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Coronavirus and Travel – Business But Not As Usual

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Those of you following along with our ULU blogs will know that on Mondays, PR whizz Anthony Peacock will give us his take on current life and affairs. And as the world has been consumed with coronavirus content for the past few months, Anthony has been writing some insightful content about this unprecedented modern event. So, sit back with a coffee and read what Anthony has to say about coronavirus, travel and business – but not as usual.

 

Business but not as usual

I’ve been travelling in Europe this week – specifically Germany and Austria – and it looks like, for all intents and purposes, the coronavirus pandemic is over by popular decree. For libertarians, this will be a reason to rejoice. For other more worried people, aware of the World Health Organisation’s recent warning that the worst is yet to come, it’s a cause for despair.

Wear a mask on the street in Austria, and most people look at you like you’ve crash-landed from Mars (although you see a few more in Germany). Social distancing has been more or less forgotten. Bars and restaurants are open for business as usual, and nobody’s talking about Covid. In fact, most places are packed.

But right from the start, it’s been very clear that coronavirus means different things in different places. Countries are going through and emerging from outbreaks at different rates, with the UK being somewhat behind the rest of Europe. As for the likelihood or not of a second wave, who knows? But it’s very clear that in many places there’s been a lot of lockdown fatigue. And in northern mainland Europe, the distinct feeling is that nobody cares too much if there’s a second wave of Covid-19 (or a first wave of Covid-20) for now. That’s a problem for tomorrow.

The economic damage can’t be ignored though, and for every packed restaurant, bar, or shop – wherever you are in the world – there’s another somewhere else that’s not opened as it’s gone out of business. And even those outlets that have emerged have needed to adapt by making big changes.

Ultimately, these effects are going to be felt by all of us – even in the most unlikely places. Motorbike fans, for example, will find that Harley-Davidson has cut their available product range, while if you fly anywhere, you’ll be lucky to get a sandwich or indeed any type of service with a smile.

 

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A while ago, I wrote about freedom of choice in the consumer world and how it would often feel overwhelming. Now we have the opposite problem, with coronavirus meaning that reductions in choice might become permanent. And companies also have the perfect excuse to make cutbacks, along with a convenient scapegoat for any shortcomings in the service they offer. In short, the customer is no longer king.

Even giants such as Coca-Cola and Heinz say that they are trimming less profitable products from their ranges these days. That goes against the grain of the increasing diversification that we’ve seen for many years beforehand. Take the humble can of Campbells soup. Since 1984, the varieties of soup available have quadrupled to about 400 now. Cutting down on the choices available definitely marks a big shift in commercial direction.

The spate of panic buying early in the pandemic not only forced manufacturers to concentrate on their most profitable ranges (also because of the difficulties that their suppliers faced) but got consumers used to having less choice too.

And as any marketeer will tell you, influencing consumer behaviour and attitudes is always the biggest challenge. When you have a pandemic to do that for you, it makes life a lot easier. If you’re clever, you can even use that to your advantage. So if you’ve survived this far, you have a good opportunity to make money in the future.

Restaurants are trimming menus, from the top Michelin-starred establishments to McDonalds franchises. What’s interesting is that many of them are planning to make some of these changes permanent, in the same way that the landscape of office working will probably be altered for good.

As one restaurant owner in London put it: “The limited menu has actually made for smoother service and helped us boost sales revenue. Basically, it eliminates the need to be all things to all people.”

 

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The automotive industry has also taken on a dramatic new focus. Items such as hand-stitched leather steering wheels, for example – a well-known feature of top-end cars – are in shorter supply as factories distance workers. So this means that manufacturers will allocate scarcer parts to models that they believe will sell more quickly. A car dealer I know recently commented: “When people come in, it’s now going to be a question of ‘this is what we’ve got – do you want it or not?’”

A return to 1970s-style service, in other words. Manufacturers (of everything from cars to soup) are basically more concerned with supply now than consumer convenience – while customers are eager to get in and get out quickly rather than browse and choose carefully. With less money and time to go round, people aren’t keen to try new things yet: especially if those things are expensive.

That’s certainly the case in the United Kingdom and the United States. But there are also ways to turn the situation to your advantage, judging from the experiences of our friends in Europe.

A bar and café owner in Germany said: “We’re selling fewer things, but because of that, people are starting to buy more of them and they follow our suggestions more than before, so we end up selling everything that we have. Business isn’t as good as before yet, but it will be soon. It just looks a bit different, that’s all.”

For retailers, it’s going to be the usual tricky compromise between signalling that you’re open but conditioning people that the business won’t be the same.

From recent experience in Europe, it seems that consumer confidence is definitely returning. If you’re a business owner and survived this far, you’ll probably be OK. As long as the coronavirus doesn’t come back…

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