Kickstarting Travel: Baby Steps

Dana Gain

Progress has been made. The pandemic curve is starting to flatten, light is appearing at the end of the tunnel. People are thinking about traveling again, and travel companies are getting ready. How exactly will this all unfold? What will travellers buy, and when? 

With pandemic-driven furloughs putting pressure on household finances, vacationers may wish to do something different this time around. They may buy down like we saw after the 2008 financial crisis. If it’s a cruise they are after, they might select shorter sailings closer to home. For land aficionados, perhaps opt for hotel brands that better fit today’s budget.

These are changes we can anticipate. Folks will have less money, so they may alter their spending. Perhaps domestic travel will rule the short-term as folks head out to visit family they haven’t seen in months.  Maybe a reduced reliance on group travel, or simply a new definition of how we classify a group. Changes will happen, many of them predictable.

Thus, the debate is not so much about what customers will buy but rather, who is ready to buy it?

Hoteliers, cruise lines, tourist boards and tour operators are plagued with this question as the curve begins to even out. As cruise companies and airlines gingerly dip their collective toes into the risk-averse water of the consumer psyche, they have to trust that both the travel product and the timing fit the consumer mindset.  

We can certainly continue to make the travel experience appealing for customers despite the modified dining arrangements, extra hand sanitizers, and face masks. That leaves only the timing. What is the correct pace to usher travel back into the fold? When will we know it’s time?

Crucially, how can we ensure our message is reaching customers who are ready to book?

It’s easy to envision the multiple scenarios in which vacation companies have no control. When international airports will reopen and the resulting implications for flight availability. Unsealing closed borders and allowing people to go back and forth. Turning the key on locked hotel doors. Every consideration is interwoven with the other, so one weak link in the chain will shut the entire thought process down. There are too many unknowns.

Since we cannot predict the future, we must work only with the known. 

Carnival Cruise Line offers a fitting case study. Last week the company announced that select sailings would be deployed from ports in the southeastern United States beginning August 1st, 2020. Given the current landscape, why was this an appropriate move?

First, the company limited its offering to just three ports and in doing so lessened its risk.  Second, Carnival selected embarkation ports that were known to attract customers within driving distance, so relying on upcoming flight schedules would not be necessary. Third, the company was not banking on the reopening of borders to accept international passengers; domestic guests were the focus. Finally, Carnival limited its exposure to three popular vessels, allowing maximum exposure to its customer base.

In this way, Carnival Cruise Line found a way to take a first tentative step. By focusing on the largest group of customers likely to purchase and simultaneously eliminating factors outside their control, it is within the power of travel companies to create scenarios in which customers can see themselves vacationing again. 

As we look a few weeks down the road and imagine the curve continuing to flatten and perhaps even decline, we would be wise to consider replicating this approach. Working within the strict boundaries of what we know and leveraging our knowledge about who our customer is will go a long way towards ensuring our patrons hear our message.

Can we be certain that now is the right time to begin taking these baby steps? No. Can we mitigate our risks to the point we are on this side of comfortable? Absolutely.

Dana Gain

Dana Gain, MBA Open Jaw Contributor

Dana is a global sales and marketing executive, speaker, and business leader with a 25-year career in the cruise and hospitality industries. Her expertise extends from contract negotiation with international retail groups to business strategy. Dana holds her MBA in International Business and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia, and remains the only cruise line professional in the world to have achieved an ECCS accreditation with CLIA. Dana lives and works in Toronto, Canada.
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