David A. Banmiller is author of “Turbulence: 50 Years on the Leading Edge of the Airline Industry”. He is also president of The Falcon Group Inc., an international consulting firm with offices in California and Ireland. He has held numerous leadership positions, including CEO of several airlines: Aloha, Sun Country, Pan Am, Golden Myanmar, as well as Air Lyon, an aviation services holding company; president and COO of Air Cal; executive vice president and COO of Air Jamaica; and vice president, International, for American Airlines.
The travel and tourism industry has managed its way through many crisis situations over the years, including the SARS epidemic, the aftermath of 9/11, volcanic eruptions, financial meltdowns, labor strife, erratic fuel costs and availability, quarantines, embargoes, regional conflicts and political instability, and aircraft groundings. The most recent Boeing missteps surrounding the new 737-800 MAX is an example of what can cause chaos and disrupt well planned conventions, family trips and the day-to-day business of commerce. One would be hard pressed to find a more vulnerable segment of the travel sector than those planning conventions, seminars, corporate events, symposiums, annual shareholder meetings and well-established annual conferences. All are big-ticket venues with advanced planning starting months, if not years, ahead of a scheduled event.
Given the severity of the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, it might be helpful to consult with Nostradamus in order to hedge one’s bets on establishing dates, timelines, venues, air travel availability, speaker contracts and the myriad of other items on a travel planner’s checklist. Due to the famed seer’s silence on the subject, here is what we know at this point: Nothing. Well, almost nothing. Here are some forward-looking thoughts with which we might risk predicting travel planning for the rest of 2020 and into 2021.
What will airports and air travel look like? First, expect universal safety protocols to evolve, similar to how pre-departure security screening developed worldwide. It took many years and, most obviously, 9/11 to streamline the process such that all airports use almost identical methods to offer the traveling public a high level of security against the ever-present dangers of terrorism. The same will occur as airlines and airport authorities develop common-sense procedures to reduce the fear of contagion. Certainly, masks will be required for some time, even after vaccines are proven effective, temperature and blood tests will be routine, lines will be longer and flight-connecting times will be longer, as will turnarounds. It will take at least until 2023 for international travel demand and flight availability to return to pre-COVID levels.
Say goodbye to those wide-bodied Boeing 747s and Airbus A-380s, with their spacious interiors and opulent first class cabins. Look for more Boeing 787s and Airbus A-350s. Expect more point-to-point flights around the traditional hubs. As for first- and business-class fares, one should expect lower rates for a while — until demand strengthens, which it will, especially with passengers looking for more space than in a traditional coach setting. The middle seat will still exist for obvious economic reasons. The Boeing 737-800 MAX will be flying again by the end of 2020, which should improve airline economics and have a trickle-down effect on pricing.
Clearly, event and meeting planners are facing the most challenging and unpredictable of times. Traditional timelines have evaporated; the security of advanced deposits is being challenged; trip insurance will, of necessity, be part of any “event package”; venue choices for accommodations and meeting rooms will include guaranteed safety protocols to prevent COVID-19 exposure; and pricing competition will be very robust. Attendees will be asked to fill out health check questionnaires, and offer assurances that established virus prevention protocols are understood and followed. It will be even more important going forward that the meeting planners, attendees and their representatives are all on the same page regarding agendas, speaker arrangements, catering and menu choices, new housekeeping methods, updated audio and visual aids compatible with videoconferencing providers like Zoom, and the availability of leisure activities such as golf, tennis, local tours and their protocols. Those bidding for event business should be prepared to clearly define all virus-related protocols and have a point person for all COVID-related issues.
On the transportation side, airlines will more aggressively go after group business, offering attractive pricing, quality ground transportation, a help desk for attendees, and extremely limited restrictions as to schedule changes and last-minute cancellations. Having confidence in a flight schedule will be tough for the near term, as there are few assurances at the moment that city pairs, frequencies, and equipment types will resemble what travelers were used to in 2019 until at least 2022. Variables must now include city, state and federal restrictions, as well as country to country access. No doubt a planner’s risk exposure will be less in a domestic environment than a cross-border situation.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing meeting planners, event coordinators, hotels, caterers, airlines and related support groups is projecting what the world will look like over the next several years. Since 2020 is in effect behind us and with a certain level of pent-up demand eager to reestablish those traditional annual events, scientific and pharmaceutical vaccine predictions, as well as testing, will find their way to the forefront of decision making. Travel & Tourism has a new partner, the scientific community, whose efforts to contain, control and, hopefully, eliminate the COVID-19 virus is literally “the point of the spear,” as it were, in predicting our future in this once-robust industry.
One final thought: We must all recognize and understand that while the future is even more unpredictable than the past, we as a community will always provide well-planned and successful meetings, and events, both large and small. Relying on past relationships and bound together by mutual trust, a dedication to providing quality events will “save the day.” Consider that “fear lies in the darkness, optimism shines in the daylight.” Spreading that feeling, communicating effectively and following the mantra of providing high-quality service within an industry which drives the economies of all countries will serve to ensure success. C&IT