my Say: Covid-19 and the big rethink for the travel industry

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 12, 2021 - April 18, 2021.
my Say: Covid-19 and the big rethink for the travel industry
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It has been just over a year since Covid-19 shook the world, and it has inevitably changed the way we live and work. While the impact has been widespread, the pandemic has also taught businesses valuable lessons — ways to make lemonade out of lemons — in a time where the “new normal” is fraught with changes and uncertainty.

The message is: Move fast; innovate fast. The pandemic’s unpredictability has intensified the need for businesses to act fast to not only solve problems at hand, but protect and prepare for the future. For example, vaccines would have typically taken years to develop, but companies’ pandemic-readiness and response have helped roll out Covid-19 vaccines in under a year.

Even more than investing in technology that will help us be agile and adapt to the evolving landscape, it is also about the people driving the technology that is fundamental. Creating a company culture of innovation and flexibility is crucial, as motivated employees will be empowered to move things along. Companies that will do best are the ones that can innovate across multiple fronts simultaneously and go-to-market in record times, whether it is across their technology, products, programmes or services.

To help businesses pivot and expand their travel offering, at Agoda, we worked to significantly reduce the amount of time taken — from months to mere weeks — to implement our white label product solutions for partners, as well as developing a comprehensive GoLocal initiative offering domestic deals to help accommodation partners capitalise on the domestic travel market and generate more bookings.

Diversify and embrace opportunities

To effectively deal with a crisis, it is also necessary to identify opportunities that may arise from it. In a time of disruption and shrinking consumer demand, businesses have been forced to reignite their entrepreneurial fire, reconsider their offering and look for new market gaps they can continue to address.

Hotels, for instance, have pivoted to offer novel types of packages to adapt to current trends, such as “work from hotel” and day-use packages. Cab drivers in markets such as Singapore and Indonesia, which experienced lockdowns, saw a huge dip in the number of customers on the road and partnered with ride-hailing platforms to do food delivery instead.

Also, the pandemic led a significant shift in consumer behaviour, driving demand for contactless payment and reliance on e-commerce. Fintech players partnered with banks to support traditional merchants, large and small, that lack digital payment methods with the technology to accelerate adoption. Instead of reinventing the wheel, restaurants and hotels tapped food delivery providers to ensure business continuity.

Open collaboration

Unified collaboration between governments, businesses, experts and individuals will remain critical in the recovery and reinvigorating of economic growth in the post-Covid-19 era. The most unlikely of partners could cooperate to help navigate challenges ahead. For example, pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co Inc will be helping Johnson & Johnson produce its single-shot vaccine to boost supply.

Even in the travel industry, post-pandemic we have seen how working together can be hugely beneficial for all parties. At Agoda, we continue to work closely with our sister companies, including, to deliver greater value and increased efficiencies for our partners and travellers, including experimenting with better ways to cross-sell our inventories and tech solutions.

Another example is hotels and online travel agents (OTAs) working together to come up with solutions that address customers’ needs for flexibility and assurance of hygiene. Some hotels might have previously been sceptical about the value of using OTAs, but are now collaborating to help reinvigorate the travel and tourism industry.

Of course, enhanced collaboration between private and public sectors to address short- and long-term challenges will be key in building resilience and bolstering economic recovery. That could be governments reviewing stimulus measures and policies to protect public welfare, jobs and businesses, and the private sector providing technology and industry expertise that will help respond to the current landscape.

Governments recently tapped OTAs for their cutting-edge technologies and marketing solutions to boost domestic tourism, such as providing their platform for travellers taking part in the tourism subsidy campaigns — for example, Together Thailand and Go To Travel Japan — as well as automating the booking process for guests to search for and book quarantine hotels in markets such as Hong Kong and Thailand.

As with past crises, things will not remain as they are. It is important that business leaders also set their sights on the long game while maintaining agility to respond to shorter-term needs when necessary — develop talent, relationships, solutions and opportunities that navigate the company closer to its long-term goals.

Damien Pfirsch is chief commercial officer of Agoda, a digital travel platform headquartered in Singapore

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