Comment: Travel’s Covid response showed lack of broader business acumen

Industry wasn’t seeing itself in the bigger picture, says Digital Drums chief executive Steve Dunne

As restrictions lift and the nightmare fog of the past 20 months for the travel sector clears, allowing the industry to rebuild itself, I find myself asking the question: is there enough diversity in the travel sector?

Now, before I go any further, let me explain what I mean by diversity. In this instance, I don’t mean LGBTQ, or women in travel movements, or indeed any of the usual areas for diversity and inclusion debates. In those areas, I think the sector is pioneering compared with other industries I work in.

In this instance, when I talk about diversity, I mean in experience of life outside the travel sector.

I have never seen statistics about the diversity of work experience of travel industry personnel. However, it might not be a risky bet to assume that a significant percentage of senior travel industry people have mainly worked in the field of travel and tourism throughout all or most of their careers.

So, in terms of wider business experience, the industry may not be as diverse as others are.

Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Specialising in an area means you get a deep and thorough expertise in it. You build a great network of contacts and understand the mechanics of how it all works.

But specialising in just one sector can limit one’s broader knowledge of other strategies, and sometimes one’s sense of context too.

Unrealistic expectations

There is no doubt the travel industry suffered more than any other sector during the pandemic. That is not up for question. But what is open to debate is the sector’s response. To me, it was often bewildering, sometimes unrealistic and occasionally frustratingly ineffective.

Now before everyone goes off the deep end about this, let me say that I am aware I sit in the stands watching the travel game as opposed to playing on the pitch of travel itself. But, in a way, that’s my point. I have a different perspective and see the game differently.

I could understand why many tactics of the sector were implemented at the time; I appreciated why certain calls on the public were made too. But being in the stands I could also see that they would fall on deaf ears or, worse, encourage a backlash.

Industry-managed social media campaigns were never going to change government policy. Calls by airlines for cabin crew to be priority for the vaccine jab, and demands that travel agency staff should be categorised as frontline workers, were never going to play well with the general public. Asking consumers to buy a holiday to help out the trade had a certain noble rationale to it, but it was little surprise to see it greeted with indifference by a public who had lost loved ones and jobs to the virus.

Mixed messaging

On top of that, the establishment of lots of different travel industry alliances and action groups, all appealing to government but often with slightly different messages, belied the commonly touted myth about travel being one big happy family.

And for an industry so in need of getting its message across to the powers that be, it was bewildering to see travel companies and trade bodies parking their communications experts.

Those that didn’t – and there were a couple of notable tour operators and trade bodies that resisted doing so – were able to gain valuable air time and column inches. But sadly, they were in the minority.

The common thread across all these instances seemed clear to see. The industry wasn’t seeing itself in the bigger picture. It assumed its messages and actions were bigger and more powerful than perhaps they really were to the broader world. It’s a mistake easily made by an industry that might not have as much business experience diversity at the top as other sectors have.

So, as the travel industry starts its quest to build back better, I would urge it to embrace more diversity – be it colour, creed, culture, gender, sexual preference and, for me, just as importantly, broader business experience.

If the industry does that, all the lessons learnt during the pandemic may not have been in vain.

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