The travel industry must restore confidence after the pandemic
Mention how travel has changed after the pandemic — abandoned airport terminals and aborted vacations probably come to mind. But talk to someone like Jennifer Zwicky, and she’ll tell you how travel should change.
“How do you regain travelers’ trust?” she wonders.
Zwicky isn’t just thinking about the future because she’s a travel advisor. She says too many people are looking back instead of forward. And they’re seeing the wrong thing.
For example, take the recent news that MGM Vegas hotels would reopen. A significant part of the coverage highlighted the hotel’s decision to waive its parking fees. That seemed like a generous offer until you recall that MGM offered free parking until 2016. It’s a matter of perspective.
And, says Zwicky, why not also drop the most unfair surcharge of all while we’re at it?
Get rid of resort fees
“They should get rid of the resort fees,” she says. Resort fees, which are added to the base hotel rate after a hotel quotes an initial price, are among the travel industry’s most enduring bait-and-switch maneuvers.
The travel industry’s recent changes may have saved their businesses for now, but adjusting a few refund policies and cleaning rooms more thoroughly has not ensured their long-term survival. A lot of travelers are staying home. Only real, systemic changes will bring people back. And those will be difficult — perhaps even impossible.
What is different about the travel industry after COVID-19?
It’s true, most of the media coverage of the travel industry has focused on how travel has changed, instead of how it should change. That includes a series of stories on how the pandemic has altered airlines, car rental companies and travel insurance. Disclaimer: I’ve participated in that coverage.
But to understand what should change, we first need to look at what has changed.
- Airlines dropped some of their restrictive and consumer-unfriendly ticketing policies and sorta promised to block the middle seats. They’ve replaced meals with shrink-wrapped snacks dropped into the usually empty middle seat.
- Car rental companies redoubled their efforts to clean their cars and offer a touchless rental experience.
- Cruise lines canceled most of their sailings through July. They’ve rolled out initiatives to reassure customers that they aren’t floating petri dishes.
- Hotels promised to clean their rooms better and maintain a social distance between customers. But how do you know if your hotel is clean? As I note in Monday’s USA Today column, you can’t.
- Travel insurance. Many policies are becoming more restrictive as insurance companies push pricier “cancel for any reason” policies.
- Vacation rentals. Two words: Better cleaning.
Businesses made these changes to protect themselves and, to a lesser extent, their customers. For example, some airlines would happily sell all of their seats on an aircraft, including the middle seats, even if it increases the risk of a COVID-19 infection. And there’s no way to independently verify that any of these new sanitizing measures have taken place. You just have to take the company’s word for it.
Did the coronavirus response save tourism?
Maybe these changes have prevented the travel industry from grinding to a halt. One-third of Americans traveled this Memorial Day weekend, according to a new report by American Express Travel. A vast majority of the trips took place by car. Nearly half of millennials (48%) said they traveled, compared to 22% of Gen Xers and 27% of Boomers, according to Amex.
The results aren’t a fluke. Deloitte’s latest Global State of the Consumer Tracker suggests we’re well into a recovery for global travel and that health concerns may be starting to ease. Among its findings: Nearly one-third of U.S. consumers (31%) plan to stay in a hotel for leisure travel within the next three months, up from a low of 24% in mid-April. And less than half of U.S. consumers (48%) are concerned about their personal health, down from 57% measured during the peak in early April.
But even with some people starting to travel again, the numbers may not reach prepandemic levels anytime soon. Real change, which is difficult — and, in the short-term, expensive — may be necessary to bring everyone else back.
“Airlines, hotels, and the rest of the travel industry can’t afford to alienate the customers they have since the numbers are already limited — and may be for some time,” says David VanAmburg, managing director for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).
For example, customers have always given airlines low marks for seat comfort. But in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, it will be even more important to make sure there’s enough space for passengers to spread out safely and comfortably.
“Or consider hotels,” says VanAmburg. “As hotels look to make guests happy and also balance safety, they’ll have to consider which perks matter and which ones they can responsibly offer. It may be time to say goodbye to the minibar.”
Of course, there are more significant issues than your seat size and whether your room comes with a bathrobe. “But these are part of the challenges the travel industry will have to navigate,” he adds.
What do travelers think should change in travel?
Travel has not changed enough. So what should the travel industry do to regain the confidence of its customers? I talked to customers and here’s what they told me.
Refund our money if we don’t get the service
Travelers want their money back, even if flights are still operating and hotels are open. Craig Bachler is among them. He’s currently fighting with Aer Lingus over a refund. And he’s supporting a bill called the Cash Refunds for Coronavirus Cancellations Act of 2020. The proposed law would mandate that airlines and ticket sellers offer full cash refunds for all air travel canceled during the coronavirus pandemic. And if it doesn’t pass?
“I’ll be taking the airline to small claims based on the slow response from past communications,” he says.
Better customer service will help
It can’t get much worse, to hear customers like Ryan James talk about it. He was trying to get a refund from nonprofit consumer advocacy site.for a stay in South Korea back in March. The company stonewalled him, sending emails that said, “Please do not reply to this message. This email was sent from a notification-only email address that cannot accept incoming email.” Finally, he reached out to an executive. eventually promised a refund but has yet to deliver. Customer service, he adds, is “worthless.” I have thousands of similar cases on my
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Get rid of junk fees
That’s a recurring theme when you talk to travelers about how travel has changed after the pandemic. They want the price you see to be the price you pay, which is not an unreasonable request. “I despise fees,” says Jane Watkins. That’s particularly true of hotel fees, such as mandatory resort fees. She wishes hotels would just include any extras in the price of the accommodations. Same thing is true for vacation rentals. “I would be willing to pay [a rate that includes] a cleaning kit for each hotel or Airbnb stay, with disinfectant wipes, flip-flops, hand sanitizer, and masks.” Airlines are among the worst purveyors of junk fees. “Fees for checking a bag, choosing a seat, in some cases bringing a carry-on, need to go,” says Jennifer Gibson. “Roll them into the fare — or dump them.”
Change the sick passengers’ rules for flying
When it comes to infectious diseases, airline policies are unfairly rigid. Unless you bought a fully refundable ticket, carriers would charge a change fee and any applicable fare differential if you decide that you’re too sick to fly. “Airlines should not allow very sick passengers to travel,” says Janet Heller. On a recent flight, she sat in front of two sick young children. “They constantly sneezed and coughed,” she recalls. “They were too young to cover their mouths, and I got their illness. I was very sick for two months.” I covered this absurd policy in my latest Washington Post column.
Stop touching customers — think touchless
Angeles Yugdar, the senior vice president of international markets at Travel Leaders Group, says travel companies need to stop making contact with their customers. That means online check-in at least 24 hours in advance to decrease counter activity. “Only the traveling passengers [should be] allowed in airport terminals,” she says. “Masks will be required on most flights. Flight attendants may distribute disinfectant wipes.” Some airlines have already implemented some of these changes.
Lower your prices
So why are so many travelers sitting on the sidelines? Are they afraid of COVID-19? Not necessarily, say experts. They’re waiting for fares to fall. Every hotel and airline revenue manager with access to a computer knows the exact point at which scaredy-cat consumers become buyers, but they need to green-light the lower prices. “Airlines are very tuned in to traveler buying habits, and travelers have made it very clear that they value low up-front fares above all else,” says Max Leitschuh, a senior transportation analyst at WorldAware.
Will any of this happen?
We’ll see. I talked to frequent traveler Joshua Weiss about how travel has changed since the pandemic, and he told me he believes the travel industry won’t change unless it has to. And so far, it hasn’t had to.
“I’d expect them to double down on failure rather than recognizing the need to change the game, because the world has changed forever,” says Weiss.
Failure may be inevitable for many airlines, car rental companies and hotels. And unless meaningful changes happen soon, the process will only accelerate this summer.
And that could permanently change the way you travel.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.