This week, more than 600 attendees gathered for The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit in Cancun, Mexico to discuss the “road to recovery for travel” while simultaneously demonstrating the safety of new meeting protocols.

The purpose of the annual conference (which was canceled in 2020) is to take the pulse of the travel industry. Due to the Covid pandemic, this year’s event is more about resuscitation with an upbeat message on recovery. The overwhelming theme was that travel can come back safely with more international coordination and effort.

Thought leaders on the future of travel

Vaccine passports and global agreement are key

A major point of discussion centered around what technology the world should embrace to allow people to upload and prove testing or vaccination status to allow borders to reopen safely. According to many panelists, the World Health Organization needs to issue a uniform message saying that travel can be safe if people follow the rules. Until now, says Rita Marques, the secretary of state of tourism for Portugal, there has been no such global message.

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Hilton CEO and president, Christopher J. Nassetta, who was the opening speaker for the event, affirmed that such a unified tool would help travel to recover quickly. He believes that it takes a unified effort (not country by country rules) to move forward. Speaking about consumer sentiment toward travel, “the desire for experiences and connections has not changed,” said Nassetta. “The pandemic has only heightened those trends.”

Traveler expectations may have changed, but the desire to visit new places and explore familiar favorites has not.

Governments, private sectors and travel organizations must work together for recovery, said Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso. No industry is as interconnected as travel and tourism, he added.

Demand is booming

Onsite hotel testing and the ability to create resort bubbles to assure travelers of a safe experience are key in the rebound, confirmed Alex Zozaya, executive chairman of Apple Leisure Group. His company sells resort destination travel packages; he pointed to future bookings being better now than they were at this pre-pandemic point in 2019.

It’s not only outdoor and leisure markets like the Maldives that are in for good news in the future. There is significant pent-up demand for resort destinations, but business hubs and urban destinations are slowly starting to see some movement again, too, confirmed Greg Webb, CEO of Travelport, a global distribution system for travel companies that can easily track industry trends.

Recently announced is a new air travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore removing the need for quarantine when following certain requirements. This supports the trend that people are looking for safe methods like travel bubbles and vaccinated flights that allow them to visit urban destinations.

Robin Tauck, co-owner of Tauck Inc, pointed out that 95% of her company’s customers (soon to be 97%) are fully vaccinated. This delivers huge potential for travel around the world. She noted that small group travel and outdoor destinations are leading the way, especially in regional U.S. travel, but international travel still has some logistical hurdles.

Travel has huge economic impact

Leaders from every corner of travel and hospitality shared the difficulties and promising future they see. In 2020, the global travel sector lost 62 million jobs and lost $4.5 trillion dollars. On an international level, travel counted for 10.4% of global GDP in 2019, but that dropped to 5.5% in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic was 18 times worse than the global financial crisis in 2008 for the travel industry.

North American tourism alone generated $240 billion in travel spend in 2019, said Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly. The sharp downturn of 2020 is simply not sustainable for another year given the number of jobs that it supports.

Urban destinations in particular have their own set of challenges, added Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, who said that leisure travel is leading the way in New York as hotel occupancy starts to rise again. Outdoor spaces, including streets that are now pedestrianized and being used for cafes, are helping New York see a faster return to normalcy.

Dixon noted that while a third of New York’s hotels are currently closed, he expects more to open in the coming months, including many new hotels that were already in the pipeline. Despite many hotels permanently closing over the past year, he expects 118,000 guest rooms to be open by the end of the year.

Navigating 2020 was expensive and difficult

Throughout the event, panelists reiterated how difficult 2020 was, but how they are well-prepared for future recovery.

According to Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation, it was difficult to operate and maintain their ships without any revenue. He said they had to repatriate 90,000 crew members home and 250,000 guests during the first few months of the pandemic. Today, they are operating safely in Europe and are planning a restart for other ships in the coming months. Donald reiterated that governments and tourism industries must work together to “be on the same page” for safe reopening.

Addressing the in-person and hybrid audience via recorded message, Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, discussed the importance of being authentic and transparent with employees, which was key for his company to get through the pandemic. As the demand for travel improves thanks to vaccines, Barr says he knows that business and meetings and event travel will eventually come back strong noting that the industry is resilient.

The new world of meetings

The hybrid summit incorporated in-person sessions with virtual attendees from around the world. Those attending the conference at Moon Palace Cancun had to undergo various safety protocols upon arrival. Masks were required and social distancing reminders were in place, and impressive cleaning standards included wiping down regularly touched surfaces. Before entering any room, staff took the temperature of each attendee and provided hand sanitizer.

Guests received “antiviral kits” in guest rooms containing masks, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes.

Arianne Gorin, president, business services, for Expedia pointed out that depression levels are growing and Zoom fatigue is a challenge many companies face. She noted a change in the way her corporate customers view travel now, as less of a cost (or “line item”) and as more of an investment in its people. Her message was that travel is certain to rebound, but also that it can be an important part of human connection and well-being.

In a message of hope regarding the recovery, NYC & Company’s Dixon noted, “travel is going to be a coiled spring. It is going to rebound quickly.”

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