2020 has been a difficult year not only for European travel startups but for the global travel industry in general. At the start of the pandemic, TravelPerk saw business travel bookings made on our platform fall by more than 90% in some countries, and 53% overall.
But with several vaccines nearing mass rollouts, the light is visible at the end of the tunnel. I believe we’re heading towards a sunnier 2021, but in the meantime, we should reflect on what travel startups in Europe can learn from this unprecedented year to equip them for the future.
Lesson #1: Stay nimble and react to new traveller needs
For those of us who are old enough to have been adults on 9/11, you’ll remember that the past twenty years have had their share of black-swan events, from SARS, H1N1, and Ebola outbreaks, to 2008’s financial crash. What each of these events – each tragedy in their own right – had in common wasn’t just that they were unforeseen body blows to the travel industry, but that in each case the industry bounced back stronger than ever.
One of the important ingredients in that resilience has been to travel startups’ ability to react quickly. The brands that successfully navigated repeat crises were the ones that quickly pivoted towards developing new functionality, technology, products and services designed to keep travellers feeling safe, confident and supported amid fast-changing circumstances,
rules and guidelines.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen this play out again: for example, at TravelPerk, we’ve invested in products designed for this ‘new normal’ such as TravelSafe and FlexiPerk. Founders would do well to remember this as we head towards 2021 and beyond.
Lesson #2: Focus on the forest, not the trees
Travel startup founders should also realise that while COVID-19 forced changes in our behaviour, human nature remains the same. Humans are naturally social beings, which is why isolation and loneliness have been difficult for so many throughout this pandemic.
So while reports on the ‘death of the city’ speculate about the permanence of remote working and virtual meetings, these reports miss the big mismatch between our innate social appetite and technology’s ability to satisfy it. Put simply, Zoom meetings don’t function psychologically as true social interactions. As a result, we find them exhausting (so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’), they don’t build interpersonal bonds and rapport (so we have to rely on trust build-up in previous face-to-face meetings), and they fall short when it comes to complex tasks (being suited instead to transactional interactions).
This means that we’ll continue to rely on face-to-face meetings and that video calls are a temporary blip – not a long-term change. Once the health risks are reduced, people will go back to physically interacting with each other. This points to a wider lesson for founders: always keep one eye on the wider view, no matter how bad it might seem up close and in the moment. Remember the fundamentals.
Lesson #3: Be ready, because the tough times won’t last forever
Which takes us to our third lesson: the tough times won’t last forever and the end is in sight. As millions begin to get vaccinated during the first half of 2021, one of the biggest transformations will be the shift from not just the physical limitations of lockdown, but the mental prison of fear and stress that society has been living with.
Millions of people around the world are going to want to make up for everything they couldn’t do in 2020 by seeing everything, and everyone. It’ll be a global celebration of enjoyment on a scale we haven’t seen in generations.
And travel is going to be at the centre of that, so my message to startup founders is: be ready. Whether it’s businesses reconnecting with their clients, prospects and colleagues – or families going on the first holiday abroad and catching up with friends living across the globe there’s a big pent up appetite for travel which will need satiating in 2021.
Towards a sunnier 2021
At the time of writing, the first COVID-19 vaccine is being administered in UK hospitals and others are set to follow. There are compelling reasons why travel startups should remain optimistic about the next year.
COVID-19 was not, and will likely not be, the last black-swan event to hit the industry. That’s why the lessons we can take from it – about the industry’s ingenuity, about the fundamental need to socialise with other humans, and about being ready for the better times – are worth heeding. If we do learn those lessons, there should be every reason to be optimistic about what 2021 will hold for European travel startups.