By 11 a.m., it was already sweltering in the city centre of Managua, Nicaragua; a normal occurrence in the month of May.
"Who wants to see what the chicken bus is all about?" our Global Purpose Specialist asked.
Despite the heat, everyone's hands shot up, and just like that, our group boarded what ended up being an old yellow school bus decked out in graffiti, and packed full of passengers glued by sweat to those old leather seat covers.
Some people sang and chattered in Spanish, others waved paper fans, but all of us were heading to the local artisan market on a Sunday.
With G Adventures, a local experience like this one is not uncommon. But with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, and words like "droplet transfer" and "physical distancing" lingering in the air, the company has been forced to re-examine its operations, including its transportation models on tours, in order to move forward once the world opens up again.
G Adventures CEO and founder Bruce Poon Tip held a virtual press conference for journalists on May 11th to provide an overall update on the company's recovery plans, as well as predictions on what travel will look like, post-COVID-19.
During the hour-long debrief, Poon Tip noted that for the first time since the pandemic struck, he's felt optimistic about the future of the company, which operates hundreds of itineraries in more than 100 countries, and has 28 offices worldwide.
On Apr. 23rd, G Adventures announced that all of its tours would be suspended through June 30th.
"In the last week or two, we’ve been looking forward as opposed to not knowing where our future is," Poon Tip shared. "Like all companies, we've had to make some very tough decisions and we've had different phases as we've gone through this. We didn't know how bad it was going to be, and it escalated so quickly. We try to do the best we can and make the best decisions in the moment, but we're still hoping for a miraculous rebound."
Overall, Poon Tip notes an overall positivity within the G Adventures company, and says that the company has "stayed quite aggressive in all of the activities we're working on, and it's cleared the way for us to rethink and revision our business."
As countries around the world watch one another and take queues to relax on their lockdown measures, seasoned travellers are itching to pack their bags again, as are the travel advisors who have seen an unfortunate downturn in bookings.
But getting to that point has less to do with the government restrictions, and much more to do with the suppliers' responsibility of getting the public comfortable enough to the point of booking that ticket again, Poon Tip said.
Comfort inspires change
Around the world, a sense of "normalcy" is creeping back into the travel industry.
Airlines are quietly resuming flights. Cruise companies are announcing future sailing dates. And hotels are shouting their new sanitization protocols from the rooftops, all in the hopes of drawing an international clientele through their doors once more.
Understanding what travel will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic "passes" is a two-part question, Poon Tip says: one is whether we'll be able to travel at all, and two is when we'll be comfortable enough to do so.
"Our biggest challenge in the travel industry is getting people comfortable on flights again," Poon Tip said. "Something we all took for granted was the freedom of booking flights regularly. We could travel anywhere we wanted in the world, so long as we paid for the ticket, but now there is an added complication, which is the close proximity of people in an airplane, and whether or not this virus could be present. I think there will be various levels, or stages of comfort for people for when they are comfortable to get on a plane again."
Poon Tip hopes that by the end of this summer, and into the fall, most people will be ready, all contingent on flight schedules resuming and social distancing measures remaining
"Until there's a vaccine, I don't think we'll be completely carefree, but until then, my hope is that the rebound is quicker than we think, because right now people are still scared because there are too many unknowns," Poon Tip said. "There will be changes, and every operator will be responsible for putting their stake in the ground."
Suppliers must change, then adapt
As countries slowly ease up on lockdown restrictions, Poon Tip notes that many predictions have come out about which countries will be a popular first choice.
Poon Tip cites that certain regions in Asia, like South Korea and Japan, have handled the pandemic exceptionally well, and many Asian countries that locked down fairly early could be a strong contender. Italy, too, despite being among the hardest hit at the onset of the pandemic shows promise of a strong rebound.
But, several factors remain at play.
For starters, suppliers and travel agents must consider the "who" in the equation— who is comfortable enough to travel? Who is the new travel demographic? How can we get them back? What kinds of travel experiences are important, and what is utterly off limits?
Canada's stance on the timing of re-opening its borders will also play a significant role in determining where G Adventures can send its travellers, and when.
“I believe the pandemic will change a certain group of people and the overall landscape of travel. I think the most vulnerable market (60-70 years old) will travel very differently and they’ll be the hardest to rebound," Poon Tip explained. "I don’t think many people will want to put their aging parents on a cruise, or a crowded place. I doubt they will travel the same without a lot of changes we have yet to see on how we will make them comfortable to travel again. Some may never travel again, or for a very long time, or until there’s a vaccine."
According to Poon Tip, those small changes will change the overall landscape of travel and the industry should expect to see a change in mainstream travel behaviours.
Crowded cruise ships, or compound all-inclusive resorts, for example, could be less appealing. Instead, Poon Tip anticipates that there's a much bigger playing field that will give rise to an influx of FIT travel, small group travel, and solo travel. Citing self-isolation, social distancing, and self-imposed quarantines as leading factors, Poon Tip adds that he expects to see a rise in small group travel due to consumers wanting to travel with like-minded people they know who took the same precautions during COVID-19.
"Not many people will be excited about being shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of people anymore, and that will ultimately trickle down to other different travel styles and opportunities," Poon Tip said. "We have the industry and the travellers thinking the same for the very first time; we've been forced into a situation where we're all at ground zero, and as an industry, we sometimes have to be pushed by the consumer to create demand, and the consumer has to be educated to create that demand."
At the end of the day, the future of travel will depend on suppliers being able to reassure their clients that their establishments are safe and sanitary, in order to attract business.
Many hotels, for example, have issued statements on new sanitary protocols now in place resort-wide, and all airlines have made it mandatory to wear a face mask on board.
“A lot of companies will have to adapt and change; the big players will dictate the pace and smaller operators will have to decide what they can and can't do and how they’ll have access to do so," Poon Tip said. "It's amazing how many small industries will rise out of the ashes of the pandemic. It's scary when you don’t know where we’re going, but like every downturn, the opportunities that come out of it are amazing.”
In April 2020, Poon Tip published a brand new book, called Unlearn: The Year the Earth Stood Still.
The book is a free, short ‘instabook’ (e-book) that is designed to be a letter to all who love to travel, to inspire them to continue to dream of travelling but to also reimagine how they can emerge from this pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose when selecting their next holiday.
You can download a copy at www.unlearn.travel, on Apple Books, and Kobo in Canada.
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