You would have to be marooned on a desert island to have missed the continuous cries of anguish from the UK travel industry highlighted daily across the media over recent weeks. During previous crises, the industry has failed miserably to communicate a strong unified message thereby enabling the Government to successfully adopt a divide and rule strategy. However, on this occasion, that has not proved to be the case, although it could be argued that the hospitality industry seems to have achieved more tangible results from Government for its members than the travel sector.
To most people it would appear foolhardy in the midst of a global pandemic, that continues to claim hundreds of lives on a daily basis, for certain self-appointed travel industry spokespersons to be calling out the Government for not providing a cast iron date for travel in to and out of the UK to resume. As has been clearly demonstrated over the past year, Covid-19 is an unpredictable beast that changes constantly with new variants emerging in different countries sometimes literally overnight.
It cannot be denied that the Government has struggled with the dilemma of decision making in respect of air corridors, ‘red list countries’, quarantine policies etc and this has understandably frustrated travel companies. But this is a consequence of the times we currently live in. Really, in the overall scheme of things, is it of national importance whether people can have a holiday in the sun this year? Surely, saving lives registers higher on a scale of importance.
Of course, sadly, in this scenario, there will ultimately be huge job losses. Travel generally is not a well-paid industry and therefore the people in it who find themselves out of work will struggle to make ends meet. And it is not just those employed in airlines, travel agencies, tour, coach and cruise operators, that will be affected, the impacts will also be felt by the staff of suppliers to those companies.
As Professor Ian Ryder outlined in his article on this website last year, travel companies did not exactly cover themselves in glory with the amount of negative publicity that appeared in 2020 (and in some cases still rumbles on) regarding their failure to refund customers who had paid for flights and holidays that could not be taken up. This factor combined with the news that many countries are way behind the UK in vaccinating their citizens against Covid will inevitably have a considerable bearing on consumers’ travel purchasing patterns.
With this in mind, what marketing strategies should travel firms be implementing in such a volatile marketplace?
Operators such as Jet 2 Holidays and Viking Cruises are to be commended for the advertising campaigns they have continuously run to maintain brand awareness with the objective that once travel is given the green light, they will benefit from immediate sales. However, moving forward, travel companies will need to exercise a more fluid approach to their marketing by targeting different groups of consumers at different times with different messages. For example, older people, who have been the hardest hit by the pandemic will require a great deal more convincing that it is safe to travel to certain destinations than younger people who have been less affected by Covid. We have already seen a response to this situation by some cruise lines, whose main customer base is the 60 plus age group, having rescheduled their 2021 itineraries by offering short break cruises around Britain and Ireland. Despite these efforts, for the aforesaid reasons, it is unlikely that this segment will be lured back for longer haul cruising and holidays until mid 2022 and beyond, providing it is permitted.
Conversely, younger age segments are itching to get away abroad at the earliest opportunity but price will play a bigger role here than with older age groups particularly in the context of future job security. Indeed, price is likely to be a major factor overall as operators strive to comply with upgraded health and safety regulations and guaranteed refund policies required by consumers whilst endeavouring to stay competitive in an industry that notoriously runs on tight margins.
The main focus of the views expressed in this article relate to outbound or overseas holidays. All the forecasts point to a bumper year for the UK domestic holidays market as Brits travel options abroad are likely to remain restricted. Let’s hope hotels, B&Bs, caravan parks and visitor attractions do not inflate their prices too much to maximise this demand. If they do, they may pay the consequences in the future.
Mike is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and Managing Director at PR Agency Bugsgang & Associates.