Pandemic trauma in the travel industry

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 18th of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: COVID-19 and travel.

Last year, the travel industry made up 10 percent of global GDP—making it a $9 trillion industry. And analysts predicted it would just keep growing. But that was before COVID-19 lockdowns and closed borders.

EICHER: The United Nations estimates that so far the world’s tourism industry has lost more than a trillion dollars. If travelers remain grounded for another six months—that number could triple.

WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke to some of the people affected by the decline and brings us this report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Polly’s Pancake Parlor has been serving up stacks of buttermilk, buckwheat, and gingerbread pancakes, for more than eight decades. 

COTE: The restaurant was actually started by my grandmother Polly in 1938. And my grandfather, Wilfred Sugar Bill Dexter.

Kathie Cote and her husband, Dennis, are now the third generation to run the restaurant. It’s become a staple in Sugar Hills, New Hampshire—a small town nestled in the White Mountains. 

Cote’s restaurant counts on tourists coming to visit those mountains. 

COTE: About 80 percent relies on especially the summer tourist business. 

Cote says compared to other businesses, she feels fortunate. Sugar Hill is still attracting people from New York City and Boston. 

COTE: It’s probably around 70 percent compared to last year’s numbers, which I think is pretty darn good during a pandemic. 

But it still dealt a blow to her profit. 

Cote also removed a third of the tables in her restaurant to spread the rest farther apart. But to keep up with new cleaning regulations, she’s kept the same number of staff. 

COTE: It’s taken us more work to serve less people. Definitely.

All of these changes have Kathie Cote rethinking the future of Polly’s Pancake Parlor. 

COTE: Before COVID we sort of had this view that the kids would take over and run it and everything would be great going on for the fourth generation. But COVID has thrown a new twist at us that nobody saw coming. We’re discussing our alternatives. 

Kathie Cote isn’t alone in her uncertainty about what the future holds for businesses that rely heavily on tourism. 

In 2020, airlines expect to bring in just half of the revenue they made last year. The hotel and resort sector has lost nearly 5 million jobs. And home-rental company Airbnb cut a quarter of its employees. 

One survey found nearly half of Americans cancelled their summer trips. Those cancellations reverberated around the world. 

Judith Middlemiss is a sheep farmer in rural North Yorkshire, England. To help pay off her land, she rents out three Airbnb units. 

When March lockdowns hit, international and domestic tourists canceled, and her income vanished.

MIDDLEMISS: I had forward bookings of 20,000 pounds, and they just disappeared. 

The British government offered three months of mortgage “holiday.” Middlemiss says that helped. Now British city-dwellers are flocking to her rentals. 

MIDDLEMISS: But from the Fourth of July, yes, I’ve been just about full.

Further north in Edinburgh, Scotland, Valentino Volante operated four Airbnb rentals. His renters mostly came from the United States, Spain, and Asian countries. Closed borders meant no bookings. 

VOLANTE: So yeah, that was like my three sort of in markets sort of wiped out fairly quickly.

Volante had to let three of his properties go. 

To avoid becoming COVID-19 casualties, some tourism businesses are adapting.  

Whitney Holcomb directs operations at Hess Travel in Bountiful, Utah. The company mostly books corporate business trips. 

Analysts predict spending on business travel will drop by more than $800 billion this year. Holcomb has witnessed that cliff-dive. 

HOLCOMB: We’re doing roughly 10 percent of what we did last August. 

Holcomb anticipates business travel will continue in the future, but safety will be more important than anything. So her company is beefing up security-related services.

HOLCOMB: If I’m in a situation, and I’m traveling, I can tap on the red button on my phone and let someone know if I’m safe and vetting airlines and hotels as to whether they’re meeting a standard of cleanliness. We’re really we’re recognizing booking travel is such a small piece of what we can do for our clients…

Other businesses are taking a new approach to marketing.

Stanley Roach rents out three apartment units in Boise, Idaho. In the past, his guests have typically rented for a weekend or a short vacation. 

Now, he’s looking to appeal to the new remote employee who wants to get away but still work.

ROACH: If you have somebody here working full time remotely, you know, they have to have good high speed, reliable internet and Wi Fi. So we have a fiber optic feed. Depending on the situation there needs to be a couple of workspaces in the unit. They can go to places and they can work.

Erin Francis-Cummings is the CEO of Destination Analysts. She says to attract more customers moving forward, tourism businesses will need to emphasize cleanliness. 

CUMMINGS: I think that consumers demand for cleanliness, and the personal health safety protocols, that’s going to be sustained into the future.

And Cummings is hopeful about the future. As devastating as this year has been for tourism, she says people still want to travel. Businesses just have to find new ways to help them do it. 

CUMMINGS: Americans really see it as a wellness activity and something important to their emotional well being. And I feel like they’ve come to feel like it’s a large part of their identity. I think that they’ll return to it when they can.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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