While the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has given hope to the beleaguered travel industry,
Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago, an online search and price comparison site for hotels, anticipates at least another quarter, if not multiple years, before the sector fully recovers.
"We do think that the first quarter will stay very difficult for the travel industry," Hefer told Cheddar. "The situation is still very serious. It feels more under control, and the vaccine rollout is obviously contributing to that, but the number of infections and also the death toll is still very high in the U.S. and also in many European markets."
He added that next summer in the Northern Hemisphere could offer a reprieve — as those holed up during the pandemic go on their first vacations in over a year — but even when travel does begin to return to normal levels, it could look very different than before COVID-19.
Trends, such as travelers taking more domestic flights or visiting nearby international neighbors that had begun in 2020, are likely to continue next year, Hefer noted. It will also likely take time for travelers' expectations to adjust from new normals that emerged during the pandemic.
"The quarantine requirements that are currently implemented in many, many countries will not be forgotten, so it will take some time to normalize," he said.
For travel businesses, Hefer said preparing for a smaller market that could last years is key to survival.
"Even with a positive outlook for 2021, it will not be anywhere close to 2019, and that obviously has some implications on the size of your business and also on your operations," he said.
As for when travel will return to pre-pandemic levels, Hefer stressed that different parts of the industry will recover at different rates. Business travel, for instance, might never reach its former heights, as more work is done remotely, while local travel could bounce back as early as next year.
Whether a company survives this uneven transition depends largely on its strength going into the crisis and how they have operated during it, he added.
"Not every airline will make it through the crisis. Not every travel business will make it through the crisis."