Storyboard | Sustainable and alternative travel get a pandemic boost

Booking.com’s APAC managing director Laura Houldsworth says while earlier people had the ambition or the intent to travel sustainably, now they're seeing that intent converting into action

Updated: Oct 5, 2021 06:45:57 PM UTC
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With the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and easing of restrictions, travel plans for many people around the world are back on track. In an exclusive interview with Storyboard, Laura Houldsworth, managing director & vice president, Asia Pacific at Booking.com, tells us about the current travel sentiment in APAC and India, changes in customer expectations, and the implications of pandemic-induced trends like ‘revenge travel’ converging with the festive and holiday season. Edited excerpts:

I'd like to start with a personal question. When was your first post-pandemic trip and, as a traveller, do you find yourself behaving differently now? 

It's an interesting question because I'm actually on my first trip right now. I took the opportunity as soon as the borders started to relax. I am normally based in Singapore and I took the opportunity to go back home to the UK, to spend time with family who I had not seen in a couple of years. But while I was in Europe, I also visited our head office in Amsterdam. I’m taking advantage of Singapore’s vaccinated travel-lane.

I think I'm probably representative of a lot of people who are just finding their way back. I used to be on a flight several times a month and that just became the norm. I think now, even just preparing for a flight is very different; preparing for a trip to go to a place that is so familiar to me feels so foreign.

Definitely, the safety aspect is top of mind—making sure that I've got the right protocols in place for myself and then thinking about where to stay. Even as I was looking for accommodation beyond staying with family, I was looking for alternative accommodation, which is a trend we're seeing.

Tell us about some of the big trends that you're seeing in the way people travel. Trends that are shaping the industry and defining how you shape your offerings for your customers going forward.

Number one is safe travel. The desire to have additional safety protocols as it may determine where somebody wants to go or what type of accommodations they take.

We're also seeing an increase in alternative accommodations. We're seeing travellers go for workations, staycations, and road trips. Normally, they would want to go further afield, now maybe they want to stay closer to home or take their car where they feel that they've got control over their environment.

As we look to the future, we see sustainability being a crucial part of the travellers’ mindset. In our sustainable report earlier this year, we could see that 94 percent of Indian travellers, for example, say that it is vital for them to consider a sustainable future in the types of accommodation they're staying in and the environments and places that they go. That has definitely been a trend that has come out of the pandemic. While we've seen previously, people have the ambition or the intent to travel sustainably, now we're seeing it it starting to be put into practice.

The final one that is coming out is ‘technology as an enabler’. We have started to make the search more user friendly so people can search for specific things like Wi-Fi as well as obviously the safety aspect. We're able to use the technology to also subsidise long-stays, for example, as travellers are looking for that. We're seeing the desire for that quick response, and prioritise responses where people can communicate back with the platform through chatbots and virtual assistants. It's great to see that with those trends and the desire for travel, we're seeing the intent convert into actual bookings.

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Laura Houldsworth, managing director & vice president, Asia Pacific at Booking.com

What are you witnessing in terms of demand as pandemic-induced trends like revenge-travel converge with the festive and holiday season?

It very much varies by country and quarantine restrictions. But overall, there is this demand to get back together with loved ones, to travel with friends and to have those experiences. We are seeing a significant increase in demand and booking intent is actually converting. But travellers need the flexibility, they need to make sure that they can cancel. So they're looking to us for a one-day cancellation period and they're looking for us to enable them to rebook. Those are things that are now unfortunately inherent in people.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen demand and searches by Indian travellers for France, Maldives, and the UK, for the festive period. Those are the top three searches. And then domestically, we're also seeing Mumbai, New Delhi and Bengaluru as key destinations for the upcoming period. It's heartwarming to see this demand is there, and we're able to support the festive season as people want to get back to being with their loved ones and have experiences.

Are solo and family leisure travel searches up? And how is the business travel segment faring?

We're definitely seeing family searches. We’re upgrading our front-end to enable those searches to make it much easier for people looking to travel with families and children. Solo travel and also adventure travel are up. We are seeing business travel start to come back slowly. It will recover a lot slower than leisure travel. We've seen the demand for leisure come a lot quicker because people can take responsibility for themselves. Businesses will take a bit longer to take on that responsibility of safety.

The company recently launched the Explorers campaign. Tell us about it and how you are addressing key concerns in your marketing communications?

I think this is so crucial because while we understand that there is a demand to travel according to our searches and the intent to book, we also want to be cognisant of the fact that people need to feel safe to do so. It needs to be at the right time, within the right guidelines. And so we are very much supporting this with our messaging system. When you feel safe to travel, we are here and we will provide you the capabilities to find what you need.

The Explorers campaign is something super exciting. We are seeing it across Asia Pacific and it's really an opportunity for us to speak to some key influencers in countries and what they're doing in their own backyard to maximise domestic travel. We're looking to inspire all travellers out there that want to get back and get those experiences. So our messaging is all about inspiration, but make sure people feel safe to do so. There's a fine balance right now and it is a challenging time. But we are delighted to see people want to get back out, as we all do.

The author is Editor of Storyboard, Network18's flagship platform focussed on the advertising & marketing community and a leading source of news and analyses on the business of brands.

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