Ep 30: 7 Months in a COVID Travel Bubble

About This Episode

28 Jul 2020 • 33m10s

With few signs of movement on border re-openings in South East Asia, Gary and Hannah reflect on 7 lost months in travel and tourism.

As August looms into view, several big questions remain unanswered. So, what have been the landmark events and milestones of 2020 so far?

What outcomes have surprised, challenged and discouraged the travel industry the most? Is survival now the overarching goal for the rest of 2020? Can South East Asia reclaim its status as the world’s most dynamic travel region? Will tourism be domestic and, hopefully, regional only for the foreseeable future? Are there lessons and inspirations to learn from other lifestyle and consumer sectors? And why did ‘mojito romance’ merit a mention?

All this and more in the 30th episode of The South East Asia Travel Show!

Show Notes

00:40 To mark our 30th podcast, we revisit the format of our pilot show – way back in December 2019 – and interview each other on some of the critical events, milestones, insights and outcomes from the past 7 months.

01:00 (Q1) When did alarm bells start to ring about the potential impact of COVID-19?

“I was still travelling in January, I went to Bangkok and I think it was vaguely on my mind then […] In mid-February, when I visited Singapore on a sales call, already the impact was evident on Singaporean travel agents. Half their desks were empty.” (Hannah)

“I remember being in the UK at the end of December (2019) when the first cases of suspected pneumonia in Wuhan were announced, and my stomach dropped at that point. Having arrived in China many years ago just after SARS, I suddenly got this horrible feeling.” (Gary)

02.45 (Q2a) You’ve slogged away over recent months producing a weekly report on all things COVID-19, travel and tourism in SEA? What things have encouraged you the most, and what have discouraged you, while compiling the Sunday reports?

“What has encouraged me the most is really the positive feedback that I’ve got. Every week, I get emails or Linkedin messages […] from people across the travel industry, whether from hotels, investors of travel bloggers saying ‘Thanks, this is really useful’. The big struggle is reading that many articles every single week about the impact of COVID-19 on South East Asian tourism. I’m approaching 2,000 articles now on my dashboard […] and there’s no end in sight.” (Hannah)

04:15 (Q2b) As someone who works with hotel groups on strategic marketing and messaging, how easy has it been to change and redefine those long-held messages?

“We are 7 months into the pandemic now and the messaging has changed. […]. I work with hotels in Hong Kong and China, and they opened a little quicker. […] We had to focus on promotions for the local market. […] Now it’s the school summer holiday period in China, so they are looking at F&B, kids’ activities, family activities.” (Gary)

“I have been impressed by the way they have used ad hoc promotions [including one based on Jay Chou’s Mojito pop video filmed in Cuba]. It’s very aspirational, spontaneous and in the moment. Those are the kinds of things that hotel marketers have to be looking at right now. How can you find stories and curate content around things that are joyful.” (Gary)

06:50 (Q3a) How has your tourism industry consultancy work evolved since the start of the campaign, and where do you see it trending from here?

“I focus on 2 things. I do a lot of sales repping throughout South East Asia and then I do consulting with tourism boards. […] My focus has really shifted to understanding consumer behaviour post-COVID, and working on projects for tourism boards to get opinions from the travel trade. Sometimes, they are a little bit gloomy [at the moment]. It’s still interesting to get that trade aspect.” (Hannah)

08:20 (Q3b) You work with market research companies looking at consumer, retail, branding and tech trends in South East Asia. Has this been a period of gloom like in travel, or have other factors been at play?

“I would say less gloomy, largely because you can consume from home. […] The At-Home shopping market has boomed. […] The consumer sector in Vietnam is very vibrant, and is youthful driven. There are a lot of products, ideas, concepts coming out that are, I don’t know whether you’d say they wouldn’t have happened before COVID, but they’ve certainly been accelerated.” (Gary)

09:50 (Q4a) What are some of the biggest impacts on the tourism industry in South East Asia over recent months – and which have been the most decisive?

“The most decisive has to be closing borders. […] When we went into all these lockdowns, I don’t think anyone expected it to last quite so long […] The policy of chasing zero cases has had such a massive impact on the tourism industry.” (Hannah)

11:20 (Q4b) Which country’s response to COVID-19 in SE Asia surprised you – in a good way?

“Countries like Lao, Cambodia and Brunei, they have done very, very well. Vietnam too. But I think you have to look at Malaysia and Thailand. […] Both struggled at the beginning […] but the way they have flattened the curve, I think has been impressive.” (Gary)

13:20 (Q5) As someone who normally travels regularly for work, and as a mother of a young son, have you reflected on your own travel priorities for the future?

“We are thinking about having a little domestic trip soon, but it will definitely be nearby. I don’t think it will be one where we’ll take a flight. Like many parents who’ve got young children, you feel very loathe to expose them to any unnecessary risk.” (Hannah)

14:45 (Q6). What was your initial reaction to continuing to do a podcast about travel when travel became impossible?

“What’s happened over the last 7 months, there’s been so much to talk about and there are so many issues that have come to the fore about the structure, nature and operational aspects of tourism which didn’t get talked about before simply because we were in a boom time.” (Gary)

“In a way, I think it has helped us as we’ve had to be a little more creative in topics. When we started out were thinking of doing these big thematic pods, or focus country by country […] Limitations help boost creativity, and we have to find different angles and ways of looking at the tourism industry.” (Hannah)

20:45 (Q8) After all that has happened, and given the current stasis, do you still believe that SEA is the world’s most dynamic tourism region?

“I do think it has the ability to grow again. Strategically, because we are centred between these two dominant markets, India and China. […] Investment is coming from Japan and Korea. […] The world is changing, but South East Asia does have this huge land mass, these huge populations and a huge appetite for travel […] There’s a great intra-regional market here.” (Gary)

“I still believe there’s such a big variety in tourism products here, there’s still this growing population which is going to drive outbound tourism. And, yes, most of the economies are suffering, but they are all forecast to bounce back next year […] Travel is still an aspirational thing, and a lot of younger travellers still want to go abroad, and that is not going to stop happening.” (Hannah)

“There are still concerns about business and incentives travel. Also, trips may be shorter for the near future, so travel players will need to adapt to this trend.” (Gary)

23:55 (Q9) A lot of talk focuses on the likely regionalisation of travel, given uncertainty over long-haul flying. Do you see South East, North East and South Asia becoming more integrated in travel terms as a result of COVID-19?

“I’m not sure. The situation the airlines are going through right now, a lot of routes are inevitably going to be cut for cost-cutting initiatives.[…] In the long run they may want to get those back […] but in the short run, we might see perhaps less connectivity between these different regions, at least ones that are seen as more dangerous than others.” (Hannah)

“Airlines will be slimmer, they’ll have less resources and they’ll be flying less frequencies. It comes back to the absolute economics. […] The Indian outbound market is quite important to our region […] Everybody in this region wants the Chinese market back, everybody wants the Japanese and Korean markets back, the Taiwanese market is important also.” (Gary)

26:50 (Q10) What do you foresee as the biggest challenges and opportunities for travel and tourism in SEA for the rest of 2020?

“The biggest challenge has to be survival at that most basic level. Getting that cashflow from somewhere and lasting it out basically until we turn a corner, and either governments change their policies or a vaccine is found. In terms of opportunities, domestic tourism gives an opportunity to test out new domestic products that can be used later for the inbound market.” (Hannah)

“You can also look at data flows about how domestic travellers are actually travelling, and how that can be interpreted to sell inbound travel in future. […] This is an opportunity to rethink how you market your own country, your own destinations, your own hotels, because survival will rely on that. Innovation will be absolutely essential.” (Gary)

Bali’s reopening in September could be used as a benchmark in South East Asia. But re-openings will be gradual and phased, with more localised than national approaches.

31:05 One more quick question: Where would you first travel to when borders reopen?

“Maldives!” (Hannah)

“Sri Lanka.” (Gary)

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