Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some industries have thrived despite spending habits changing more than ever before. However, with lockdown rules limiting movement and travel on all scales, the travel industry has been the most negatively impacted. Even though the interest in travel was still present in the minds of consumers, severe restrictions on travel caused this shift in consumer spending. 

In combination with an often unclear timeline of when travel restrictions are going to be lifted and ever-changing additional factors, this perfect storm has presented a real challenge for travel brands to overcome. 

Adapting to change

Travel brands have had to make unprecedented changes to how they work with affiliates, and how they manage promotions within the channel. As with any unexpected crisis, brands initially responded very differently. For some, when the full impact of COVID-19 became apparent, promotion budgets were pulled, commission levels reduced and affiliate partnerships put on hold in an attempt to control the marketing budget. For others, only relatively minor changes were made, but largely the affiliate channel has been able to adapt to seismic change like COVID-19. 

The outlook for the travel industry has been somewhat of an enigma; an ever-changing and complex global machine of bureaucracy, which has forced brands now to be more in tune with their industry than ever before. The devil really is in the detail in this case, and being able to maintain a bird’s-eye view of the changes in travel restrictions is key. 

Companies have helped brands by sharing insights: Skift has collated global data into a reopening timeline to help brand plan ahead. This means that when travel brands have been planning to ramp up their promotions again, they have needed to be fluid in their approach. Campaigns now need to be adaptable and ready to go at the earliest opportunity per territory or region.  

In preparation for the ‘bounce back’, it has been vital for brands to stay engaged with affiliates and communicate any key updates such as cancellation policies, health and safety measures and upcoming new destinations or routes. This transparency with affiliates is hugely important, not only so they can best manage engagement with their own audience and manage their expected income from sales. 

Maintaining a strong partnership with affiliates is invaluable to the overall success of the affiliate channel in the future, when travel is accessible once more. In addition to this affiliates can support brands by providing insights about changing consumer behaviours, travel search aggregators have reported an increase in traffic over the pandemic indicating that although conversions are restricted, interest in travel was as strong as ever. 

Affiliate considerations

A pertinent consideration has been that the negative impacts of the pandemic is felt not only by travel brands but by affiliates themselves, and each affiliate can be affected differently. 

The need to bounce back is not just restricted to retailers: all affiliates within the travel industry are dealing with the repercussions and are actively amending their own strategies for how they can best recover from the dip in performance. Content affiliates such as travel bloggers, editorial sites and travel search aggregators have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. 

Travel brands need to work collaboratively with these affiliates to line up a promotion strategy that will be mutually beneficial for both the brand and affiliate alike. Brands can do this by sharing as much insight as possible about their plans for the upcoming months: What will be at the forefront of campaigns? What assurances are in place for consumers? By providing this information, brands will ensure a cohesive message from brand through to affiliate and then the customers. This will ultimately put the brand in the best possible position to recover.

Brands also need to support affiliates through this time. Introducing brand to brand partnerships within the channel can allow affiliates to double commissions. The affiliate account manager could partner with auxiliary products or attractions nearby, for example a train ticket provider could partner with a local tourist attraction, to help the affiliate cross-sell to their audience. This in turn will help the publisher to drive sales, both to the travel brand and an alternate programme.

Travel may be limited currently, but affiliates can still be used as a means to inform and keep consumers dreaming and planning of their next travel expenditure. 

Changing consumer priorities 

One of the biggest concerns for consumers throughout the pandemic has simply been confidence in a travel purchase. Will they be able to travel when the time comes around? Will they be able to amend their booking or receive a refund with ease? Will travelling be safe? All these aspects now play a more prominent role in the customer journey. 

Statistics are showing that when it comes to accommodation, private rentals are seeing performance uplift quicker than hotels and hostels where social distancing is, by design, more difficult to upkeep. We can already see consumer behaviour operating quite differently when looking to travel for leisure. The price point of a holiday does not hold as much sway as it previously did, bringing booking flexibility and safety more into the mix. In a recent survey conducted by Skycanner, the results outline that hygiene now outranks price and location as the top criteria for global travellers looking to book trip accommodation. 

Domestic travel is also a key focus for countries across the world as consumers consider this to be one of the safest ways to travel. Transport by car has seen an initial increase as consumers view this as the safest way to get around, for domestic travel but also for holidays within Europe with data now suggesting that consumers are willing to travel up to 200km from their homes across Europe. 

Confidence in international travel is much slower to grow, but as quarantine rules are being lifted, airlines and airports are working hard on awareness campaigns to showcase safety measures that have been introduced, and to assure customers that they can be safe traveling internationally with the correct measures.

Thriving in the new normal

As travel becomes more accessible and more people are considering traveling both domestically and internationally again, it is hugely important for travel brands to address customer concerns and do all that they can to increase consumer confidence. 

Safety, comfort and reassurance are now the three most important factors for the entire travel industry for the foreseeable future. 73% of travellers said that hygiene and sanitation practices have become more important than before COVID-19 and 61% said the same about flexible cancellation policies. Across the travel sector, we are seeing brands change up their services from offering free health insurance with every holiday booking, to travel providers introducing online tools allowing customers to check the amount of people on trains, coaches and ferries using real time data. 

This reaffirms that, as consumers are changing their buying behaviours with travel, brands need to adapt their marketing strategies and their very services. The affiliate channel ideally suited in its versatility to meet these challenges head on alongside search and social.

Those brands that proactively make these changes will be the first to attract a new breed of customer and cater to the needs of consumers in the new normal of post COVID-19 travel.