It’s been a year that has forced innovation. The time of COVID will go down as the most challenging period ever for the travel industry. The restrictions on travel imposed by the virus are appalling. For the travel industry it’s hard to imagine a worse scenario but, no, let’s not tempt the fates.
The big question for the travel industry has been, how do you survive when travel itself is practically curtailed? The methods by which the individual companies have coped with this nearly impossible situation have been nothing short of heroic. And, we are still in it. It’s an ongoing drama with many heroes and heroines.
Delta Vacations, the wholly owned subsidiary that serves as the vacation packaging arm of the airline, is taking steps to reduce risk and increase traveler confidence. It is adapting its service for the needs of an extraordinarily difficult time.
- Members of Delta’s line maintenance crew disinfect the surfaces of the cabin including tray tables, seat backs and in-flight entertainment screens in a Boeing 757 in Atlanta, Ga., on Friday, March 6, 2020. The sanitizing solution is the same solution used to sanitize hospitals nationwide. (Chris Rank for Rank Studios)
Last week Delta Vacations announced that now, through at least March 31, it will only offer hotels outside the U.S. that offer on-site testing. That eliminates any issues for any customer in regard to meeting the requirements for return to the US.
The initiative was taken as a quick response to a federal policy put in place earlier in the week requiring all people who enter the U.S. by air to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of the flight.
Through this latest initiative, anyone booking a vacation package from Delta Vacations does not have to worry about being denied entry when attempting to return. The company has vetted the hotels and is only offering ones where the availability of testing is not an issue. If it’s on the list, it offers on-site testing. It’s the latest in the company’s ongoing efforts to adapt to the constraints of COVID.
Return to First Principles
I spoke to Jennie Ho, the president of Delta Vacations, about how the company has coped with the travel industry’s Year from Hell.
Interestingly, though the conditions under which a vacation packager must operate changed radically in 2020, the company’s response was not to devise a new strategy, but rather to go back to its fundamental principles and reaffirm its commitment to them.
“When things are so uncertain, it’s even more important that we are standing firm on our fundamentals,” said Jennie Ho. “For us, it has always been to take care of customers and our team members. And then, we truly believe that the financial results and the business performance will come.”
In re-centering on first principles, the company focused on the needs of its customers. The most glaring need was, of course, the need for safety. The population has been largely in terror of air travel because of the uncertainty surrounding the invisible threat of COVID.
The first priority had to be to address the fears and insecurities that are based on the threat of COVID. Delta Vacations took its lead from its parent company and its established protocols under the Delta CareStandard.
“At Delta Vacations we truly live by the Delta customer brand and experience,” she said. “And Delta, under the leadership of Ed Bastian, has taken a very clear position that the only way to come through what’s happening with COVID and its impact to travel is that we need to build back the customers’ confidence in traveling again. There’s no other way.”
To address the fear of flying and being confined in an enclosed space for a period of hours, “Delta took a very strong stance from the get-go in terms of blocking middle seats to ensure there is spacing for our customers,” she said.
Delta intensified its cleaning regimen for all aircraft, using electrostatic spray and deep cleaning processes at every turn, not just once a day, as previously. The airline required face masks on board to protect both customers and staff. The baggage handling operation was upgraded with intensified disinfectant procedures.
With middle seats vacant, masks required, and good ventilation, Delta has gone a long way toward reducing the risk of flying. Delta aircraft employ heavy duty circulation systems that circulate the air vertically floor-to-ceiling and replace the cabin air every two to six minutes. The air is filtered through industrial-grade HEPA filters comparable to those used in hospital operating rooms, which are said to filter out 99 percent of airborne particles.
The distancing may not be more than six feet on more crowded flights, and the time in the confined space is longer than the CDC recommendation of 15 minutes. But the filtration systems are better than those in use in most enclosed spaces.
According to Scientific American, “An airplane cabin is probably one of the most secure conditions you can be in,” says Sebastian Hoehl of the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, who has co-authored two papers on COVID-19 transmission on specific flights, which were published in JAMA Network Open and the New England Journal of Medicine, respectfully.
Extending the Brand Commitment
Delta Vacations, the vacation packaging operation, followed the lead of the airline to try to extend its principles and policies into the ground operations of the vacation experience.
The company worked with its destination management partners, the providers of transportation and activities at the destination, to enforce a cap on transfers at 60 percent capacity, to ensure that travelers will not be seated right next to each other. Private transfers are also offered, at a higher premium.
Though Delta Vacations didn’t change its fundamental strategies, it did have to respond to shifts in demand. Most international travel was dead. That left domestic travel. As the risks of transmission of the disease began to be better understood, it became clear that open-air locations were much less risky than enclosed spaces. Delta Vacations was well positioned to roll with the punches and shift its focus to domestic destinations.
Once again, when push came to shove, its previous strategies served it well. In previous years, the company had worked hard to build up its domestic portfolio.
“A part of our purposeful strategy is to ensure that from a hotel offerings perspective we have a diverse portfolio and that there’s a standard of quality that threads through every property that we work with,” said Jennie Ho. “But also we’ve invested in insuring that we are available wherever the customer wants to go on vacation. And our strategy has paid off, because domestic was the first to recover. And we had a very strong, comprehensive domestic portfolio for all 50 states.”
When COVID hit, the company doubled down on its offerings in smaller cities that support the national parks, or beaches, so they were ready when the travel began to spill over into those areas.
Jennie Ho and her team looked at the shifting demand and took steps to make sure they were ready to accommodate customers who wanted to get out into the wide open spaces in the national parks, the wilderness areas, or the beaches. They anticipated accurately. When the weather warmed up, Americans poured into the national parks and wide open spaces.
Hope on the Horizon
Now that vaccines are gradually spreading into the population, and we can begin to see the end to the tyranny of the pandemic, business is starting to show signs of life again.
The company is finally looking forward to a time when it can reasonably expect current trends of improvement to continue, leading to a time when the industry will no longer be crippled by COVID.
Now, with an end to the pandemic in sight, business is churning up again. “Every month is better than the month before,” said Jennie. The company tracks its top revenue booking days, and all of the top 10 booking days of the last year have been in the last 30 days.
So that’s a mighty good sign.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.