“Post-Covid”. Is it naïve to be even writing that now? Honestly, as soon as I wrote it, I regretted it. Setting our intentions on a post-Covid world seems a bit like wishful thinking… the “post” part could be a very long time coming. Too long. Perhaps I should have said Destination Selection in a world adapting to Covid? I have read a lot recently on how the incentive industry is going to emerge from all of this. Some are optimistic, some are pessimistic, some fall somewhere in the middle – and I think the practical side of me sits most comfortably here. Covid is not going away any time soon… but human beings have excelled in this world thanks to an innate ability to adapt… and adapt is definitely the order of the day right now.

On recently reading some of Hugo Slimbrouck’s excellent narratives on emerging incentive destinations like Georgia, Rwanda, and Riga, I began to wonder how the balance of destination selection will shift as a result of this pandemic. SITE’s Incentive Travel Industry Index (ITII) reports offer fantastic insight into destination selection year on year. As you might expect, Appeal and Safety emerge as the top 2 criteria for planners when selecting a destination, followed (more or less) by Value, Infrastructure, and Access. I wonder how these figures will change in the coming years. Appeal is of course important, but I think even the cat on the street would predict that Safety will top the pole going forward. Safety in previous years may have been more centered around political stability and extreme weather threats, but there is no doubt that “safe” from now on will call for extremely high hygiene standards and people management capabilities. Trust will be fundamental to this. Planners will need to implicitly trust that a destination’s government and suppliers will do exactly as they promise to keep their clients safe.

This begs the question… what destinations will emerge on top?

Having listened to Rick Garlick’s webinar on consumer research with Magid, it is very clear that consumers believe the Corona Virus is easily spread on airplanes (69%), in airports (68%), and even to a large extent, in hotels (55%)… 3 elements that are very much fundamental to the fabric of an incentive programme. Bad news? Well, it’s not ideal… but let’s not dwell on the current sentiment (in positive news, negative percentages have dropped ca. 10% compared to the same survey 2 months ago) and instead, let’s see if there might be signposts within the research that point to specific destination recovery.

As airports and airplanes seem to be the areas of most perceived danger, it is probable that domestic incentives will be the first to recover, or at least destinations than are an easy driving distance from the source. This theory bodes well for dominant source markets like the US and Canada. Large, varied land masses like Europe might also do well as Germans can pop over the border to Austria, or Italians easily head north west into southern France. An issue with this theory, however, is that the source market, or indeed the appealing neighbouring destinations, may have been particularly badly affected by Covid. This would be the case with the USA and Great Britain, for example, as well as top incentive destinations like Italy and Spain.

Therefore, if the fear of flying is removed (and according to Magid’s research 26% of people would be comfortable taking a flight for business in the next 6 months; 51% in the next 12 months), perhaps it will be the lesser affected Covid countries (irrespective of access) that will come out on top. So, do I envisage planners scrolling through the Worldometer lists of countries and cherry picking those who have low numbers of cases and reported deaths? Perhaps, to an extent. The problem with this is the “reported” element. Most certainly, there are countries who are under reporting their cases, which brings us back to the importance of trust. The planner needs to be able to trust the government, trust the figures, and also trust the recovery and prevention methods that are put in place.

Weighing it all up, I think it will be a juggling act for planners. They will want to pick a destination that is not too complicated to get to. One flight at most (perhaps charted) with certainly no long layovers in crowded airports. They will want to pick a country they know and trust, but in saying that, might stay away from tourist hot spots for fear of overcrowding, and will most definitely look at their Covid statistics. I believe that destinations perhaps somewhat off the beaten track, but infinitely reliable, with proven Covid responses and trustworthy infrastructure and leadership, will emerge first. I also think the DMC will come into its own in this selection. The ITII reports show that in 2019, 20-30% of buyers considered the presence of a good DMC to be ‘very important’ in the selection of a destination. I would estimate that this figure will also go up dramatically in the years to come. Planners will not want to take any risks and a good DMC will be instrumental in managing suppliers, as well as the overall health and safety of the group. The DMC will become the personification of trust for their destination and I believe their standing and reputation will be fundamental in bringing in the business.

I would welcome your thoughts on the matter. Have you seen evidence of greater demand for a certain type of destination? Will emerging destinations struggle more as planners lean more towards the tried and tested or the close to home?

Sara Hosford, Account Manager, SoolNua

Below are some of the statistics from both Magid and ITII’s research. The ITII reports can be downloaded here for further information.