This series is focusing on how the industry might emerge from the disastrous set of circumstances that the travel, tourism and hospitality sector finds itself in.
We continue with the next theory…
Scenario 3: Big is beautiful in the new travel order
This scenario sketches a fundamentally different outcome to the previous scenarios: the virus will prove to be more resilient than expected and the discovery and mass production of an effective vaccine will only become a reality in 2023.
Containment measures, including lockdowns and border closures, will be switched on and off during three years and overwhelmed healthcare systems all over the world will fall into a constant breaking point.
The virus brings the world economy to its knees
This asynchronous cycle of lockdowns across all regions will have devastating ripple effects on the world economy.
The desperate fiscal and monetary policy measures taken by governments and world agencies to try to absorb the shock will prove insufficient to break the downward spiral.
Supply chains across the world will not keep up with the on-and-off nature of the lockdowns, consumer confidence will fall off a cliff and monstrous jobless numbers will reach 1920s Depression-era levels.
Self-reinforcing recession dynamics will kick in, triggering widespread bankruptcies and credit defaults, and humanity will remain in a heightened state of anxiety between 2020 and 2023.
The travel industry’s odyssey
Travel, deeply intertwined with the global economy and everything that moves this world, will be staring down the barrel of a deep recession for a long period.
With households in the middle and lower classes experiencing significant financial pain and foreign travelers being stigmatized as a sanitary threat, the industry will face a long and winding road before reaching the end of the crisis.
But, eventually, with a vaccine finally available at global scale and economies slowly getting back on their feet, the miracle will happen: human curiosity to explore the planet and connect with other cultures and people will prove to be stronger than any virus or economic downturn, and travel, like the proverbial Phoenix, rises from the ashes.
The travel industry, after an hibernation period of over two years, will look very different. The deep and dislocating shock and the path to recovery will be littered with bodies of companies that didn’t make the cut.
Companies with short cash runways, weak balance sheets or strong debt levels will struggle to stay in business with revenues down 60% to 90% over nearly 36 months. When revolving credit lines are shut down and taxpayer money from relief packages dries out, numerous travel firms will collapse or consolidate.
On the winning side, firms with deep pockets, resilient business models, superior marketing positions and strong public support, will manage to muddle through the economic meltdown and come out alive.
Who’s in, who’s out?
In accommodation, size will be a decisive factor in who survives the slump. Large hotel chains sitting on fat cash buffers and with a solid balance sheet will be in a good position to renegotiate their property lease terms with tenants and open and close properties across the world, based on the intensity of outbreaks in each region.
They will also have the capacity to leverage investments in their technology, integrating new systems such as sterilization robots and touchless devices. These global brands also have the firepower to implement and promote new hygiene protocols and certificates.
Consumers, after the long crisis, will naturally gravitate towards trusted household brands, making large hotel groups the go-to option once travelers hit the road again.
Many small- and medium-size hotel groups, after years of travel demand at minimum level, become cut-price acquisition targets for larger groups, sparking a strong consolidation process in the hospitality sector.
Numerous independent hotel properties will also decide to affiliate to larger groups, allowing them to tap into the power and reach of global brands.
Hospitality unicorns like OYO or Sonder, enjoying hordes of venture capital cash in the pre-coronavirus era, will see the ground fall out from underneath their feet. Massive losses before entering the downturn combined with inconsistent guest standards linked to their frantic growth strategy will prove too much to survive the long downturn crush.
Turbulence in the air
Literally overnight, the virus outbreak reset the clock on an aviation boom that was the engine to the increase of global tourist figures from 818 million in 2010 to 1.3 billion in 2019.
Some governments will apply the “whatever it takes” mantra, conceding from unlimited loans up to renationalization, such as for perennially unprofitable Alitalia.
In stark contrast, low-cost carriers all over the world will be mostly left to their own fate, sparking a wave of consolidation.
A few of them will emerge out of the bloodbath thanks to their strong balance sheets, less crowded skies and low dependence on business travelers.
One or two mega low-cost carriers per continent will control most of the point-to-point intraregional traffic between countries, while domestic air travel will mostly be operated by publicly owned national carriers.
Long-haul business will be concentrated into a handful global network carriers mainly from the Middle East and Asia, and the pre-crisis short-haul feeder system of international hubs based historically on airline alliances and interlining agreements will be been mostly replaced by loosely tied flight combinations connected through the NDC technology standard.
With airline traffic experiencing a five- to six-year recovery cycle from the 2019 peak, aviation in 2025 will turn out to be a veritable smorgasbord of a few mega-carriers and a handful low-cost carriers co-living with state subsidized flag carriers that mainly operate money-losing domestic routes.
OTAs go shopping
As with the rest of the industry, travel intermediaries were busy during the crisis, reducing fixed costs and offloading struggling assets.
Size, once again, will play a critical role. Asset-light online travel agencies with a global footprint, household names and a thick wad of cash will have the staying power to survive the long cash crunch and expand their footprint through bargain acquisition targets, such as regional brands and technology providers, to beef up their market dominance.
As Mauricio Prieto points out, they also were in pole position to capture the demand once travelers hit the road again: “Truly global intermediaries like Booking.com or Airbnb, which do not have a high dependency on any single geography, can quickly and opportunistically redirect business to the most promising geographies”
A driving force in the market will be large private equity companies, awash with cash and sharp deal-forging capabilities. Debt refinancing vehicles come with preferred stock clauses, allowing a selected group of private equity firms to jump into the boardrooms of the largest OTAs in the West. These new power brokers will spark a string of M&A deals in the industry, profoundly reshaping the travel distribution landscape.
Smaller intermediaries with limited refinancing capabilities cannot sit out nine to 12 months of a revenue drought. Many will stumble and fall.
A new kid in travel tech town
Amazon will come out of the crisis even stronger, thanks to the formidable capacity to flex its supply chain machinery to provide households with the most basic services during the lockdown.
After years of toying with the idea of entering travel, the retail giant will finally get serious with a string of acquisitions of struggling travel tech players, reshuffling the cards among the worldwide travel giants.
Digital gatekeepers, Google and Facebook, which commanded more than half of the $330 billion online advertising business in the pre-COVID-19 world, will see travel-related revenue fall off a cliff once lockdowns spread across the world.
eMarketer’s 2020 pre-crisis prediction of $13 billion digital media spend in the travel industry is re-forecast to less than $5 annual billion between 2020 and 2022.
As a result, Google will quickly shelve its plans to keep expanding into the travel ecosystem and refocus its engineering resources to more promising verticals, such as telemedicine and e-learning.
Google and Facebook will keep playing a dominant role in the top of the travel user funnel, but the rest of the travel tech players will gain ground in the rest of digital ecosystem.