A long time ago, but not that long ago, air travel was glamorous. Flight attendants and pilots wore attractive uniforms. Passengers dressed up to go on flights. They were all more or less treated to what we think of as first-class service now (and sometimes better). There were bunk beds on some flights, four-course meals and sometimes even bars where passengers could socialize. And there was space. So. Much. Space.
Months ago, as airlines were reeling from the initial pandemic crash and avalanche of cancellations, there was a story about Bob. Bob was the only passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight, and he accordingly got the VIP treatment: a wave from the pilot, first-class service from the attendants and no one to infect him with a deadly virus for seats around.
It was a lot like old times. And it was enough to make the already insanely low ticket prices seem attractive despite the risk.
But now as airlines have slashed flights to meet the drastically depleted demand, many travelers are complaining that the “blocked middle seats” and other social distancing promises from some airlines have fallen victim to the “fine print.” Nearly-full flights have been posted all over social media along with fearful and angry fliers vowing to stay grounded until the danger has passed.
We might still be flying if we could fly a little more like Bob or a 1950s businessman.
Luxury travel is doing better than most sectors of the industry. Those who can afford private jets and/or private islands are running out of lockdown and away from danger. This is good because luxury, high-income travelers make up about a third of the $1.4 billion travel industry.
But those other two-thirds have to rally at least a little to keep the lights on. So how can we make our most in-demand luxuries like space, top-notch service, cleanliness and quality feel attractive, accessible and affordable to people with travel budgets, a little short of a private island?
Maybe with a hint of that classic charm in the messaging and delivery:
- Embrace the space. Obviously airlines and hotels are in no position to retrofit larger seats and private villas where there were none, but decreasing or capping bookings will be worth a little upcharge to many travelers in the name of safety.
But that isn’t the only benefit. Beyond being safe, the extra space on a flight or in a hotel also allows for more comfort, freedom, relaxation; a luxurious break from the packed-in cattle shuttling we’ve become accustomed to. Brand messaging should embrace that. Flights and stays can be more like they once were: less stress, more space, room to breathe.
- Bring back gold standard service. The Bob treatment costs nothing; well, maybe a little training and the need for full staffing where it might have been adjusted for capacity. But with fewer people flying and staying at their destinations, staff have the chance to give more personal attention to tourists.
That first-class treatment doesn’t need to be about four-course meals or shoe shines, it can be as simple as learning names, greeting with smiles and providing more personal offerings that meet stringent safety standards. If people feel individually cared for and not like a number, they might begin to build trust in the quality of their vendors.
- Revive the “special occasion” narrative. As mentioned above, people used to dress up to travel. Not just for an upscale dinner by the beach, but for the airplane ride itself. It was a special occasion and something one only did every so often. That meant pulling out all the stops when it occurred to make it especially nice.
While we don’t expect people to start wearing their Sunday best, we do think that travel is going to be much more of a “special” endeavor than it once was. Realistically, travelers are not going to take the three vacations this summer that they had planned. They are going to take one, and they should do everything to make it count. This is the time to splurge on a private space. Or an upgrade to first class. Or an extra nice meal on the beach.
- Clean up your act. Lodging spaces and airlines have infiltrated every inbox across the nation promising their new cleaning strategies (UV lights, HEPA filters, etc.), and that is absolutely important to travelers during a global pandemic. But for people who have spent years milling through dirty airports and crowded hotel lounges, travel doesn’t seem clean at all.
Brands and businesses need to change our whole perception of what travel looks like for us to feel like it has been thoroughly cleansed. Flight attendants don’t necessarily need to be in a smart-looking Pan-Am uniform, but symbolically speaking, every space advertised should reflect that buttoned-up, spotless formality that we usually associate with luxury.
- Don’t forget that touch of glamor. As much as we are prioritizing safety and cleanliness, words like “sanitized,” “empty” and “masked” are not sexy travel buzzwords. Sure, your airline or hotel might have the latest in cleaning technology, but your house is also clean and less risky. That isn’t enough to get would-be tourists out the door.
Travel is romantic, luxurious, relaxing, we already know that, but right now everywhere we look the focus is on germs. Brands need to work on keeping a little mystery and sex appeal behind the disposable gloves and disinfectants. The extra space and smaller crowds can mean even more romance, luxury and relaxation, and at least some of the messaging should be dedicated to that.
The Golden Age of Travel, like true luxury travel today, was only golden for an upper class. Making travel affordable and accessible has been an admirable direction for growth, but the industry has picked up some bad habits along the way. There is an opportunity to bring back some of the bathwater thrown out with baby and make lasting improvements to the way we wander, even after the risk has passed.