what this noiseless time without guests has given us is the chance to restart at the same line.
The world’s travel and tourism industry will perhaps return to the starting line in 3 or 6 months but things won’t be as they used to be. We will begin to rebuild visibility, reputation, trust, and communication. A huge influencing factor being how fast scientists can avail the world a workable vaccine.
Until that time comes, now is the ultimate window of chance for event organizers, tourism boards, hoteliers, tour operators etc. to not only aspire for the normal days but put in the necessary effort to re-strategize and evolve.
We have been sent back to a leveled ground; a chance to readjust or repackage our services to be able to hit the ground running in a much better fashion.
This has kind of leveled the playing ground for both small and bigger companies to the extent that it might even be easier for smaller companies to recover quicker.
This is also a great time for the digitization of opportunities; it is a tough spell in which we must present new destinations and ideas such as virtual tours, virtual conferences, and exhibitions.
We will make sense of this as we go on. Stay with me, please…
Resetting, Reinventing and Taking Things Forward.
Many players I believe have been going through an episode of procrastination. Forecasts aren’t easy to do anymore. Nevertheless, we have to look at the world post – COVID19 and then venture from there.
Projections have been made about how desperate people will be to reunite with buddies who they have missed for a long time. You can also talk of itchy ears for oneness and reunions with the natural world that we had been distanced from for months.
From an experience perspective, it is wise that we think about what we all want to do after lockdown. Of course, factoring in the thought that suspending lockdown will not happen instantly, but rather in gradual phases.
So as people look forward to that time, industry players must reinvent how they offer experiences; and this means shifting from just being romantic, more towards being very practical. It might be a while until we get another boom in “instagramable moments”.
The recovery process will be less explosive, but more in form of delicate butterfly moments.
Yes, the desire to celebrate survival will be obvious, but it is unrealistic to think that people will be quickly gathering in large numbers and traveling far from home immediately.
I reckon travelers will be more interested in high-value experiences like “staying the weekend”, hiking through farmland, traveling responsibly, safely, hygienically; definitely with people, family, and friends who they have missed in a while. I think most African experiences appeal to this and this is a ray of hope.
There is a first-rate opportunity for rural destinations; for people to develop opportunities for guests to venture out in more specialized experiences like bonfire activities, pitching together and having good food again in fine company.
I cannot emphasize enough the fact that value for money has to influence the product offering in current times than it has in the past. “Second chances” to make first impressions might not be as many.
First out, last in; recounting MICE tourism after COVID-19
Before your beautiful mind drifts off in thoughts of rodents, MICE is an acronym for the Meetings Incentives Conferences/Conventions and Events/Exhibitions subsector of the Travel and Tourism Industry.
The global discourse around MICE has been on grounds that the motivation for meetings and events will not change but we have the obligation not to “rush to fail”.
Here’s what “rushing to fail” means.
There is the concern that people, businesses, and destinations that quickly run back to organising big business meetings may expose the world to the reintroduction of COVID-19. And this is precisely why MICE may recover slower than the leisure tourism although it was the first subsector to exit due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Are there any lessons?
There’s a comical line I read some time ago, that “a meeting without food, should be an email” and as I write this I am drawn into the thought that these moments of silence (in the conference and events sector) could spur reflection aimed at recalibrating why conferences and summits happen anyway (the motive).
Will this change the purpose of the meetings we hold or will it inspire deeper thought into ensuring that the events and meetings are more accountable and measurable going forward.
MICE is expected to resume later than the leisure sector. The concern is less about “in what form the meetings will be held”, but more on the subject of “who will be keen to meet physically”.
The underlying factor will be that meetings will not happen until people are willing to attend them again; and not until destinations are willing to host them again.
MICE experts believe that meetings will return in a hybrid format using digital platforms. The digital platforms will, however, not necessarily replace physical gatherings, but rather complement them; because the more people communicate over these e-tools the faster they are willing and looking forward to gathering in person. It’s part of what makes us social beings.
The beneficial but potentially disruptive power of digital
“COVID-19 has pushed up internet use and increased streaming”, figures from Forbes Reveal. The first internet streaming and usage figures are coming in as the coronavirus pandemic places more than a quarter of the world’s population under lockdown. As millions of people go online for entertainment and more, total internet hits have surged by between 50% and 70%, according to preliminary statistics. Streaming has also jumped by at least 12%, estimates show.
Technology is an enabler and a good leveler, allowing big and small companies to be visible.
The recent race to digital conferencing platforms like Zoom is a testament to the fact that the current situation is an opportunity for hospitality, leisure, and the events tourism to go “e”.
Unfortunately, less than 15% of the tourism businesses in Africa have ideally leveraged the digital space. In doing this, we haven’t allowed customers to conduct business directly with us and are channeling them through a longer route.
On the other hand in the source markets, the travel world has evolved in how they use online technology to plan their trips, book and pay for activities, and share experiences.
So how have the other 85% been making it?
Unless where global wholesalers are involved, the tourism businesses in Africa have for a long time been indirectly influencing guests towards using third parties like Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and booking platforms.
OTAs took advantage of an already fragmented market to eventually bully SMEs into the acceptance that “they cannot be sustainable without them”. The OTA promotes the most competitive rates and makes it very stiff for anyone to compete with them.
People would not go to those platforms if we did not enable them. This money we are paying to booking.com and the like is leaking from our continent. Rainmaker’s CEO, Thomas Mueller has called this “Colonialism 3.0”.
Unfortunately in the next 10 years, the contemporary DMC (Destination Management Company) will continue to be influenced, and we need to rethink and re-strategize.
Digitally we would like to see more information at the individual business level and at the tourism board or destination level. Visually we would like to see how best destinations are using the internet to communicate.
A while ago we used to say photos are worth more than 1000 words. But then in came the era of video that has also been met with some level of criticism within the hospitality sector; the ongoing notion that “videos and photos focus more on what the seller wants the buyer to see, not necessarily what the buyer wants to see”.
Perhaps this is why some very adaptive businesses are changing to virtual tours allowing potential travelers to walk-through, check out for themselves exactly what they want and actually confirm based on the trust that they aren’t being lied to.
This raises the important point of TRUST! Trust will be a very big factor as people slowly reconsider traveling again after COVID-19.
Of course, there’s the popular question of how we can monetize or commercialize things like virtual reality tours instead of just offering people the free pleasure of armchair safaris on a laptop or smartphone.
But I think these should be looked at more in the light of a complement and an enabler for dreaming about the places we want to visit. Nothing in current times can really replace the yearning and satisfaction drawn from the actual experience, so people will certainly continue to travel.
People now have plenty of couch time. It is advisable to share your digital tours with the industry if you have them (possibly on a daily basis) through your social media to keep people dreaming.
I have personally been waking up to game drives by Singita and ending my days with safari drives hosted by &Beyond; some times by Mala Mala. I think this is a brilliant move by them to keep people thinking about their destinations and services.
The new brochure is a 3D virtual tour. We have this opportunity and it will be interesting to know how we use it for our benefit.
We must be realistic about domestic tourism
There are two factors to keep in mind. Firstly, the average traveler is going to be cash strapped. The ability to travel and spend on things might drop for a while. Secondly, international source markets may remain a bit skeptical on whether to board a plane to a distant destination for some time.
Africa’s high-value international source markets are important but they are still hard to assess and I think this is why there has been this discussion around the resilience of domestic tourism and how the recovery process would be led by business and domestic travel, as has been observed in China.
But this needs to be discussed a bit more practically and realistically, lest it causes false hope among the business community.
The facts are, domestic tourism may also take a while to recover, but China has definitely revealed that the recovery process for the tourism industry is inevitably going be launched by people traveling within their own countries, followed by regions, before international tourism booms again.
But even within domestic tourism, the recovery will be phased, and at the beginning, tourism entrepreneurs will more than definitely be spectators as locals plan their own get-togethers; or operate on very minute margins.
What would be necessary to do will be to work locally with the Government and private sector to help domestic businesses walk towards recovery.
Turning to domestic meetings
In the MICE subsector for instance, when meetings resume, we must understand that everyone will be competing for whichever conference available; all PCO’s irrespective of the size will be scratching for all types of events, and this puts the smaller players at risk.
A good model would be to ensure that event planning is done in a paired arrangement with the aim of sharing benefits; big PCOs and small operators working on the same projects. We have to make a case for it and this is where tourism associations have a huge role to play. Otherwise, forces of the market economy will dominate play.
Co-opetition Vs Competition; Recovery at 3 levels
Policy Level: A lot has to happen at the policy level in light of incentives to cushion the sector as well as building an enabling environment for the sector to heal and run again.
Individual Company Level: We‘ve seen above that there’s a big role at the individual company level. I’d, however, like to specifically re-underline the importance of building networks, partnerships including holding hands with competitors and experience providers along the value chain to offer a refined and richer product.
Industry Ecosystem: This is an opening for us to see how to reach out to the next source market as a single unit instead of everyone fighting for the entire share. Could this be an even better time for regional marketing efforts like Visit East Africa to kick in? Like never before, for the industry to influence any changes, they will have to move together and I bet there will be some listening ears in light of requests for relief. Local tourism associations have to lead these. Co-opetition is now more valuable than anytime before. Everyone needs to work together!
Finally, we have a chance to correct our pricing mistakes
I am curious about how many guesthouses, boutique hotels, and safari retreats will up their prices to match the large demand in the hope of recouping lost costs. Or maybe they will not…
For the Europeans coming to Africa, it is less about the money but more about the quality of the experience. Locally we need to rethink the pricing and also dedicate an effort to restudy consumer behavior.
One of the areas where SMEs can differentiate themselves is by offering margins that are very competitive compared to the bigger players because the smaller players’ overhead costs are definitely lower than the bigger boys.
SMEs need to find a sweet spot between a race to the bottom and what their bigger counterparts are offering. They need to find that level of pricing where they can be competitive and yet remain sustainable and guarantee value.
For domestic tourism recovery to make sense, we need to come back to having Ugandan Prices and experiences, East African prices, African Prices differentiated from the International prices and experiences.
IMPORTANT NOTE!!! Slashing or discounting prices, especially for the international market with the aim of just surviving is shooting ourselves in the foot.
Constant communication, not sales pitches and adverts
Tourism boards, businesses, and players cannot afford to go silent at this time. But there is the challenge that most companies and destinations do not know what to communicate right now, they do not know what to promise, neither do they know if they will be around when things get better.
It’s been incredible to witness how essential services have reinvented themselves, their promise and how they are delivering the product; a lesson for us to learn.
So let’s also assume that people are going to behave in a particular. If this is true, we need to repackage and rethink; to work with services, partners, farms, birdwatching, picnicking, hiking providers. What small little things in that value chain can we rethink throughout our networks and continually communicate this?
At this time, we must use our platforms to share stories not to sell. There must be a mindset shift.
Again, we want to keep individual travelers in a period of dreaming, tourism entrepreneurs have a window to influence travel wholesalers to consider our destination or change who they have been working with for them.
Social media should not be about talking only, it should follow a plan for the next 6 to 12 months that feeds into a greater communication plan.
Smaller companies who lack this expertise can certainly reach out to consultants to assist them.
Much as experts forecast an easing period soon, things will not be the same. Many have been asking about when COVID-19 will end and things will be normal again. We should, however, be thinking more about how we can remain relevant in the “new normal”.
SMEs should collaborate because the travel & tourism industry requires thriving SMEs to create its power.
The Government has to come in strong and practical. Their challenge has formerly been in offering a “one size fits all” approach. The same lunch of vegetables for everybody may not be a realistic way to feed a recovery appetite. Policymakers and regulators, for instance, can put together a competitive support fund with a rich menu of which support services can benefit from it. Entrepreneurs can then collect and build their own support package from this fund. This should be a discourse on “Business needs and not what the Government thinks the business needs are”.
Tourism boards and local tourism trade associations also have a very important role to play and there should be more investment in trade unions to assist this recovery process. They have to be held accountable to provide more information on how enterprises can survive, recover and thrive. Not just about washing hands.
Finally, individual tourism players in Africa who are caught up on the roadside crying and whining will suffer a great horrible deal, while those that rethink and re-strategize will be able to recover faster.
Keep Safe, Keep Sane