After nearly a year of social distancing and staying at home, cabin fever is really starting to sink in for many consumers.
For all the ways people have digitally enhanced and enabled their lives during 2020, the reality is there are some things you just have to do in person or they just don’t quite feel right, Colin Smyth, head of travel at Flywire, told Karen Webster in an interview.
“I think the holidays have really underlined how hard this is,” Smyth said. “For Thanksgiving, my family stayed [home] — just my wife and our two kids, while we Zoomed with my parents and my sisters. That just doesn’t feel normal. And coming out of it, we’ve already talked about what we are doing in the new year: ‘Where are we going to go? How can we all connect again?’”
That’s a feeling Smyth said he believes is far from unique to his family. He said he believes that travel — hit hard by a pandemic that effectively grounded everyone’s desire to see the world — is facing the greatest pent-up demand on the planet.
Smyth said he believes that demand is certainly going to let loose eventually. The only question is when.
He said the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine soon becoming available has stimulated lots of interest in travel. Smyth said Flywire, which provides payments platforms for travel and other key verticals, has seen inquiries and bookings for late 2021 tick up over recent weeks as an end to the pandemic comes more clearly into focus.
But apart from the exact time of the when travel resumes, there remains the issue of the what the sector will look like when it exits the long hibernation of the pandemic and wakes up to meet all of that pent-up demand. Smyth said a lot of travel operators have used the downtime to “rip out their legacy systems” and upgrade their digital offerings to make things smoother, safer and more digital going forward.
“We think people will pay for health, safety and the flexibility to easily modify and customize their travel,” he said. “And I think meeting those needs and how this is digitized could be one of the most interesting pieces of this. I also think that’s one of the cool things that will come out of this experience.”
Why Travel Won’t Rush Back In A Single Wave
While Smyth said travel will likely begin to return in 2021 and into 2022, he said he doesn’t expect the flood gates to suddenly open one day with travelers spilling through them. Instead, what he expects is something more similar to what Flywire has seen thus far — people easing back into travel to match their comfort levels.
What that meant this past summer was people switching to domestic travel and places they could reach by car rather than going to far-off destinations. It also meant consumers choosing things like luxury rentals in remote locations that offered both the benefits of exotic locales combined with sparsely populated environments that travelers could easily control.
Smyth imagines that more gradual easing will continue as a vaccine gets widely distributed worldwide and travel begins to come back online.
“I think people will still work within what works for them and what makes them comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think it will be everyone trying to travel all at once. I think it’ll start to come back slowly — and if anything, could actually be the back end of 2021 or well into 2022 [until] it feels like we’re off to the races.”
He said the world Flywire is expecting to see is one where pockets of normalcy resume next summer. Then, the industry will have high hopes for 2022 as the scales tip and consumers really feel comfortable jumping on planes to jet off someplace far away.
The Digital Shift Isn’t Reversing
But Smyth said that when those days do eventually return, travel will likely look quite a bit different end to end, as well as more digital than it ever has before.
He added that various travel firms have handled the hibernation period differently. Smyth said some switched their focus to domestic travel, while others have moved their efforts to promoting their home regions through new means.
For instance, one Italian firm that Flywire works with has taken to selling consumers food packages that consist of local wine, cheese, pasta and pesto. Smyth said that’s not making up for lost travel revenue, but nonetheless serves a critical purpose.
“The idea is that they want to keep that connection into the experience,” he said. “Why are you going to Italy? You’re coming for the food, coming for the wine, coming for that experience. That’s not going to make up their business going forward, but it keeps them relevant.”
But largely, travel has used its hibernation period to toss out legacy systems in favor of new customer relationship management (CRM), new digital platforms and expanded payments options for customers, Smyth said.
As a result, he said he believes the sector is ready to offer an upgraded travel experience. Where once travel firms might have handed out paper itineraries or sent them via PDFs, many can now send out live itineraries that can be modified in real time. Firms are also making it easier to access terms and conditions online so that refund and cancellation policies are apparent and knowable upfront.
Smyth said the goal is to build out processes that are smoother and more easily accessible digitally. That way, the travel market will be ready to meet them when consumers feel safe enough to get back on the road (and in the sky).
And Smyth said he expects consumers will be ready to travel again soon. He said he suspects that after some eight months of sitting at home, most people — including himself — are just waiting for the green light of a vaccine to resume traveling.
“The minute borders open or I can get on a plane, I cannot wait to go anywhere besides the spare bedroom I’m currently sitting in,” Smyth said. “That's how I feel about it. Anywhere looks appealing to me at this point.”