Airlines and hospitality brands are finding new ways to work as the travel sector looks to a changed future. In the search for comparisons, travel industry experts have so far come up short. This has been uncharted territory. Most analysts agree, however, that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have hit international travel harder than 9/11 and the ruinous 2008 recession put together.
The good news is that the worst seems to have passed. Domestic travel is already starting to bounce back, while search data shows that people have not lost their desire to get on a plane. Innovation and technology are helping the recovery process, which will be further boosted by worldwide clarity around post-Covid travel requirements. Not out of the woods, but certainly in a position to ask: just how bad has this been?
"It was even worse than people feared," says Máire P Walsh, SVP digital technologies with Enterprise Ireland, and one of the most knowledgeable voices in travel tech.
"What made it so bad is that everything happened all at once. Travel just shut down, almost overnight.
"On the industry side, one of the biggest issues is that sellers were hit by an immediate wave of cancellations," she says. "Pretty much anything that had been booked for April, May, early summer, was all cancelled and that had an immediate impact on cashflow. It was a lot to try and absorb all at once.
"But we're seeing signs of recovery. If we look at the data, it's clear that in every country, domestic travel will be the first to recover. We can see that happening already in the US, where close to 90pc of revenue is driven by domestic travel. We're also seeing pick-up in the rental market including the likes of Airbnb and car rental."
In a bid to kickstart the tourism sector, the EU has now launched an app and website that provide travellers with real-time information about coronavirus rules and the status of infections in each European country. Disappointingly, the UK declined to be involved in the data-sharing project.
"Internationally, there's still a lot of confusion about quarantine and that's going to push out the recovery timeline for international travel," says Walsh. "What will also take longer is the events industry. The smaller events, 50 people and fewer, is already starting to come back to life in a physical/virtual hybrid way but the bigger stuff, international conferences and exhibitions, will need more time to recover.
"The nature of travel is also going to change, we know that for certain," she adds. "To give one example, where previously we might have booked our holiday three to six months out, now we're seeing nearly all near-term bookings, zero to 14 days out."
In terms of disruption, this is the tip of the iceberg, with most experts agreeing that what 9/11 did for travel security, Covid-19 will do for health and hygiene regulation.
"Most airlines and hospitality brands are looking to innovate and there are a lot of Irish travel tech specialists creating solutions to satisfy that demand," says Walsh. "You're going to see a lot of innovation focussing on journey touchpoints aimed at making people safer and bringing back confidence."
She mentions iHotelligence, an Irish firm with a software platform that allows travellers to manage all aspects of their hotel stay, from check-in to room access to ordering food and drink, via their phone.
"There's also Mobility Mojo, whose core product is a toolkit for hotel accessibility," she says. "They now offer a hygiene rating feature for hotels, so travellers know what sort of hygiene protocols and criteria their hotel adheres to. This is the sort of information people now demand and it can help the industry to recover."
Anyone who has set foot in an airport lately will be familiar with that new staple of the travel experience - getting temperature-checked before being allowed to board. Here, Ventilux has developed a mass-screening intelligent body temperature detection system using AI-powered sensor technology.
In a similar space, Daon is working with Denver International Airport to provide contactless and biometric solutions that enhance traveller safety (and confidence) and streamline airport operations. There will be a focus on biometrics to reduce physical contact throughout the journey, give travellers an opportunity to assert their health status, and provide touchless retail at airport stores and restaurants.
To monitor people's movement as they travel, Taoglas Crowd Insights is a new analytics platform that gives hotels, airports and other venues real-time information about crowd sizes and social distancing.
"Another piece of Irish innovation is from HaloSOS, which started as a live reporting mechanism for major events but which can now be deployed to inform staff if they have been in contact with a Covid-infected colleague," says Walsh.
On the customer service front, Ryanair, Europe's largest airline, has deployed Cation Consulting's leading 'conversational AI' platform Parly to automatically handle thousands of customer enquiries every day, and provide meaningful, instant responses to those enquiries before they reach any contact centre. They handle all messaging channels including web, email and social, in multiple languages as well as IVR/phone and smart speakers Alexa and Google.
Finally, with a surge in data attacks targeting loyalty programmes, Irish fraud specialist UrbanFox is helping travel brands to identify weaknesses in their information management and safeguard their data.
"Companies are looking to do things better and create a more compelling travel journey," says Walsh. "Well, the whiteboard is now clean and there's an opportunity to do that. Crisis creates innovation and we're definitely seeing green shoots starting to reappear."
Sunday Indo Business