International travel to come back strong after Covid-19

04 December 2020 5 min. read

Travelling is back on the cards for a growing share of consumers, although most would do so for pleasure rather than business. Oliver Wyman researchers have mapped the progress of traveller sentiment this year.

Back in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown paradigm, Oliver Wyman surveyed more than 4,000 consumers across the US, Canada, the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, China and Australia. The goal, as stated by the firm, was to “capture how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting attitudes and opinions on travel.

At the time, the firm found a cautious outlook on travel. While excited about travelling again, most consumers were waiting for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to give the “all clear” before doing so. Even then, the lion’s share of plans were for domestic travel, even if restrictions were lifted in foreign countries. All in all, consumers were tentative, and placed their trust in authorities.

Reasons for deciding to travel again

Come October, Oliver Wyman conducted a second survey with a similar sample size across the same markets, to see how travel sentiment has evolved during the pandemic. And there are some notable changes. For one, people have taken matters into their own hands, with the weight of WHO recommendations and travel advisories falling dramatically.

Many think the time has already come for travel. Other more cautious consumers are monitoring infection rates in their own country and around the world to inform their decision, or are waiting for the vaccines that are imminently available. At any rate, these forms of ‘personal risk assessment’ have taken over from government advice and public policy.

For Oliver Wyman partner Bruce Spear, the shift from official directives to personal judgment “means the travel industry must focus on measures that increase individual customer safety such as mandatory masks, cleaning and rapid testing and not wait for governments to issue directives.”

Business Travel Plans Post-Pandemic

Another change of note is in the purpose of travel, where leisure is winning over business by a landslide. In fact, one of the central developments in the pandemic has been the realisation among businesses that virtual tools such as videoconferencing are more than adequate for communication, within a business and internally.

With many businesses striving for ‘net zero’ emissions in the coming decade, virtual collaboration also presents a suitable way to cut sizeable chunks from the carbon footprint. All indications point to the long-term adoption of virtual working arrangements, which also appears to be spilling over into the business travel segment.

According to Oliver Wyman, well over 40% of all business travellers plan to cut down on their movement in the future. Interestingly, this number has grown as restrictions have eased – less than 30% were planning to cut business travel back in May. The reluctance to travel despite lower infections and fewer restrictions signals a lasting impact from the pandemic on business travel.

Leisure trips abroad to regain or increase frequency

That being said, a sizeable chunk of consumers – over 45% – still plan to resume business travel as usual after the pandemic, while over 10% even plan to increase it. According to Oliver Wyman, many still believe that in-person meetings are the best way to establish new relationships and expand networks.

“For travel companies, these findings suggest that their messaging to customers will need to focus heavily on the importance of people coming together to forge or maintain relationships,” noted Oliver Wyman partner Jessica Stansbury. That’s for business travel. When it comes to leisure, the machine will run itself for travel companies once the pandemic is through.

Indeed, consumers are itching to go back on vacation as soon as it is possible, with well over 60% expecting to travel the same amount as before the pandemic – if not more – once it is safe and possible. A notable development from the last survey: international travel is now certainly on the cards, at least for more than half of the consumers in Canada, the UK, France and Germany.

Levels of comfort across travel and activity types

No doubt, consumers still plan to make their journeys as safe as possible. Good news for the struggling airline industry: most will be comfortable taking a flight when they travel, while renting a car is also a suitable option. Consumers are more averse to close or prolonged exposure, such as in long-distance train journeys, or public transport, or in a shared ride.

In similar vein, hotel rooms and restaurants will be the first to attract consumers as the pandemic dust settles, while close-contact crowded events such as concerts, sport events, trade shows or cruises will remain out of favour for many. The bottom line is clear: consumers will travel but with every consideration for safety.

“Leisure travel will continue to drive the recovery and addressing new customer expectations will be critical. There is no wiggle room for travel companies when it comes to defining, communicating and enforcing policies for cleanliness and ensuring safety,” explained Stansbury.