Over almost three months, lockdown ensured to a certain extent the reduction of the pandemic spreading but the travel industry has been at the forefront managing the many issues that arose during the period. Muzzammil Ahussain, EVP Consumer Travel, Seera Group shares the challenges, strategies and future after the pandemic with TRAVTALK.
There may have been bookings that got cancelled due to COVID-19 lockdowns, hence what will the travellers do? How will you help them to recover from the cancellations? Is there a rebate? Please explain in detail.
There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the travel and tourism industry due to the stringent travel restrictions in place across the globe as well as a slump in demand among travellers.
As soon as lockdowns were announced by the government, we received an influx of requests from travellers looking to reschedule or cancel their trips. We immediately focused our efforts towards supporting customers in their travel arrangements and changes thereof, for Almosafer, that meant consolidating our omni-channel efforts to provide travel advisory, and seamless cancellations, amendments and refunds to our customers.
To maintain the strong relationships we have had with our customers and to minimise the impact on traveller level, we have even issued a majority of refunds without or before receiving the reimbursements from airlines themselves on these cancelled trips. With our e-wallet offering in place, customers were also encouraged to reschedule their travel plans as and when they are comfortable to venture out following the ease in travelling and lockdown restrictions. This measure will be beneficial in the long run as it seeks to increase customer lifetime value by allowing travellers to use their trip value in the future.
How do you see travel picking up post COVID-19?
Our flagship consumer travel brand Almosafer has conducted a study amongst over 3,000 Saudi nationals to gauge people’s travelling behaviour post COVID-19 and found that domestic travel will be a top choice once lockdown restrictions ease. As part of our first dedicated consumer study in the Kingdom, we found that most respondents are confident to venture out for staycations and holidays within the country. The domestic travel leisure market is expected to see a boost with 35% Saudis keen on discovering the growing cultural, adventure and entertainment offerings in their home country, as they chose staycation as a preferred travel option post pandemic. The results in terms of domestic travel are consistent with searches across the Almosafer app and web searches as compared to the month of April. We have recorded an 83% increase in domestic tourism from May 1 till date.
To support our customers with their preferences and in an effort to boost domestic tourism in the Kingdom post pandemic, we have taken the initiative to invest in the creation of a holistic domestic offering for Almosafer. This will include exciting packages and travel options to all major destinations in Saudi Arabia, as well as those that are lesser known but full of interesting things to explore. We believe that this time post pandemic will encourage Saudis to fully discover their own country and the vast touristic opportunities it offers.
For the UAE, we had always recorded an interest in staycations amongst our customers even before the pandemic hit the world. Our Dubai-based online flight and hotel-booking platform, tajawal, is currently recording increasing domestic leisure bookings as residents are looking to explore options that do not require flight travel and are considerably safer like luxury hotels for a change in scenery and to spend time with their families.
Could you give us an update about how the Saudi market will be post COVID-19?
We believe that the travel and tourism industry is resilient and will pull through this pandemic successfully. We anticipate that the Saudi market will see an increase in domestic tourism at first as, based on our study, 73% Saudis are quite confident to venture out post COVID-19. This will be followed by international trips once travel bans are lifted, as people are quite confident to venture out with 38% of Saudis indicating that their first trip out of KSA will be to its neighbouring countries within the GCC. As for destinations further afield, 38% also chose Asia for a potential first trip post pandemic and even Europe was still an option for many. Judging by these statistics, we are confident that the travel industry will emerge resilient and will rapidly resume operations as it was before COVID-19.
We also expect a change in the way people will travel in terms of the kind of information they will need prior to booking, such as, safety and health information, travel advisory etc. – this will cause a change in mindset which means that customers will begin to approach travel differently. Crucial information necessary before making a travel decision will include safety information for airlines, airports, hotels and social guidelines in departing and receiving destinations.
As Saudi is focusing on their 2030 vision, what do you think the changes will be in terms of their tourism plans in the online sector?
There’s no denying that digitalisation is among the most important changes in our rapidly evolving world. Technology has encouraged an age of DIY travellers who book, manage and plan their own trips as this is a much easier and cost-effective way. As part of our omni-channel strategy, we have seen the need to make sure that our customers can be served in a seamless manner through the channels that meet their needs – be it through our websites, mobile apps or offline in a store or over the phone. Through our study, we have found that the majority of Saudi travellers are most comfortable booking through online platforms and mobile apps, which is why we are going to continue investing in our technologies to better support and service them.
Post COVID-19 what will be the focus of agents such as yourself?
Although we can anticipate a change in travelling behaviour, we are yet to see that change; but we can certainly say that customers will require an added level of trust presented by us across their user journey. Quarantine measures and the certainty that travellers can actually come back and enter the country of initial departure without any restrictions will be crucial in making a decision.
The Almosafer consumer survey also found that 60% of Saudi travellers will want to be aware of the social distancing and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) rules applicable in-destination before making a travel decision. Clarity on safety measures taken by hotels and airlines is considered critical for 55% travellers to help in building confidence and come to a decision.
Travellers will also want to have clarity on procedures in terms of refunds and cancellation policies and travel providers will have to work with travel agents to create a more streamlined and automated process. Flexibility on refunds and cancellations will also play a significant role as travellers will be cautious to book without knowing they can potentially change their plans if needed.
Since travellers rely on us to provide them with the best and most accurate information, it is our duty as a leading travel brand to build on that trust and provide them with all necessary information when it comes to the customers’ needs. With our expert travel advisory in place, we can and will be able to provide customers with important information, from recommendations on safe destinations to the flexibility and safeguarding of their trips, which also includes details on cancellation, refund policies etc. We are responsible in cascading this information not only to our customers but also to our travel advisors who focus on providing travellers with personalised advice and support needed at every touchpoint – from in-depth information and guidance on safety regulations and restrictions in place from travel providers as well as in-destination insights.
Will the travellers prefer international chains to boutique luxurious resorts?
With regards to international chains versus boutique resorts, there’s no saying what travellers will prefer post COVID-19. Many international hotel chains have already announced health and safety policies and guidelines and have taken the lead on implementing them. Boutique resorts will need to become quite vocal on the steps they have taken to prevent the spread of the virus and to safeguard their guests on all their properties. Such resorts have the advantage of, well, being boutique. Room numbers and the number of guests at any given time is usually lower than with a big international chain property and staying somewhere with lesser exposure to others could go hand-in-hand with the mindset of social distancing.
Do you think family travel will pick up soon?
Yes, family travel is expected to pick up post COVID-19 as predicted by our Almosafer consumer survey. The study found that 50% respondents preferred to travel with family, followed up by a considerable 29% who said that they would travel in smaller groups with friends keeping the social distancing rule in mind. The survey also found that 58% of Saudi travellers would opt for trips shorter than 7 days. However, we also noted a particularly large appetite for trips that exceed the duration of a weekend getaway with 42% planning to go for longer than a week.
What about the business and M!CE travel? When will they pick up?
We anticipate a change in business travel moving forward as organisations are likely to take many factors into consideration such as the health and safety of its employees. They will also need to cover their employees in their travel policies and the knowledge of the risk factors in the destinations they are travelling to. We expect M!CE travel pick-up to take some more time as, for example, most global tradeshows and exhibitions have been or are expected to be postponed to the second half of 2020 or early 2021, given the current situation.
Travel industry to see rapid change
While the world took a break for a period of time, the engines at travel commerce had been working double time to ensure that they will be ready for the new era in the industry post COVID-19. Kathryn Wallington, Head of Account Management – UAE, Travelport shares their strategies with TRAVTALK.
The industry has changed over the past few months, what have you implemented in order to cater to this new era of travel?
To say that this has been a challenging time for travel – both for the industry as a whole, as well as at the individual level – would be an understatement. That’s why we’ve been focused on letting our partners and customers know how we can support them; communicating frequently and through a variety of channels.
We are holding numerous virtual meetings with partners, where we discuss individual needs and challenges. Many of these are ‘consultancy sessions’, where our Solutions consultants analyse a partner’s workflow and review their end-to-end booking process, virtually. Our team then provides recommendations on how the partner can sharpen its operations and come out of this crisis stronger. We are also ensuring our customers receive access to all relevant data and have the capabilities in place to understand that data.
About two-and-a-half months ago, we also became the first travel technology company to launch a COVID-19 resource hub (www.travelport.com/covid19). The hub houses a variety of helpful information including airline, hotel and car policy trackers, direct links to our support services and guides on the best way to use technology during the crisis. We’ve now had more than 60,000 visits to the hub.
What will travellers require from the agent/hotel and/or tour operator while booking their vacations?
Agents can help travellers feel safe by proactively providing information on the safety measures travel suppliers are taking, the same way an agent would advise on things like the price of their ticket. Our rich content and branding capability allow airlines, hotels and other suppliers to display important information to agents, including details on safety and security measures. While the information would need to be provided by the travel supplier; it can be facilitated in Smartpoint and via our API.
Where do you see technology in the next two years?
Post COVID-19, the travel industry will continue to experience rapid change. This transformation will be built on three foundational priorities for the industry – multi-source content, retailing excellence and maximising the value of every trip. Multi-source content is all about ensuring ingesting, normalising and delivering access to a wide variety of content types, whatever the source. Retailing excellence is enabled through next generation tools creating an environment of easy up and cross-sell and flexible and customisable displays. And, by maximising the value of every trip, travel sellers will grow revenue or reduce the cost to serve at every point across the trip.
Inputs by Sheraha Rizly