We haven't been here before

By Kevin May, PhocusWire

Slowly, finally, the enormity of it all has started sinking in for many people. For too long, the COVID-19 coronavirus was that alarming but fairly distant and deadly health outbreak in a region of China that many hadn't even heard of before January this year. This is fairly typical of the Western world and large swathes of the travel industry, it is disappointing to say.

Similar to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which paralyzed air traffic in northern Europe and curtailed many transatlantic routes for a few weeks, it was a problem that existed in another corner of the world.

For an industry - the world's biggest, lest we forget - that prides itself on connecting people to new experiences or business opportunities elsewhere on the planet, we can often be fairly forgetful or dismissive about how interlinked both the sector and the people it serves actually are.

In the eventual analyses that will chart how the coronavirus crisis unfolded in 2020, travel's "eureka moment" came not when the U.S. started getting hit with infections (although it clearly triggered an uptick in interest form the mainstream media) or when airlines started pulling flights off the schedules late last week and over the weekend.

It happened when ITB Berlin was cancelled on Friday, February 28 - just a few days before the world's biggest travel trade show was due to begin.

This was the moment that signaled to many that this most resilient of industries was in for a very bumpy ride over the coming months.

The impact of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001, as we know, had a huge impact on air travel operations for a few weeks after, and confidence in the market took some time to return. But return it did, not least because brands were able to model their strategies based on monitoring the gradual return of people to the skies and desire to travel once more.

The global financial crisis that came later in the same decade had a massive impact on the industry - but economic cycles, as damaging as they are to millions of people and the brands that want to transport them or host them in destinations, always have an end-game, mainly because financial analysts are able to predict when credit and confidence (that word again) starts returning to the markets.

The Berlin-located ITB event is not only the meeting point for tens of thousands of industry people each year - it is the place where serious business gets done, strategies are formed and new partnerships are created.

Sure, countless brands will have figured out a way to get around some of the practical issues, but the optics of having to cancel such a landmark event were huge.

It illustrated the vulnerability the industry is now in from something that for millions is still hard to decipher (unless you are already in self-isolation or, worse, quarantined after having contracted the virus).

Previous health emergencies (SARS, H1N1 et al) obviously had a profound impact on the lives of many and hit the industry in different ways but they did not have such a wide-ranging effect so quickly and so deeply.

It's that uncertainty, especially with very little scientific or experience-based analysis of an end-game in sight, which is now the cause for such alarm.

The industry doesn't need heroes right now, especially from an entity such as the press or governments.

It needs smart thinking, collective responsibility and action from brands, an ability to be realistic about how to dig itself out the various holes it will inevitably find itself in and, most importantly, realizing that we can understand and learn from others that perhaps we have ignored previously.

All PhocusWire is committed to doing is bringing you the information that you need right now (via our live blog, for example, or news coverage) and how to arm yourself with the right knowledge for the future, whether that's from our own content or the clever analysts that we have at Phocuswright, many of whom have lived through other needle-shifting events before.