Preparing for a post-Coronavirus future

Greg Klassen of Twenty31 Consulting.

VANCOUVER — One hundred per cent of the small companies in the business of tourism have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and it’s hard to try to shift priorities, said Greg Klassen, principal, Twenty31 Consulting, a tourism expert with more than 25 years of experience.

Klassen said the Canadian tourism industry is in Phase One: Peak COVID-19, which is the first stage of a three-phase process. We will soon have to rethink what our tourism industry will look like in Phase Two: Immediate Recovery and Phase Three: Longer-Term Recovery.

The problem is that we don’t know the end date for the Peak COVID-19 phase. “We have choices to make to plan for the future and the best way Canada can survive given numerous variables. Multiple doors might be open, and it’s important to develop contingency and recovery plans. DMOs and associations need to know how to get their message out as employees are let go.

“We need to look at which tourism assets we will have during the recovery; which hotels won’t make it and which other services won’t survive.”

During the other two phases, Immediate Recovery, and Longer-Term recovery, “We need to create a sense of the new normal and how to navigate it,” Klassen said. “We should look at our destinations as being in startup mode; we should be rethinking and reimagining our destinations as startups.”

SARS came and went and was devastating, but we learned from SARS, Klassen said. “We’re not sitting and fretting, but planning for future recovery, because recovery will happen, but not on our terms.”

During the second phase, Immediate Recovery, it’s important to start working on which assets and which channels will still be there; and which travellers will be the first to put their feet in the water.

“We are fortunate in Canada right now because we have a fairly large domestic market. If there are people who are not laid off, and haven’t been hit as hard, those people will be wanting a weekend getaway from Vancouver to Whistler or the Okanagan; from Toronto to Muskoka. Who will travel first and what tourism assets do we have?” Some of these assets may be hanging on by a thread, and we might be able to help them survive, he added.

During the second phase, we should be creating campaigns and getting people to travel. One survey shows that 42 per cent of people today are dreaming of their next trip, or going to restaurants and pubs again. These intrepid travellers will start the recovery of the industry globally.

In the third phase, Longer-Term Recovery, we should be revisioning our destination. Which international tour operators will still be operating? Which international airlines will still be flying?

“It’s a global problem and these organizations are global organizations. They will be looking for markets that can provide the highest margins and highest yields. How can we ensure that ours is one of the first markets [to recover]? We can give them incentives to come here, or we can meet the demand for wide-open spaces and fresh air. Research will help us determine [what will work best].”

Canada is fortunate not only because we have a large, domestic market, but because we are not reliant on air carriers, as some Caribbean islands are, for example. Cheap and cheerful tour operators that offer low-margin tours to countries such as Cuba and Jamaica, may have to rethink their strategies.

And while cruise lines have taken a big hit, Klassen is more concerned about the small and medium-sized businesses that service those cruise ships in places like Vancouver, Victoria, Quebec City, Halifax and P.E.I.

“Governments and associations have done a really good job, with almost daily briefings,” Klassen noted. “At the Hotel Association of Canada Conference, held just a month ago, the two most pressing issues were Airbnb and the challenge of getting labour. My gosh, how fast that can change! Airbnb and labour pale against the huge and existential priorities we currently have to deal with.

“We must continue to supply information and lobby governments, support labour and support small and medium-sized enterprises. Nobody has a blueprint for this. We’re just hoping and helping our [tourism industry] members stay alive.”