Your initial reaction to this title probably sheds light on your perspective on the tourism industry’s future. The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the years that triggered a significant change in the way we live.
Matthew and I in Valletta after the last tour on the 6th of March before suspending our schedule.
Being part of the industry, I feel the pain, disappointments and struggles that this year brought. It is not easy. When everything was hazy and misty in the early days of March, the team at Colour my Travel agreed to dedicate time to rethink, time to plan and time to despair. Consecutive (negative) milestones such as the closure of airports, lockdowns, restrictions and measures for the common good started to confirm that none of this would be temporary. The way forward was ours to choose, and this is how we figured it out.
Flight, Fight or Freeze?
When faced with stress, we psychologically evolved to pick one of these reactions. The pandemic provided the right dose of pressure that this traditional cash-cow industry needed to rethink its state of affairs. Those who are ill-prepared and half-hearted react to such a challenge with a quick phrase: “I’m Out”. That is Flight and the option that the resilient ones do not even see as an option.
On the other hand, you have the ones who stand up to be counted and march forward even when the way forward is misty and hazy. I can understand each of these two reactions. What worries me is the last option.
Freezing in front of such a situation is a reaction that some might sadly choose to take. Many have opted to freeze, sit aside, receive state aid and wait for it to pass. But when will all this pass?
I am sure that the government did not invest millions of Euros in support measures for business to freeze. More than anything, through Malta Enterprise, the government acted in examplar efficiency to execute these support measures. This efficiency was the proverbial matchstick light in pitch darkness that everyone was eagerly awaiting. While a good number of companies saw this as the impetus needed to fight on, one cannot nonetheless exclude the reality that many businesses have seen this financial assistance, such as the wage supplement, as an opportunity to wait out the crisis to just pass. However, we all know that it will not “just pass”.
For those choosing to freeze, all the government financial assistance is nothing short of morphine for business. When administered timely and adequately, morphine eases pain and increases the chances of survival. Everything has its cost, and morphine is also known to be dangerously addictive. I sincerely hope that this financial assistance will not become equally addictive to those who choose to freeze.
The assumption and hope in the vaccine restoring confidence are the foundation for the events to date. However, COVID-19 pressed the reset button of the tourism industry. The government did all it could do to date, and the dynamics of a free-market will take over when tourism restarts.
Those who opted for Flight will be gone, and those who opted to Fight will be there to do business and fetch the opportunities I outline below. Those who chose to Freeze and wait will sit aside and take their time to defrost.
So where are the opportunities?
In my professional practice in Artificial Intelligence and the design of novel tech-enabled experiences, disruption is the order of the day. Disruption itself is not even a topic of discussion in the tech industry because it is taken for granted. The tourism industry was blessed with a relative level of stability where even the most significant changes took their time to take place.
COVID-19 was a sudden and unexpected event that jolted the industry and paved the way for innovation. One can expect destinations and business to push limits when competing for the first post-pandemic travellers. This new generation of competition that embraces the opportunities I highlight below will reshape the industry’s future. In itself, disruption is an opportunity for all organisations. It also provides a new level-playing-field for new or smaller companies to emerge and deliver novel experiences that the industry craves.
Disruption’s best friend is innovation. Innovation is a term that if it is practised at least half the time it is claimed, the world would be a much better place. It is what makes us think differently and find ways to challenge the status quo. As an agent of disruption in itself, COVID-19 also became innovation’s best friend, forcing companies who chose to fight to change. The others will fossilise. It made many rethink the way they do business. As Malta’s first fully online excursion organiser back in 2013, Colour My Travel always sought to challenge the status quo. Due to our ingrained organisational mindset in technology, we value disruption as an agent of change. During our seven years of operations, we witnessed an industry that innovated its methods to postpone innovation. The pandemic brought a disruption of an immense magnitude to tourism that the only way out of the crisis is through innovation.
Innovation is not necessarily equal to technology. It might be closely related, and I do admit my bias. Through a small dose of humbleness and an open mind, every organisation has the opportunity to embrace innovation. These unprecedented times are history’s golden opportunity for organisation in this sector to change. No competitor can take your clients because there are barely any available right now. With the world at a standstill, it is the message every organisation must receive and take on board. This message also applies to every individual. Did you ever have an idea and have been told that it is not the right time to experiment with the market? Right now, there is barely a market so rethink it, find someone open-minded enough and propose it afresh.
“Quality is better than quantity” is one of the paradoxes we get to breathe through in countless situations. Quantity is a tempting key performance indicator for politicians because it is effortless to communicate. The notion of an evergrowing industry can help score political points in the short term. Numbers also bring along economic benefits; however, these are also there for the short-term. Since the sector sees different ministers responsible for it, one starts to understand why the focus on quantity remains. The lack of a holistic national strategy fuels the political temptation to score quick points through “quantity” since individual ministers would need to prioritise easily measurable indicators for their survival.
COVID-19 delivered an opportunity to politicians and policy-makers. The entire global tourism industry is at a standstill. You cannot harm numbers when you have none. This crisis served us with an opportunity to think what was till now inconvenient even to consider. How about considering the (realistic) scenario of fewer travellers and therefore acting to render the Maltese islands the perfect destination?
The quality of experience is much better when there are smaller groups and allows for a personalised experience that everyone desires. When the new digital natives become tomorrow’s travellers, personalisation will be something that they expect. A sustainable future calls for personalisation to be served at a macro touristic scale. The Malta Tourism Authority is already investing in training and technology that can enable this. It will be up to all stakeholders to honestly believe it and take bold steps favouring quality rather than quantity. Platforms such as TripAdvisor and Google Maps should be the ultimate True North since every single review is a measurement of “quality” and not “quantity”.
4) Hygiene, Safety and comfort
One of the first positive outcomes of the pandemic was the overnight improvement of safety and hygiene. Doesn’t it feel amazing that if you move your chair in a cafeteria or restaurant at the centre of Valletta without bumping into someone else’s chair? Doesn’t it feel reassuring that tables are wiped clean with disinfectants rather than the pre-COVID dirty cloth emerging from a bucket that has been there all day? Doesn’t it also feel good that you find hand sanitisers readily available everywhere you go?
We are already taking all this for granted. We might also struggle to understand how we took hygiene so lightly before the pandemic. These measures translate to comfort, and they are here to stay. The companies who value these principles will be the ones attracting more tourists.
The surge of importance to working remotely accelerated the ICT strategy of most organisations. Expedited digitisation will nonetheless impact the tourism industry.
First of all, it will affect the demand. This situation forced us to appreciate and realise that most work and meetings are achievable from remote locations. Video conferencing will replace most business travel, such as short routine conferences and brief in-person meetings. Think about your last online meeting. Would it have made a difference if you joined from your home or from anywhere else in the world with a decent connection? Destinations such as Malta have the potential to become the right place for remote work, attracting talent from all over the world while embarking on this post-COVID emerging market.
The second effect of digitalisation is related to operations. Travellers will expect higher levels of automation, personalisation of digital experiences and contact-less methods of payments. Artificial Intelligence will play a role in this delivery of services, and it will enable growth to those who harness it.
6) Extinction of Dinosaurs
Like other natural catastrophes were notable agents of change in evolution, future generations will remember this pandemic as the change agent that made businesses and destinations evolve. Embracing change and disruption while improving through innovation will help entities evolve. However, we also know that not everyone makes it — those who cannot adapt, end up extinct.
By pressing the infamous reset button, COVID-19 gives birth to a novel playing field in the tourism industry for destinations and business alike. A national strategy that brings all stakeholders in the tourism industry together should be our national priority. We all need to dust ourselves and seek the opportunities ahead in the resilient way that Malta is known.
The first step is to shift the industry away from addictive pain killers and develop adequate long-term vitamins to prepare us for the reborn tourism industry through this new generation of opportunities.
Dylan Seychell is the founder of Colour My Travel and a specialist in Applied Artificial Intelligence. He is reachable on email@example.com
This article was published on The Malta Independent on Sunday