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#Retrace2021: The long road to recovery for the travel sector

The industry opened to a cautious start in 2021, but still awaits better days

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Mumbai: 'Tis the Season! To be jolly and ring in the holidays. Except that it is not.

Just when it seemed like life was returning to normal, the spread of the omicron variant has once again put a question mark over the travel plans. The new restrictions being announced across states and countries have dashed hopes of a cheery festive season for many, including the travel sector that had just begun its road to recovery in 2021.

“The year ushered in significant opportunities for the brand to leverage, but it remained challenging nonetheless,” summed up Thomas Cook president and group head, marketing, service quality, value-added services, and innovation Abraham Alapatt. “A big win for us is that it gave us the ability to rapidly accelerate our digital journey - to build scale and create a contactless journey through digital means for both our B2C and B2B customers.”

The company worked on its conversation and brand messaging which underwent a major shift from price to safety-first and ease of travel.  Digital became the new normal, as companies experimented with online tools - self-service apps, AI-enabled chatbots, build-your-own holiday platforms for personalisation, and CRM connectivity across business lines to its leisure and corporate travelers. “We decided to educate customers on the most credible and updated travel restrictions and guidelines and become the first point of contact for our customers. We organised virtual events to showcase travel experiences in the new normal in Europe, Dubai, and the Maldives to encourage customers to travel,” he elaborated.

From launching a series of campaigns to building consumer confidence, travel companies and hotels also invested in strengthening customer safety. There was continued emphasis on vaccinated hotel staff, drivers & co-travellers, offering facilities of flexible rescheduling and cancellation when required and travel insurance that covers Covid related quarantine and/or hospitalisation, with some even going the extra mile by offering 24x7 doctor-on-call and contactless Covid-negative certification services with doorstep delivery.

Continued to pump money into advertising

The year saw the travel-booking platforms pumping money into advertising across all media channels, and leveraging social media. There was a significant shift from print to digital/social media which was not only used to inspire travel, but more importantly to spread positive news on travel and thereby build customer confidence. Online travel brand Goibibo rolled out its campaign ‘Apna Rule Toh Full Vasool’, announcing ‘Daily Steal Deals’ for hotels and last-minute flight bookings on its platform. While, My Trip roped in the hit-duo of Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt for its campaign ‘JoHogaWOWHoga’ to encourage travellers to plan, book and travel once again without any worries arising out of cancellation or hassle of refund claims.

Club Mahindra, the flagship brand of Mahindra Holidays & Resorts India also reached out to travel enthusiasts through its ‘Jaana Kahaan Hai’ campaign starring the ‘Shershah’ actor, Siddharth Malhotra. The campaign captured people’s desire to travel and explore new destinations and indulge in newer adventures in the new normal.

“Our 2021 visibility is almost back to the pre-pandemic levels while our share of voice in print has almost doubled to that of pre-Covid levels,” said Thomas Cook president. 

2021: The year of domestic tourism

As most foreign destinations remained out of reach due to restrictions, 2021 emerged as the year for domestic tourism. There was a growing appetite for non-standard elements and a rising trend for deeper exploration of smaller yet undiscovered locales and a pronounced shift from micro-cations to in-depth stays. The trend also shifted from emergency travel to leisure travel, according to industry experts.

“India’s growing appetite for outdoor and adventure is fuelled by the desire to get away from crowds,” said Alapatt sharing insights on the changing consumer behavior. “We are seeing a strong uptick for our camping, hiking, trekking, and biking trips; jungle and safari experiences too. Our biking trips are in high demand – equally from millennials as India’s C-suite, with routes across rugged yet spectacular terrain from Kashmir, Leh-Ladakh, Rajasthan, Sikkim to South India’s Madikeri, Yercaud, etc. and the option of riding your own bike or hiring a premium Ducati, Harley Davidson or equivalent.”

According to Cleartrip chief business officer Prahlad Krishnamurti, there was at least 25 per cent improvement over 2020. “We have approximately doubled our user base from August to December which corresponds to a 30 per cent increase in conversion rates. There was a sharp recovery at almost 70-80 per cent pre covid levels in H2 2021. This recovery was stronger than what we saw post first wave in 2020,” he added.

Apart from the metros commanding the usual high share, the leisure destinations preferred during the festive season during the second half of 2021 were Goa, Jaipur, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Guwahati, and Srinagar- making up for nearly 15 per cent of the market share on the ClearTrip portal- with Goa and Rajasthan having the lion’s share in hotel bookings.

“However, there was and still exists a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around travel due to the pandemic,” said Krishnamurti. But he remains optimistic about the prospects for next year. “ClearTrip spent 2021 ramping up and investing in building our flight and hotel products, with the goal of making travel simple for customers. We are looking to gain larger mindshare with our customers and expect this to translate into a sizable market share.”

High hopes for 2022

Despite the challenges, the industry remains hopeful that the pent-up demand for travel could drive rapid growth in travel ad-spend over the next few years, but it will no doubt, be a long road back to pre-pandemic spending.  According to Zenith’s latest Travel adspend forecast released in November, the fastest growth in travel advertising is expected to come from India, but it will take until 2023 for the travel ad spend to be 31 per cent above the 2019 baseline.

Looking ahead at 2022, sustainable tourism could become a very important factor as travellers become environment-conscious.  According to industry experts, the post-pandemic travellers are going to be characterised by discerning, detail-driven, and discovery-oriented – seeing more value in depth of experience rather than whistle-stop ‘photo-op’ travel. Travellers will continue to depend on technological advancement to ensure reduced physical contact, even as safety and hygiene will remain the top most important factors in their 2022 travel decisions.

So, here's looking forward to a stronger and safer 2022.

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