“Customers first. Partners second. Ourselves third.” Jane Sun, CEO and member of the board of directors of Group Limited says that was the mantra that guided her company through 2020. She gives her detailed outline of just how has been enduing these difficult times.

When the pandemic broke, the world braced for uncertainty, and travel ground to a halt. At Group, we set out to be customer-focused and support our partners, processing tens of millions of refunds and booking alterations. We adopted ‘glocalization’ at all levels, supporting the global industry whilst further localising our services to meet market-specific needs. Weathering the storm together, international bodies and industry peers united to assure travel safety. With no immediate end in sight to national and regional lockdowns confining people to their homes, an itch for travel began to build. Hope glistened on the horizon as countries began to control the spread of the virus. China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore saw a resumption of somewhat normality. Those free to travel domestically could now satisfy their desire to escape their homes. China saw a dramatic near-complete recovery of domestic tourism. During the October Golden Week holidays our data showed short-haul hotel bookings increase by almost 60% year-on-year, and post-1990s and 2000s travellers making up over 60% of tourists.

Industry figures reveal over 637 million trips were taken in this holiday, setting records for the highest number of passengers since the outbreak. This meteoric rebound broadcasted the strength and vitality of the Chinese market, setting the stage for the global recovery.

As countries around the globe began to get in control of the virus, public-private partnerships launched campaigns promoting domestic travel. The SingapoRediscover campaign offered nationwide discounts to attractions, hotels and transport to all Singaporean citizens. In November, Group and Singapore Tourism Board signed a three-year agreement forging a global partnership to co-market the ‘Garden City’ – a much-needed boost of confidence during this time of uncertainty. A sign of times to come, Asia-Pacific’ s limited travel recovery can be seen as eluding to trends that emerged over the last decade. All crises accelerate existing trends. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030, Asia is expected to contribute roughly 60% of global growth and that Asia-Pacific will be home to the overwhelming majority (90%) of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class entering the global economy. Whether these predictions will weather the pandemic unscathed is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that the rise of the Asian consumer will be a determining factor in the future of the global economy.

We need to consistently invest in the travel ecosystem to boost confidence and offer mobility and exchange. Before the pandemic, there was an increasing preference for travel to Asia-Pacific, with travellers choosing Japan, Thailand and Singapore rather than the United States, Italy and France. These global destinations will always top travel bucket lists. Yet, Asia-Pacific is home to thousands of attractive destinations. The rise of the Asian middle class will result in roughly 90 million new travellers by 2025. It is clear that the region-centric approach brought on by the pandemic and the evolution of the travel recovery will see regional tourism in Asia-Pacific continue to rise.

As the world has been altered by the global pandemic, the silver lining on this dark cloud is that our infrastructure has also been refined and transformed. Extensive mobile penetration and savvy digital users have shortened the path from consumer to their chosen products and services. The new consumer landscape has yielded new expectations and a bi-polarization of consumption where goods and services must remain customer-centric.

For Group, we witnessed great positive affirmations from our globetrotters in the purchase of our flexible and discounted products through this year’s livestream series. COVID-19 pushed us to evolve into a stronger and smarter platform with focuses on boosting user experience through maintaining our ‘glocalization’, being content-focused,

maximising exposure of products and services whilst meeting the demand for top quality. 10% of the global working population are directly involved in the travel industry thus, we need a travel revival to give hope to the hundreds of millions of people who depend on this sector. We need to consistently invest in the travel ecosystem to boost confidence and offer mobility and exchange even through this uncertain and disruptive storm. 2021 – 21 being the number associated with luck and taking chances, it makes sense for us to tackle this ongoing uncertainty with an attitude that is not all doom and gloom but one that is open and optimistic. With hopes of a widespread vaccine rollout and innovative travel solutions such as air bubbles and gradual border openings, this crisis presents opportunities for our industry. We must venture into 2021 unified and energized, ushering in the future of travel.

How is the Asian tourism industry performing and what can be learnt from this region given it appears to be recovering quicker than others?

Many Asian nations have shown the capability to contain the spread of the virus. With technology-forward approaches adopted across Asian governments a key factor leading recoveries in the continent. According to an STR report, Asia’s domestic hotel industry recovery showed the strongest performance compared to other regions around the world. Overall occupancy rates reached 62%, the highest level since January 2020, while other regions’ rates remained below 51%. Initiatives such as the launching of air travel bubbles between Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan reveal a potential path to the staggered return of regional travel. The global tourism industry is looking at Asia to see how the region manages domestic and international travel resume, as well as government policies and business innovations.

What lessons were learnt during the pandemic?

COVID-19 has done more for digitalization than anything before. Investment in digital infrastructure and the online migration of services across industries will define the recovery and be the legacy of the pandemic. COVID-19 was a catalyst for touchless technologies, which travellers now expect in order to minimise physical contact with people and surfaces. Group adopted a comprehensive contactless wrap-around approach – building out online search and purchasing services to enhancing online customer service and self-service tools. Technologies such as our AI chatbot, RFID wristbands, smart tour guides and smart reservation analysis enable seamless travel and better management of visitor flows – improving the traveller experience and making travel safer. We pivoted our platforms from solely transactional to providing content-based marketing. Starting our livestream series, providing immersive product experiences, and keeping users informed with the latest travel news and updates. From 23 March to 28 October, Group’ s livestream series generated more than US$360m in GMV and received more than 150 million global views. Whilst the pandemic decimated demand, we strengthened supply chains. Investing in the travel ecosystem to ensure it could survive and adapt for the travel revival. Our TravelOn initiative consisted of direct investment in partners as well as opening sales channels to generate much needed cash flow. We united airline and accommodation industry partners to introduce new safety guidelines. We joined the call for greater health and safety measures, building customer trust in travel and extolling the industries’ ability to adapt to evolving circumstances. Crucially, this year we have learned the need to be innovative and flexible. The future cannot be predicted but we can prepare.

What is the timeline for the global travel recovery?

Shuttered international borders remain the primary obstacle for a global travel recovery. Air travel bubbles, green travel lanes and other such initiatives offer potential solutions to enable the gradual resumption of international travel. The widespread rollout of vaccines will be a key step in revitalising global travel. Vaccinating populations around the world will set a solid foundation for the complete recovery of global travel. The travel industry must hold fast and weather the storm together. The pandemic is not over yet. As we begin to see the resumption of international travel over the next year, we must ensure health and safety measures are strictly enforced and work with governments to ensure the safe easing of travel restrictions and opening of borders.

What do you see as being the future of travel?

COVID-19 has shaken industries around the world. Many are realising the need for more sustainable investment and greater resiliency built into the economy. Travel is no different – by working together within our industry we must always strive to be more sustainable. And, we must look to strengthen our resilience by adopting cutting edge tech, taking responsibility for our industries and their impact, as well as learning from crisis, such as COVID. There is huge pent up travel demand. There will be a sharp increase in travel the first holiday season following the widespread rollout of vaccinations. This may be preceded by more extensive domestic travel recoveries around the world, with incremental amounts of business and individual travel. Followed by larger scale travel movements during holiday seasons to come. Industry and governments should ensure measures are in place to ensure the secure resumption of international travel. Working together to see the return of one the largest sectors in the global economy. We believe, as many do, that travel offers personal connections and experiences that can help inform world views and create bonds between people, forging a better future for all – that is our motivation and what we will continue to pursue. Our focus is and will always be on working with industry partners to promote and enable meaningful exchanges for our users.


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