The world has changed, and travel with it. Here’s a few predictions of the things tour operators need to prepare for travel in 2021
2021 is unlikely to bring in the roaring twenties of carefree abandon that will follow the coronavirus pandemic. That will be 2022. Then, much of the world will go buck daft and party like it’s 1999. Expect travel in 2021 to be quieter, but with people fitting as much as humanly possible into their holidays. Tour operators need to be ready.
It does appear that the virus is seasonal, so, as spring approaches we should see restrictions in the northern hemisphere ease, as we have in the southern. That means there will still be a season this year. Last year’s was full of people taking emergency holidays, but 2021 will be very different …
1. Big experiences, better service
Many people have been staring at the same four walls and only visiting the corner shop to buy essentials for months. When the time comes, they’re going to want to do something massive. It will be a true once in a lifetime experience. This will be the most exciting and best planned holiday they’ve ever had. And it looks as if everyone will be spending more.
Not to put any pressure on, but operators had better be able to live up to travellers’ expectations. There is likely to be far more hell to pay this year if something doesn’t or can’t live up to promises. This won’t just be down to the experience or tour itself — people will still want to see social distancing and new hygiene measures in place. They will want expertise.
Groups will be expected to be smaller — we should see a rise in interest for private tours — and there will be huge demand for both flexibility and personalisation. Highly personalisable small group and private tours will make it easier for people to manage their social distancing, as well as make it more likely that the holidaymakers can see and experience exactly what they want to.
If you don’t offer last-minute cancellations, you won’t get any business. Everyone will want to be able to minimise their own personal risk because Covid will still be floating about and they won’t give two fiddles about yours.
2. Booking windows will be tiny
As soon as there’s a sign that lockdowns are ending in Europe or that the US is beginning to get things under control, expect to see a spike in bookings for as soon as possible. This will be followed by larger and larger surges each time restrictions are eased.
There is potential for these windows of opportunity to snap shut again, as we saw with the shambles of the UK travel corridors last summer. Travellers will be afraid of being trapped or forced to cancel everything. Everyone will move fast. There will be no time to waste. That holiday is being taken.
Add this to the points made above, and there’s a lot of potential for money to be made. Huge experiences, small group sizes and short booking windows mean that demand will far outstrip supply. Operators should make sure they have dynamic pricing up and ready to go.
3. Multi-generational family travel means more questions
Few people have seen their whole family in the same place for almost a year, especially if elders have been shielding. Demand for grandparents and grandchildren to see each other is possibly the only thing that will outstrip the need for holidays.
It’s also another way of ensuring that a group is contained. If the only people on your tour are your family, then you have a much better idea of what’s happening and you’re less likely to look for social distancing.
This will be another burden on operators. Different generations are going to have wildly different wants and needs from their trip. It again means much more flexibility and personalisation, as well as providing a lot of information before the trip. Prepare for many questions. This will definitely be the most extensively researched trip.
4. The cruise is dead, long live the cruise
As the pandemic began, everyone looked on in horror as seaborne cruise ships turned into petri dishes and were refused from every port of call. Very few people are going to take that risk, vaccination or no. However, it looks as if that slack will be picked up by river cruises.
Smaller boats mean smaller groups and an outbreak is much easier to handle when you can dock in hundreds more places. Plus the government has to deal with it because it’s within its borders.
River cruises also have the advantage of allowing people to fit more into their trip. There’s more stops and that means more to see.
Yachting and small ship holidays on the open sea are also expected to be huge for the same reasons as river cruises. People who like cruising love it, and they’re going to get their fix somehow — even if it’s not on a big boat.
For operators who rely on the big ’uns, start talking to all the small ship and yacht operators you can. And if you’re near to a river, there’s a fair bit of low-hanging fruit coming your way.
5. Cities will be empty, and it may be an opportunity
On each of my three trips in 2020, I had a city to myself. New York should never be a ghost town and is as spooky as anything without people. However, Prague and Dubrovnik are incredible places when there is no one there. This will continue this year because everyone will be in the countryside (a point I won’t dwell on because, like domestic, sustainable and diverse travel, everyone knows it already).
This is worrying for operators based in cities. Hopefully, you’re already prepared and have carried out some sort of pivot. It will be worse in modern metropolises. Here, it’s the people that make the city. They’re where all the action and excitement come from.
For grand, ancient cities, well, no one really lives in them anyway. Their busyness comes from tourists. By now, all the central apartments are Airbnbs (whose hosts are frantically trying to get them back on the rental market). That does present a huge opportunity for operators in them to show off the sights in a way very few people have ever seen.
Whether it’s Prague, Dubrovnik, New York, wherever, all my marketing would now be saying: “Relax — have the city to yourself.”
6. The rise of the nomad
For years now, I’ve heard that digital nomads are the next big thing. All you need is your laptop, decent travel insurance, and then you can work from anywhere. It is true, I did it myself for two wonderful years. But I never thought it would catch on in a big way.
The pandemic has changed my thinking on that. Now everyone who can work from home knows they can work from anywhere. Businesses know it too, and it’s brought advantages for them such as longer hours being worked and increases in productivity. So I finally think 2021 will see people packing their laptops into their rucksack and heading wherever takes their fancy.
The challenge here for operators is the same as with domestic travel — your travellers will know much more about where they are, so more expertise will have to be shown. Nomads will be more embedded into a society than your common or garden holidaymaker and will expect to learn more than they already have.
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