The Future of Travel After COVID-19

Travel management expert Ben Scott talks to Bigeye about some of the ways business and leisure travel could be forever impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: What the future of travel could look like after COVID-19. Travel management expert Ben Scott joins us to examine how the pandemic has created unique challenges for the industry and suggests some practical ways in which marketers can reassure travelers and hotel guests nervous about exposure to the coronavirus. Ben also predicts some dramatic and long-lasting changes to air travel that could become airline passengers’ new reality.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience focused, creative driven, full service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. At the time of this recording, America has started the process of reopening the country based on a three-phase plan. But things are still far from normal. In a recent wave of research data released by GlobalWebIndex, representing responses from over 15,000 people aged 16 to 64 in 17 countries, vacations emerge as the top priority for post-COVID-19 purchasing. Given how many people around the world have been in lockdown, it’s perhaps not too surprising that almost one-quarter of respondents indicate that vacations will be their top post-outbreak priority – rising to almost one-third among the most affluent consumers. Across all 17 markets, the older the consumer, the more likely they are to prioritize booking a vacation or trip. When asked what would give them confidence to travel again, “a personal feeling of safety,” is by far the top option, scoring 58% globally and peaking at almost 70% here in the US. Only around one-fifth say they don’t plan to make any changes to their vacation behaviors. The most popular options are taking more local trips, followed closely by taking more domestic vacations. Of course, by the time sufficient numbers of people feel confident enough to travel again, the market could look very different. Many airlines are already on the brink of financial collapse and hotels, if they’re open at all, are struggling at around 10 percent of their capacity. Last week, Airbnb announced that it was laying off 1,900 employees, a quarter of its seven-and-a-half thousand-strong global workforce. In a letter to employees, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky wrote that the decision was based on facing two hard truths: quote – “we don’t know exactly when travel will return and when travel does return, it will look different,” – end quote. To talk about potential scenarios for the future of travel, our guest today is Ben Scott. CWT, previously known as Carlson Wagonlit Travel is one of the world’s leading travel management companies and as Vice President of Traveler Experience Marketing, Ben oversaw the adoption and revenue generation for CWT’s suite of products and positioning related to the traveler experience. Before that, Ben ran the Global Product Marketing and Americas Marketing efforts for CWT. Ben is currently furloughed through August from CWT as the business travel industry weathers COVID-19. Prior to CWT, Ben worked in various sales, marketing, and leadership roles at FedEx. During his 20 years with the company, Ben was a country manager in the former Soviet Union, led the field and inside sales marketing team to grow small and medium business, and then moved to a sales planning role. As the VP of Corporate Initiatives, he managed the program office overseeing a massive business transformation for the company aimed at unifying the customer experience across the Express, Ground, and Freight business units. In 2011, he became Vice President of Sales and Marketing for FedEx Custom Critical, the leader in expedited and white glove shipping arm of FedEx, based in Akron, Ohio. Ben holds an MBA from the University of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee as well as two bachelor degrees from the Rhodes College class of 1994 in Asian History and Russian. In addition, he has a certificate in Corporate Strategy from the University of Chicago. Now based in Minneapolis. Ben enjoys winter sports – he assures me not just out of necessity – plus running, biking and spending time with his wife and three children. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Ben!

Ben Scott: Thank you so much for having me on the program.

Adrian Tennant: So to begin, how do business travel services differ from leisure travel?

Ben Scott: Well, Adrian, there, they’re definitely two sides of the same coin, but they’re bought and often experienced quite differently. So leisure of course is recreation, entertainment, sports, tourism. Business travel is just that: people are working while they’re traveling and they’ve had different industries spring up around them, frankly, about how they’re bought in and managed. So, the part that I was with with CWT is a travel management company or TMC, meaning the companies contract with a TMC to outsource their travel management. So they get better pricing from airlines and hotels. They get a curated employee-centric experience. So you don’t want to spend hours trying to save $50 on a flight at a weird hour but most importantly, it’s about the ability for a company to execute on what is known as their duty of care responsibilities towards their employees, so that they know where they are and if they’re safe in case of an emergency. 

Adrian Tennant: So Ben, what led you to pursue a career first in logistics and then in travel?

Ben Scott: Well I sometimes joke that I just like moving things around the globe. In logistics, it’s just packages – in this industry, the packages talk. But they’re actually structurally quite different. If you think about FedEx or UPS, part of the value proposition is of course that you own the entire network: the planes, the trucks, people, or employees. It never leaves. However, with the TMC, you don’t own airlines, you don’t own a car rental company, you don’t own the hotels. So it’s more about making the experience simple and creative for that employee to make an intelligent decision. But none of those assets are owned by the actual travel company. But what drew me to both CWT and FedEx, there’s a couple of things: the culture, the people, but ultimately there’s that mission which helps people connect with the world. There’s a missionary zeal at both companies about the impact that these industries make in improving people’s lives. So having a sense of meaning is powerful and attractive to me personally.

Adrian Tennant: Considering the economics of business travel, do you think that the enforced working from home and connecting with coworkers and extended teams via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet will result in just a temporary reduction in business-related travel? Or will this period prompt businesses to reevaluate and modify their operations in the longer term?

Ben Scott: Wow. The million dollar question, right? In the long run, I’m definitely bullish about the industry for the simple reason that in-person human interaction matters. We are social animals after all and it’s really hard to build a relationship strictly around a Zoom meeting. But having said that, obviously in the short term that’s all anybody’s doing and in the medium term companies will be asking employees who say, “Hey, I need to go travel to X city,” you know, “Hey, Zoom seemed to work well during the shelter in place efforts. Why can’t it still work?” I think they’ll figure out pretty quickly that it’s not a good long term solution because relationships matter. I do think we’ll see a bump of pent-up demand hit us once things hit the all clear button. But that’s really the rub, when are we going to get a clear “all clear?” Just as there was a post-9/11, pre-9/11 dichotomy in how people view the world, that will definitely be there. But again, I would never bet against human-to-human, face-to-face, in-person interactions.

Adrian Tennant: A couple of weeks ago, JetBlue announced that it now requires passengers to wear face masks. In what other ways, if any, do you foresee airlines changing key aspects of the traveler experience?

Ben Scott: Absolutely. I mean, just that comment I made earlier about the pre- and post-9/11, there will be a pre- and post-COVID-19 as well. And it doesn’t mean that it will all be bad by any stretch. It will just be a new normal. And frankly, a lot of what we’re going to see is already rolling out. And I think about that first principle of automation: let’s reduce unnecessary human interactions that could pass the virus around. And again, this is all to make people feel safe. I personally haven’t bought a paper ticket to the airport in years. I just use my phone, but even if I do, I’m still the one that’s putting it down on the scanner. We’re going to see, and I saw this in the last year from United Airlines, they’re investing heavily and I’m sure the others are as well to put physical barriers up to replace the gate agents and will all be biometric-based. So it’s not just your phone, but it might just be your fingerprint like you have with the Clear, the way to get through TSA faster through the Clear company you use biometrics. We’re just going to see more and more and more of that. Baggage drop is already largely do-it-yourself. We’re going to see a way that humans aren’t there at all to receive the package. The airline lounge experience is going to be different – say goodbye to buffets in crowded bars and hello to pre-packaged and wrapped sandwiches. Will that be permanent? I don’t know. But for at least the short/medium term, that’s the new reality. The hard part for me in all of that is how do you – how do you get rid of those long TSA lines? I know that Montreal, the way that they tried to deal with it in the past is just to set up appointments for you to go through. So it’s staged and it’s easier to socially distance. I just look at the Minneapolis airport, which is an incredibly busy airport and see these mile-long lines. I really wonder how they’re going to deal with that. But that kind of leads me to my second point. They’ve got to get rid of unnecessary people in the airport. LAX has already done this. You can’t get into the airport unless you have a ticket. I’ve flown to India several times in multiple airports in that country and you’re not allowed inside the terminal without showing your ticket. I think that will certainly last through the medium term and that may be a new normal and it’s exciting in this sense that you could totally rethink the environment of an airport. If you include, say the garages, maybe your car is scanned on the way in, all your luggage there and it was already scanned and you go right into the airport from your car. That’s your TSA scan. So there are changes that we’re gonna see, but if it’s getting rid of unnecessary people, then it’s ensuring healthy people are flying. I know back in ’08 I went to China, in 2010 I went to Russia. In both cases, I had somebody pointing a thermal reader gun at me as we were on the airplane. We weren’t allowed to get off – honestly it felt a little invasive at the time, but I hadn’t been through a pandemic at that point. And this is what I mean by that pre- and post-9/11 thinking. Maybe in the future we’re not going to feel safe unless we’ve had a thermal scanner on the way onto the aircraft. And frankly, some of this stuff is already out there. They’ve got thermal scanners at some airports, but they’re hidden. I did read, and this was pretty interesting, the head of Gatwick airport said, “You shouldn’t even be allowed at the airport unless you’ve had a compulsory virus test 48 hours before departure.” Will something that draconian happen? I don’t know whether the public would be willing to accept that or whether they’re going to demand that, but that’s where we could go. And I guess my final point would just be about keeping it clean. You’ll hear a lot as the industry opens back up about fogging. They’ve been doing it since February on inbound flights from Asia, but those fogging machines, they go in there and after every flight and certainly at night and try to get rid of the virus. 

Adrian Tennant: What are the kinds of changes you foresee in the hotel experience as a traveler?

Ben Scott: Yeah, so you do hear things like, “Oh, they’re going to shut down spas and gyms permanently.” And I don’t believe that at all. There will probably be new protocols. There might be a limited number of people in there. There’ll be wipe-down periods where you just take a break and for the next hour we’re going to do nothing but clean and then we’ll open it back up. What we’re seeing in New York I don’t think is sustainable, where you have only one entrance into the building, you’ve got thermal screenings, you’ve got strict social distancing. Over time, that will be eased. What I do think is that you’ll see a lot of is plexiglass barriers. I mean, you see him at the supermarket right now. More and more of that will go up. They will reconfigure their open areas for six foot social distancing. Everybody hates the resort fee. I do wonder if, to pay for all these additional costs and staff to clean in order to make you feel safe so that you do come, that they’ll start putting a special cleaning fee on there cause they’re gonna recoup their costs some way.

Adrian Tennant: Yeah, great point. Now, thinking about how we get to our hotels and resorts, do you think anybody’s going to want to sit in the middle seat of an aircraft ever again?

Ben Scott: Nobody wants to sit in it now. But yeah, that is a problem. You’ve seen the airlines already blocking out those middle seats. Once the airlines start to build their capacity back up, and there is the demand, people are going to have to go there but they’re only going to go there if they’ve got the reassurances that I mentioned earlier. The most inventive thing that I did see that I really – I think that I liked, we’ll see if I have to experience it – but having the middle seat face the other way and then have those plexiglass barriers up between people. And again, that looks weird to me now, but post-COVID-19, that may be my post-9/11, “Oh yeah. That’s just the way things are.”

Adrian Tennant: Staying with airlines, if travelers have a lot of frequent points built up, do you think they should be worried about them?

Ben Scott: No, not at all. I mean everybody in the industry knows that this is the quote, “lost year.”  I know, for example, I’ve gotten from my hotel – and I’m a Delta guy cause I’m based out of Minneapolis – notes saying, “look, we’re going to take your Platinum status and extend it a year.” So no, they’re going out of their way to make this lost year for what it is. Just, “Can we just erase this and move forward kind?” of approach.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

Karen Hidalgo: I’m Karen Hidalgo, Associate Account Manager at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising account professionals. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. By conducting our own research, we’re able to capture consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with your audience. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. We’re talking to Ben Scott about the future of travel. A report from Audience Perceptions in late March showed that across all categories, almost nine in 10 US advertisers had taken some type of action in response to COVID-19. Of those, adjusting their ad spending, 49% reported holding back a campaign that was set to launch later in the year, 48% changing media or shifting budgets among media, and 45% reported stopping a campaign mid-flight. As I mentioned in the introduction, when asked what would give them confidence to travel, again, 70% of US consumers indicated a personal feeling of safety. Ben, if you were responsible for marketing an airline tasked with attracting travelers nervous about a continued risk from COVID-19, what are the main messaging points you would focus on?

Ben Scott: Well, those 49 percent that reported holding back a campaign that was set to launch later in the year, 100 percent of those have now shifted, I’m sure to just changing or stopping. The world has changed. So the message has to be different. In fact, it will be like fingernails on a chalkboard if they go out with a pre-Coronavirus-type message that they had originally planned. It’s just a different world. The main messaging points, and not to be silly here, it’s just safety, safety, safety. If you Google, “Delta Clean,” that’s their new marketing campaign. It’s fantastic, they nailed it. It’s right where your survey said people were concerned. The best way to keep me on your aircraft is to make me feel safe. 

Adrian Tennant: Earlier, I mentioned Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s letter to employees in 24 countries affected by layoffs. He also wrote that – quote, “travel in this new world will look different. People will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable. But people will also yearn for something that feels like it’s been taken away from them: human connection,” end quote. How do you foresee these insights translating into potentially new strategies for travel companies beyond just Airbnb?

Ben Scott: Well, what a powerful quote and an empathetic leader. I’m really impressed by the letter and those quotes because he’s right, we will look different. We will yearn for human connection. And more to the point, monetizing this, how do we get something that’s closer to home, safer, and more affordable? The example that I can give is a place I stayed when I was in Texas a few months ago. And I followed up with them last week and asked them what their hotel occupancy rate was now and it’s at 80 percent. So while most hotels, like you said, are 10 or 20%, “glamping” is going to be a big option for people. It’s close to home, it’s affordable, it’s safe. They’ve got Mongolian yurts in the Texas hill country that are very high-end and it’s very beautiful. But I think those kinds of hotels and boutique hotels are going to thrive in this environment because there is that pent-up demand. Whereas the Hiltons, the Marriotts, particularly in hotspots, are really going to struggle. Getting back to Brian and Airbnb, something that impressed me working with them a couple of years ago was that they were really trying to get into the business travel market. They were very much a leisure group and they saw the trend in the industry that we in a silly way called, “bleisure,” the blending of business travel with leisure. And what they came up with was taking certain Airbnbs and certifying them for business travelers. So they had to be in certain locations. They needed to be not somebody’s couch, but they needed to be an actual standalone apartment. And they called it, “Airbnb For Work,” as a filter. I could envision something like that for them in the future called “Airbnb Clean-Certified,” where they say, “Hey, nobody’s stayed here for a week. So therefore the virus, by definition, can’t survive.” Or they’ve done an extra level of cleaning. Maybe they have ultraviolet lights, et cetera. Things that will give people the visible confidence that they are willing to actually, in many people’s minds, they’re putting their life at risk to travel. They want to know that they’re minimizing those risks.

Adrian Tennant: The CMO section of the Wall Street Journal published a story last week highlighting new advertising campaigns from destination marketing organizations – or DMOs – for West Virginia, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. Common to all the featured creatives were panoramic visuals of wide open spaces, landscapes, wildlife – no people – showing off the natural beauty of the states, supported by voice overs that highlight getting out and exploring the great outdoors in a kind of splendid isolation, without actually using that phrase. Ben, do you think this approach will resonate with the millions of families that have been in lockdown and maybe still have concerns about maintaining social distancing?

Ben Scott: Absolutely. I don’t know anyone planning a trip to New York City, but literally everyone I’ve been talking to is talking about road trips somewhere remote in North America. And the reasons are safety and that splendid isolation. Although ironically, if everyone’s going there, it won’t be that isolated. Cost: they’ll just drive in the family minivan. I’ve asked her a couple about renting RVs or rather they’ve asked me about it cause I did it a couple of years ago. And it’s not cheap. I mean, we spent $5,000 for two weeks in an RV and when they hear that, they’re like, “Ah, maybe I’ll just take the minivan.” And there’s a sense of this is different people, but the avoidance of flying – A: for the isolation issues, and B: for the cost. At the same time, I also know people just can’t wait to get on a plane and go down to Florida or Cancun, et cetera. On a personal note, we’ve lived in Minnesota for six years now and I’ve never traveled the four hours North to see the source of the Mississippi river. That was one of the first day trips all six of us took. I think people are gonna really reconnect with their regional highlights and there’s beautiful spots all over this continent.

Adrian Tennant: At the time of this recording, we don’t have a set timetable for a return to normal, but when we get the all clear and travel can resume, it seems likely that some social distancing measures will remain. What are some of the things you think businesses in the leisure travel space need to be thinking about now to prepare for what seems based on the research data anyway to be a big pent-up demand for domestic vacations this year?

Ben Scott: Yeah, another great question. I mean the road trips will still be paramount. But no doubt, cheap airline tickets, which we all know are out there, domestically will be the first to bounce back and it’ll all be around safety, safety, safety. You earlier mentioned the splendid isolation question – if I can feel comfortable at my hotel, then what about the area that I’m going to? So I think back to my RV trip a couple years ago. I mean, the Grand Canyon is big, but it is crowded. How are the Rangers going to change things so that people are isolated, or six feet apart anyway? I shouldn’t say isolated but six feet apart. If you’re getting on a tour bus, how is that going to work? What’s the – quote, “middle seat” equivalent there? How do you organize families? So take five or six people and they go in a section of the bus and they’re two seats apart from each other? I mean these are the questions that they’re going to have to grapple with. Beyond just, “how was my room cleaned? How do I know the person cleaning it is virus-free?” There’s going to have to be a lot of marketing messages out there to position how they’re safe and why they’re safe.

Adrian Tennant: What are some of the ways that you think travel businesses should reassure consumers about safety procedures?

Ben Scott: It can’t be a faith-based initiative only in the sense that it has to be very tangible, very obvious and very visible, even if it’s a bit of theater. I mean, people have argued that even our TSA is a bit of theater. I mentioned the hidden thermal cameras that are in some airports already today. That’s great, people want to know that and they will have some degree of faith in it, but they’re going to need to see if somebody pointed the thermal reader at you, because they just can’t all be hidden. There can’t be just trust. 

Adrian Tennant: At the moment, it feels like we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to research data related to consumer sentiments during the COVID-19 outbreak. As someone who leverages data for business, do you think the role of market research will maintain this currently heightened profile and importance in terms of business planning going forward?

Ben Scott: It’s more important now than it ever was, and it was always important. I don’t know how you can launch a new product to market and expect to be successful if you haven’t tested it along the journey, and understand how to position it, how to price it, are we meeting needs, et cetera. I always think of Darwin’s famous quote when it comes to this stuff, which is, “it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” And you can’t manage the change if you don’t understand what people’s sentiment is, about what they will and won’t give permission for businesses to do. I mentioned the thermal readers pointing it at people’s heads. That may be something that is absolutely welcomed by customers as a necessary step of, “I don’t want to get on that plane unless everybody’s COVID-19 free.” On the other hand, there may be a huge part of the population that absolutely hates it and sees it as an invasion of privacy. So understanding that and checking the pulse is going to be incredibly important.

Adrian Tennant: And Ben, if you weren’t working in travel marketing, what would you be doing?

Ben Scott: Well, since I’m technically not working in travel marketing right now, I’ve been just kind of managing my family through the crisis. But my plan this summer is to spend a lot of time hiking around Lake Superior. This is a gorgeous part of the country and a great time of year. But in terms of business, I think I’ve got a knack for building great global marketing teams regardless of industry. I miss the one that I’ve spent the last three years working pretty intensely with and we’ve gone from strength to strength. So my hope is that we’ll be back soon, refreshed, and ready to accomplish great things together again.

Adrian Tennant: I hope so too, Ben. Great discussion, thank you very much for joining us on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Really appreciate it.

Ben Scott: Absolutely.

Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Ben Scott. You can find our show notes with links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights,” just click on the button marked “Podcast.” To ensure you don’t miss an episode, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, stay safe. Goodbye.

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