Until 2020 there had never been an entire year in the history of travel, tourism and hospitality that had been dominated by a single issue.
As the saying goes, coronavirus has been the only story in town since the turn of the year.
Killing over 1.6 million people, hospitalizing millions more, impacting every country on the planet and bringing the industry (and many other sectors) to its knees - the human and business cost has been profound.
It will, of course, be a year to forget - but with the arrival of a vaccine unlikely to trigger an immediate return to mass movement and gatherings of people, coronavirus will dominate the headlines for some time to come.
The first phase of the outbreak was mostly about the operational aspects of closing hotels, shutting down large swaths of aviation and destinations gearing up for months without visitors.
Just as there were glimmers of hope for a
recovery in the sector in June to August, with some people resuming travel, in
the final months of the year coronavirus came back into focus once more
as infections climbed once more and countries imposed new lockdown
restrictions. It is unclear how or whether that earlier resumption of travel
may have impacted that wider trigger of the virus.
As we look forward - desperately - to 2021, PhocusWire's annual list of newsmakers (here are our 2019 and 2018 lists) is here to highlight the brands, sectors and issues that have found themselves at the sharp end of the news cycle during the year.
In reverse order...
Fourth place - Diversity and inclusion
Not only did 2020 expose how wildly ill-equipped society was to manage a global health crisis, but it also revealed how unprepared – or unwilling – society has been to confront a crisis of a different sort.
The murder of George Floyd in May incited rage, grief and action on an unprecedented scale. The movement around Black Lives Matter – which existed prior to this and other tragic events – forced individuals and businesses to confront issues of racial injustice and socioeconomic inequality.
In the travel industry, many companies posted a black square on social media as a sign of solidarity with the worldwide activism that was unfolding this summer.
But that was viewed as mostly an empty gesture.
Travel, as we know, is about connecting the world and experiencing different people, places and cultures. However, that diversity of people and perspective is greatly lacking within the travel companies themselves.
This has been a long-standing industry problem, but what’s different in 2020 is that more people – including employees, executives and travelers - are speaking out about it and demanding change.
The recruitment and hiring process at travel companies is only one area that (critically) needs addressed: Additionally, travel brands need to evaluate if their organizations are equipped to nurture and foster an inclusive culture as well as how their products, marketing and events reflect the customers they ultimately serve.
Travel companies also need to consider how the pandemic is affecting diversity and inclusion efforts as well as COVID-19’s devastating impact on women - in particular, mothers, senior-level women and Black women, who are facing the most distinct challenges.
It’s too soon to tell how, if and when all this talk and heightened awareness will turn into measurable action and sustainable change. The travel industry has a long way to go, but it’s closer to getting there than ever before.
Third place - Google
"Google?! Again! Show some imagination, will ya?"
Google may have lost billions in revenue from the travel industry during the COVID-19 pandemic (there are unlikely to be many tears from brands about that specific outcome of this coronavirus-hit year) but it's the search giant's very existence that has kept it in the headlines during 2020.
In any other year, Google would have inevitably been talked about continuously for launching product X or Y, in yet another chapter in its quest to influence consumers and how they search and book travel products.
In that respect, Google was relatively quiet this year – but not
Google's "pay-per-stay" program for hotels was expanded in June, illustrating that it is continually refining some of the mechanics behind how it operates on the distribution side of the industry.
But the decision by U.S. lawmakers to (finally, some might say) file an antitrust lawsuit against Google in October is a major development and potential turning point as to how it does business in travel and multiple sectors.
In short: the Justice Department is claiming that Google has abused its dominant position in search and advertising to keep competition down.
The likes of Steve Kaufer of Tripadvisor (arguably the most high-profile vocal critic in the sector) are pleased.
He said in February - putting his ongoing irritation with Google into some financial context - that Tripadvisor had seen "stronger-than-expected SEO channel headwinds in our Q2 and Q3 earnings, as Google continues to siphon off high-quality traffic that would otherwise have visited Tripadvisor."
Others inevitably welcomed the news of the antitrust lawsuit (it's worth pointing out that the next stage of the process could last years) but the industry will now be in a holding pattern of sorts, as it waits to see how much appetite lawmakers have for making significant changes to Google's apparent stranglehold on the industry.
Some are very skeptical.
A watching brief is needed for 2021 and 2022.
Second place - The cruise industry
Arguably no sector of the travel industry has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than cruise.
Yes, airlines, we see you and your billions in losses – but convincing travelers to eventually again board an airplane, which takes them directly from one destination to another, is quite different than convincing travelers to spend days or weeks at a time onboard a crowded ship.
More than any other segment, cruise produced some of the most harrowing headlines in the early days of the pandemic.
In fact, news in February of an outbreak onboard the Diamond Princess was reported before most people had even heard the word “coronavirus.” The voyage ultimately concluded with hundreds of infections as well as passenger deaths.
According to Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise industry stands to lose an estimated $32 billion and more than 254,000 jobs in 2020. Compare that to the $55 billion the sector contributed to the United States economy in 2019, up 5.3% from 2018.
Although some cruise lines in Europe and Asia are currently operating, CLIA member cruise lines have suspended operations on U.S. waters through December 31.
For cruise lines that are in service or will be, the question becomes how to reduce the spread of the virus onboard the ship. To that end, the “Healthy Sail Panel,” formed by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, has developed a 74-step plan.
The panel recommends every cruise operator focus on five areas: testing, screening and exposure reduction; sanitation and ventilation; response, contingency planning and execution; destination and excursion planning; and mitigating risks for crew members.
Contactless solutions become critical in implementing such measures. Some cruise lines, such as Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean, were investing in touchless technology prior to the pandemic. But more attention is now being paid to applying tech to areas like safety drills, telemedicine and food and beverage.
Ultimately, vaccine distribution – more so than testing or other protocols - is giving cruise executives hope. It may just help restore consumer confidence, too.
Newsmaker of the year - Airbnb and private accommodation
"We spent 12 years building Airbnb's business and lost almost all of it in the matter of four to six weeks."
This was the company's CEO talking to U.S. network CNBC in June this year.
Just 169 days later, Airbnb rang the bell (virtually, of course) on the NASDAQ trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, marking its arrival as a publicly traded company for the first time.
Even Airbnb's harshest critics will acknowledge that Airbnb's 2020 is nothing short of a truly astonishing tale, whereby in the midst of a global pandemic it can accelerate from near-collapse to a successful IPO that sits it nearly alongside the likes of Expedia Group and Booking Holdings in the big league of online travel brands.
There have been plenty of congratulatory comments and analyses about the company's ability to turn the business around during such a dire year for the industry - but the company's success could not have been achieved without taking into consideration a wider trend that emerged in June and July.
At the same time as Chesky was lamenting the impact of the pandemic on business operations during the outbreak phase, private accommodation was actually helping with the start of a recovery period for some brands.
This was, arguably, against the expectations that many initially had - i.e. the hotel sector that would recover first in the wider accommodation ecosystem, as travelers would want to rely on brands that they know and trust, with cleaning protocols put in place at scale.
Instead, travelers wanted to be far away from the places where people were able to congregate in numbers in a hotel property - lobbies, elevators, shared pools and restaurants.
Booking Holdings and Expedia Group also noted this shift and were able to capitalize (or rather at least somewhat bolster their otherwise crushed revenues).
Whether short-term rentals will remain the preferred accommodation option for millions of travelers into 2021 remains to be seen.
But it is a reasonable assessment that says the coronavirus pandemic and Airbnb's IPO did more for the profile of the private accommodation sector than any other development in years.