An Anniversary We Didn’t Want
A personal reflection on the 1-year anniversary of Destination Analysts’ Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index, by Erin Francis-Cummings, President & CEO.
Note: Views expressed here belong to Erin Francis-Cummings and do not necessarily represent those of other Destination Analysts staff or the company itself.
It is Sunday, March 7th, 2021 and I just completed analyzing and summarizing what and how Americans are thinking, feeling and behaving in the midst of a global pandemic, for the 52nd consecutive week. For an entire year, our team of nine tourism researchers has implemented our system—like clockwork now—to execute the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index, and ensure its delivery to inboxes by Monday at 8:00am EST. Each of us are individually contributing as our proud part in providing insights that we hope shine the light needed to recover and grow our beloved travel industry.
There is certainly some profound happiness in this moment. It’s another week of pandemic-era records in positive travel sentiment. As of today, 17.3% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. I traveled recently, and the excitement and pure joy people felt to be out traveling with their families again was utterly palpable. It makes it feel like we can finally—and for real this time—start to exhale. And WOW! do we all deserve it.
But our particular market research firm is not in business to sell you perpetual optimism; we are here to provide you truth. And the truth is that our customers are altered—changed in ways that social researchers like me are only at the very beginnings of understanding, because people likely are not conscious yet of these things themselves. Whether we want to address them or not (and let me be clear, I don’t want anything other than positivity for the travel industry—we are also not in the Chicken-Little business), there are potentially large threats looming. One of these that I’ve been thinking a lot about is business travel change. There are many, many professionals who have done their jobs, impressed their clients, and sold big contracts without having to meet face-to-face over the last year—I doubt that the executives of their companies haven’t taken notice of such productivity and revenue minus the travel cost. I have heard several of the pre-pandemic road warriors admit in secret that they really don’t want to return to the level of travel they were doing—my inspiration for directly asking business travelers this question this week. While I hope the tide changes as business travel more ubiquitously resumes and know no technology even comes close to replacing in-person communication—in fact, people likely revere it more than ever—many local economies may have to adjust to this more sustained loss of business travel. One of the other potential threats I am thinking a lot about is the rapid digitization of experiences that the pandemic situation brought to fruition. I just spoke with a reporter last week about the substitutive effect of virtual travel. While I have always believed—and still do—that virtual travel experiences can cultivate some profound inspiration and desire for the real thing (especially for anxious travelers that need more assurances), I also can’t ignore the sense that some tourism attractions and destinations are now going to have to work harder to convey that their authentic experience is worth being in-person for. I hope you will join me in thinking about these and other ways change has changed us, and Destination Analysts will keep studying them.
Like I imagine many of you have also, I’ve been reflecting. Laughing at my naivete (telling my kids “it’s just staying home for 2 weeks!” , the February 2020 conferences in which we discussed if visitation from China would rebound in Spring or Summer), and being extraordinarily thankful (and also laughing) that what has ultimately transpired was not as bad as my middle of the night panicking about global apocalypse à la the show, Tribes of Europa. Like all of us, I spent hundreds of hours wreaked with anxiety. It is absolutely painful how many lives have been lost to this virus. Meanwhile, it felt like this industry we love—an industry that powerfully moves human connection and understanding forward—seemed to be violently crashing down. Then restarting. Then crashing down again (and then the whole sequence again). But the September 11th terrorist attack was early in my tourism career and thus I am fortunate to have learned that our travel industry comes together in magnificent ways under crisis—and that coming together is what guides us out of crisis. Destination Analysts’ founder, Dave Bratton and I both share the altruism that is so present in our industry. The decision to create and continue producing and publishing the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index just felt like us doing what we were supposed to do.
Finally, it is especially satisfying to see the broad recognition of how critical reliable tourism research and data are to the health of the travel industry. There is a silver lining for us market researchers that the world appears to have learned that sentiment—studied broadly and deeply—is an important measurement indeed.
While today’s milestone is not one we set out to achieve, we nevertheless celebrate the community it has fostered. Thank you to those of you who have been along with us on this journey—we are grateful for all your kind words, your questions, your topic suggestions and your sharing of these findings with others that can benefit from our research. We are especially indebted to those of you who have subscribed and donated to keep this study going for far longer than we anticipated. Please continue joining us on our Tuesday webinar presentations of the latest travel trends, asking your questions, submitting your topic needs for our research to address.
I hope to meet or see you in the not-so-distant future.