We live in a strange world. It may be tempting to paint the future black, and full of uncertainties. I have chosen not to do this, because I believe that now is the time to mentally switch gears. To exemplify, I have borrowed a quote from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and turned it around for the title of this year’s outlook. Even if they may be difficult to recognise, there are opportunities. Even if we are humble and modest about what lies ahead, now is the time to seize these opportunities. And seize them we must. Allow me to explain.
Last year, I mentioned the upcoming “années folles”, the “roaring twenties”. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how wild just the first year, 2020, would be. The corona virus keeps half the world in lockdown and is taking its toll across the globe. Hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs, bankruptcy follows bankruptcy.
At the same time, we see how quickly and radically we can all adapt to new situations. Digitisation takes giant leaps in a few weeks that would otherwise take years. Innovative ideas emerge in every corner. People shift their entire value system, personally and professionally. Businesses adapt their corporate beliefs and purpose to a new perspective.
This year is undeniably a turning point. It will continue to shape all our lives for years to come into what will become known as the post-Covid New Normal. So, what does that mean for 2021? And why should it be the time to seize opportunities?
Big changes are ahead
The shot across the bow that Covid-19 was and is - for those who were lucky and nothing worse happened - has left us all a little more vulnerable than we had ever thought we were. I am sure many of us have argued with the greatest conviction, even with our closest friends, about the right measures to take. Because of these differences of opinion that we have developed, or more often than not trustfully adopted, friendships may have broken down that were once untearable. Indeed, this crisis uncovered personalities and awoke emotions that we once used to manage and control so well.
For weeks, I have been noticing that people in my immediate or somewhat more distant surroundings are asking themselves the big questions. Quite a few are very closely examining their job situation, their entire lifestyle, their relationships with fellow human beings. I assume that many “big questions” will lead to “big decisions” in the new year. After all, and with a little wink, may these upcoming New Year’s resolutions be finally the ones we take seriously enough to really follow through?
Big decisions on big questions – I would find that a mainly positive thing. The turning point that the pandemic is offers us a unique opportunity to think about certain things in a more fundamental way. To change perspective, sustainably.
I am obviously not pretending to be that mastermind with a general “plan” that would let us navigate through the challenges of the year ahead. That would not be prudent, given that this crisis has hit people and businesses in very particular and highly complex ways. But I would like to share some of my observations, as I have done in recent years. Maybe there is a takeaway in it for all of you, whether in the travel industry or else.
- Accept that some things have changed for good: We cannot avoid acknowledging the transformational effects of the situation. Even if we are tired of Corona. Even if vaccination comes sooner than expected, even if markets recover more quickly. We cannot just pick up where we left off. From the perspective of aviation, I may be more optimistic and bullish for the industry than many of the aviation folks around me, as you know I truly believe that our industry is critical to a functioning society. Yet, I also see how the number of business meetings, visits from relatives or commuting has decreased, and how “the local”, the sustainable, is gaining in importance. My tip: do not just hope for a quick return to a state “as before”. While I do believe that the world is very much seeking to travel again, for leisure and business alike, it would be a missed opportunity not to actively rebuild consumer trust, reinvent service excellence and create meaningful product differentiation based on sensitive consumer requirements, embodied in a refocused “purpose”. That should be a higher priority than grand and loud ad campaigns. The world has changed, so deal with it.
- Deliver on (new) expectations: Next year will be the year in which we will all appreciate the little things even more; spontaneous visits, personal contacts, a little light-heartedness and spontaneity. Especially because we will probably have to live with circuit breakers, slowdowns and a bunch of uncomfortable regulations for a while. But we can still create positive experiences. For customers. For employees. For ourselves. The small gestures count. Empathic communication has long understood this, for example in this spot for the little everyday joy or with this window to normality. My tip: When measures and travel restrictions start to ease again next year, the little pleasures of “normal” life will be at the top of everyone’s agenda. Companies in the travel sector in particular have a big opportunity here, as many people love to travel and were not able to do so for a long time. They should think carefully about what they can offer in concrete terms to hit the nerve of the moment and deliver on the expectations of a much-changed consumer awareness. We have the know-how and the data, which means that we have the necessary leverage.
- Be “close” to employees and customers, if you can: Numerous studies show that companies that demonstrated solidarity with employees as a priority during the crisis are perceived more positively - also by customers (source: horizont.net Concept M). In terms of my industry, showing solidarity means keeping communication channels open, giving passengers options and planning certainty, communicating clearly and communicating often, yet meaningfully. Be clear on refunds, bear costs instead of passing them on to customers, be flexible when no one else is. In the first days and weeks of the crisis, this may have been difficult. But now enough time has passed, and we have been able to learn from experience. My tip: Make a real effort to align communication behaviour – and the action behind the communication – very closely to your customers and their needs. You will soon notice a healthy difference.
- Be open to real change: Let us welcome change with open arms. We must adjust, and we must do so now. Frame new working models as a positive effect, not a negative one. Commit to sustainability goals and deliver, for real. Transform your organisation, not just the org chart, to become truly agile. Work together along value chains. And: digitise. I said it back in January, so I can only reiterate, those who do not digitise their processes in 2021 will hardly get far. 5G is just around the corner. Let us welcome new technologies! I am looking at you, travel industry. My tip: “Lift and shift” in a joint effort to arrive in today’s digital “API economy” and take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution while staying compatible with the wider travel ecosystem.
- Listen to the customer: I have mentioned it before; our industry depends on highly volatile demand and is thus not only sensitive to economic, but also to social developments on a global level unlike any other sector. And the pressure to take a clear stand on broader issues beyond the immediate agenda of one’s business has certainly increased all around us. What may have started a few years back with sustainability topics has now reached social themes. We all remember Nike’s story with Colin Kaepernick. Somewhat surprisingly, this kind of “taking a stand” has recently found its way even into the more traditional Swiss context (e.g. IKEA Switzerland committing to paternity leave). No matter where you stand on these issues, this is a remarkable and noteworthy development. My tip: While I am not supportive of radical approaches aiming at mass confrontation, I appeal to a common sense of urgency to listen and deliver on the issues that concern the masses. Many of them are, after all, the communities we serve - our customers.
Let’s look at 2021 as a departure, a start, an awakening!
An opportunity of this magnitude does not come along very often: companies, brands and especially executives can and should be innovative creators, enablers, sense-makers, impulse generators in 2021. They should convey a sense of community, create positive experiences and offer very specific, concrete, hands-on support in everyday life.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to be more grateful for what we have. To be humble about what we have achieved. But to remain confident in the positive impact we will make in the future. Covid-19 has shaken things up, big time, but never should we allow it to make us lose our optimism. Be ambitious! The past is the past, your attitude can only affect the future. I made a big move in 2020 myself, confident that my tank full of energy and positive outlook will lead me on the right path. That does not mean in any way that I am not respectful of the challenges ahead.
What we need more than ever is an aspiration and a desire, even in a most uncertain world, to contribute to sustainable progress for us, our families and the communities we serve as individuals and businesses.
Yes, we can do this!
Aviation analyst Peter Baumgartner is the chairman of the board of directors and Metrocore Aviation Group.