By Kr. Roop Partap Choudhary
Travel and hospitality sectors were among the worst affected in the face of the pandemic. A complete shutting down of borders led to job losses and deserted airports. In the early stages of opening up, cost-cutting meant establishments were not in a position to take as much burden. But with the improvement in positive sentiment, the state of travel is also improving. For starters, domestic travel has returned faster to normalcy compared to international travel. The real question is when will the state of travel return to pre-covid levels. Estimates about the timing will vary. But, experts feel that anytime between 2023 and 2025 could see a return to pre-covid levels across the board, be it domestic or international.
The good news is that business travel though is improving at a good pace. The reason is that while companies have adopted digital meetings and work from home, certain travel is still essential. The arrival of the pandemic forced all organisations to adopt digital tools but soon enough, most people were exhausted. Yet, the fear of the pandemic means 100 percent attendance at any site is not being encouraged. Thus, the more acceptable model is of hybrid presence wherein while more people will adapt to digital, it will not replace physical initiatives.
Most are graduating from strictly home arrangements to a hybrid approach which means that travel component will only increase from what it was during covid times. It is not that work-from-home arrangements are not working out but what is famously called zoom fatigue has affected all domains post-pandemic. Across industries, be it arts, hospitality, culture or business, more and more people want to step out and do activities in person as long as social distancing is being practiced effectively. Given that the pandemic deprived everyone of people-to-people contact, in the aftermath, most people are seeking exactly that as much as possible. And this is what is boosting in-person activities. Certainly, some skepticism remains but as people come out in greater numbers, it helps boost the confidence of all those involved.
In the Indian context specifically, domestic business travel is seeing an improvement and according to estimates across the board, sometime next year could see a complete return to pre-pandemic levels. Business in India is tied to festivals too and if the state of domestic travel across all sectors is an estimate to go by, this festive season has seen an uptick in inter-state travel. Taking a cue from this improved sentiment, business travel too is likely to continue to witness an upward push.
However, the real concern here is that given the alteration of customer behaviour, companies will have to keep focusing on ensuring social distancing. This may lead to additional costs in either manpower or infrastructure and may even require some kind of mechanism for strict enforcement. Ensuring sentiment remains positive is dependent on the absence of any future waves or health crises. Given that the pandemic has not entirely gone away, lax behaviour on the part of any stakeholder can have disastrous consequences for all. Thus, hygiene and sanitisation that is an area that cannot be neglected.
Last year, many organisations were experiencing fund crunch as well as the trauma of the second wave but a general sense of economic recovery means that there are greater financial resources at disposal. Additionally, the opening up of borders also inspires faith in travel. In certain countries, leisure travellers were found to be engaging in revenge travel, if one were to make estimates on that basis, certainly business travel is bound to increase given how essential it is in nature.
The key question here is that earlier the segmentation of business travel in city, budget and luxury hotels brought its share of revenues. But in post-covid times, this segmentation may not be cost-effective for hotel owners. There may be a need to reimagine some kind of hybrid services where at least low- and mid-budget services can be offered under one roof given the added costs of ensuring sanitation and distancing. This area will need some attention and an out-of-the-box thinking approach.
Another question to think about is how to leverage small and medium-sized businesses in India. These have been among the worst affected due to the pandemic yet immense opportunity lies in this area. Given the size and diversity of the country, the absolute number of smaller businesses across the length and breadth of the country hold huge potential with respect to business travel. Currently, business travel is dominated by C-suite executives and white-collar professionals. The next wave of growth in this domain lies in promoting travel among small and medium businesses.
The biggest fear has been of not knowing enough about the disease and waves hitting us unexpectedly. The good news is that a greater number of vaccinated people across the world means that we have a grip on the disease and that the borders will remain open. Additionally, more boosters in other countries suggests that globally, too, victory over the illness is possible. However, these responses may take away from the coronavirus’ pandemic status, our guard needs to be up at all times till everything is fully under control.
(The author is executive director, Noor Mahal Palace Hotel and Founder Colonel Saab, London, UK. Views are personal.)