World Travel, Inc. hosted our annual Fall Symposium, which focused on safely resuming travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually on October 21, 2020.

This year’s Fall Symposium was our second-ever virtually hosted event, and featured a combination of industry panelists and travel-themed trivia games for more than 600 attendees.Executive Vice President of Business Development for World Travel Mike Farrell kicked off the event with a short introduction. He highlighted a recent study conducted by United Airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense that found that the risk of COVID-19 exposure on planes is “virtually nonexistent” when passengers wear masks, with 99.99% of airborne particles eliminated by plane HEPA filters. Farrell also noted that World Travel is most likely the only travel management company in the Travel Weekly Top 20 Power List to avoid any furloughs or layoffs due to the pandemic, and highlighted our new web series “Let’s Go,” which can be found on our YouTube and social media channels. 

Enterprise Holdings Vice President of Global Sales Johnny Schultheiss, Lyft Head of Corporate Travel Partnerships Caitlin Gomez and Gem Limousine Senior Vice President of Client Relations Ed Walch then discussed the rental car and ridesharing industries’ progress as riders return to the road.

Schultheiss explained that Enterprise is focused on low-touch service initiatives, including digital rental passes. “It’s always been important,” he said of sanitation efforts, adding that his company has hired quality control managers while ramping up its touch-point cleaning efforts in its vehicles and front desks. He said the rental car industry is “slowly but surely” moving forward.

“I think that 2020-21 will really be the year of the car,” Gomez said, explaining that Lyft is focused on providing safe and reliable commute options for partners. She noted that plastic partitions in cars, guidance on disinfecting cars based on public health guidelines, and ride safety information were key to the company’s health and safety initiatives for riders and drivers. Lyft is also introducing and expanding several initiatives to address climate change and create savings, including its Citi Bike program.

Walch noted that Gem uses an electrostatic disinfectant system to sanitize its vehicles, and that chauffeurs wear disposable gloves and masks while driving. He said that Gem has noticed small, month-by-month increases in corporate requests as clients begin to view the company’s service as an alternative to public transport. Wedding reservations also reportedly increased as some restrictions on gatherings loosened. 

The event then transitioned to a hotel panel discussion featuring Loews Hotel & Co. Executive Director Lois O’Shea, Hilton Vice President of Global Travel partnerships John Ryan, and The Rawah Ranch & Villas del Mar Owner Lucia Hatfield. 

Hatfield said her two properties in Colorado and Cabo San Lucas continued to welcome guests throughout the past several months. She said that Villas del Mar was currently experiencing its highest occupancy ever at this time of year, and that many guests decided to extend their stays in March instead of returning home. Hatfield added that Rawah Ranch in Colorado received a record number of reservations, and that guests continued to enjoy a normal level of activity because of the property’s outdoor focus. She said that last-minute bookings were common.

Ryan explained that although Hilton’s global occupancy hovered at 13% in March and April, it had jumped to 45% by the end of the second fiscal quarter, and that over 98% of Hilton Hotels had reopened. Hilton partnered with Lysol, the Mayo Clinic and other global and local health organizations to enhance its cleaning and sanitation protocols, adding touchless check-in experiences and cleaning public hotel spaces more frequently. Although international restrictions have made some destinations difficult to reach, trips to secondary locations are generating more interest. 

“We’ve been through crises before,” Ryan said. “We’re resilient as a group and a business and an industry.”

All but one of Loew’s Hotel’s properties have reopened, “slowly rebounding” through a process that O’Shea called a “detail-oriented” addition of social distancing, hand sanitizer, and elevator capacity changes, to name a few. Most guests are leisure travelers, and trips to properties located in secondary or tertiary cities are becoming more popular. 

The afternoon’s final industry panel focused on the changes airlines have implemented throughout the pandemic. It featured American Airlines Managing Director Jim Carter, Delta Airlines Senior Vice President of Global Sales Bob Somers, and United Airlines Senior Vice President of Sales Strategy and Effectiveness Glenn Hollister.

Carter spoke on the difficulty of adjusting to schedule and demand changes and focused on the importance of introducing innovative technology to enhance contact and touch prevention. He also highlighted the United study and a recent IATA study that indicate low potential for COVID-19 transmission on commercial planes due to high-quality air filtration and mask mandates, among other aspects.

In addition to the sanitation and safety measures airlines have added to their planes and the check-in process, Somers said it was crucial to listen to customers and travelers from all industries and backgrounds. He said Delta was “trying to go back to our strength of staying connected.” The critical question for airlines, he explained, was how to make travelers feel as comfortable and safe as possible during their flight through strict mask-wearing policies and other initiatives. Delta will continue to block its middle seats through January 2021. 

“We think safety is an industry issue that we are working together on to make travel safer for everyone,” Hollister said, explaining United’s back-to-front boarding policy, packaged on-flight provisions, and testing accommodations. He described the benefits of educating travelers about the safety of their air journey before they return to the skies for the first time. 

Each of the three panelists addressed the introduction of rapid testing to airports, which would allow domestic and foreign governments to monitor traveler status within 24 hours of a flight. Somers said that industry members were collaborating with government officials to provide testing when supply would allow, and Hollister added that creating an infrastructure that could collect and distribute data effectively is a major priority.

Singapore Airlines Director of Sales Kamran Ahmed described his airline’s safety measures in a brief one-on-one interview. He said that in addition to the use of advanced technology on planes, passengers are now using Singapore Airlines’ app to order food and control in-flight entertainment. Singapore Airlines will also resume operation of its direct flight from New York to Singapore on November 9. 

World Travel’s own Chief Information Officer Ivan Imana, Chief Innovation Officer Rock Blanco and Vice president of Enterprise Technology Julie Deppe closed out the event with an update on World Travel’s recent innovation efforts. They highlighted our recently released solutions WorldHub and WorldWatch, and explained the importance of innovation in difficult times.

Imana explained that adaptability and a holistic environment are key to creating a positive customer experience. This includes integrating information across the travel process and taking advantage of new technology early. Blanco said that he thinks artificial intelligence and augmented reality will soon become essential in the travel industry, allowing travelers to better experience and predict their journey through technology. 

Deppe stressed the balance of simultaneously providing an industry touchpoint and quality experience, listening and interacting with customers and travelers regularly. She also noted that inter-industry collaboration was key to understanding new technologies, sharing innovations, and harnessing their full power. 

"None of us come to work to be mediocre, we really strive to have a best-in-class product offering," she said. “Our goal is to pave the way for what others follow.”

Thank you to our 2020 Fall Symposium Sponsors Enterprise, Hilton & Singapore Airlines. We can’t wait to connect with all of our attendees in the spring, hopefully in person!

Jimmy Davidson

Written by Jimmy Davidson