By Damion Breust, Senior Vice President, Andria Mitsakos Public Relations (AMPR)

The first thing to accept is that these are shocking, awful times for hundreds of millions of people. Quite apart from those who have died from Covid-19, countless other lives have been turned upside down by it. There is no question that this caught the world unprepared, and until there is a vaccine and a cure, it will continue to cast a shadow of safety, over lives, and over whole communities and economies.

I have seen how other disasters, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the 2003 SARS crisis in Asia, and the great financial collapse of 2008 just brought things to a halt. But I have also recognised that the world is remarkably resilient, and that once momentum builds, life gets going again quickly. Each of these has had lasting impacts on travel and incentives – think of security worldwide after 9/11, for example – but we and our clients learned quickly to adapt to the new values and the new, post-crisis realities.

Financial crises and terrorist attacks are different, though, and so too was SARS because of its limited duration and impact. So what is the reference point for planning post-Covid-19? Is there one?

The truth is that each of these events caused panic, huge uncertainty, and each was described – with some justification – as unprecedented. But we recovered. Remember that, even as you look at the awful news each day: we came back. People learned to adapt to new circumstances, businesses invested and grew, and the world continued to turn. That will be the case this time too, however hard it is to think that way when the news coming at us each day is so bleak.

A lot of what we took for granted – even simple things like going out to dinner, going for a walk – have been taken from us, and this is forcing us all to consider what really matters, what defines our lives and our happiness. As the peak of this virus passes, and some of things that have gone are restored, we will need to have a new understanding of what we mean by ‘incentive’ as well.

I suspect that this will evolve over time, as different companies and industries start up again, and different possibilities emerge to reward and incentivise staff, clients, and other stakeholders. The one thing I am absolutely certain about is that we will see a return in demand for rewards and incentives. It will be up to those of us who work in the industry to understand how much things have changed and adapt our ideas to the new, evolving post-Covid world.

Just as we did after 9/11 and SARS and 2008, we will ensure we have in place the measures to make any incentive, especially travel, not just safe and rewarding, but appropriate. That word – ‘appropriate’ – is going to be front and centre for this industry. With so many communities and small businesses hit by Covid-19, it may be that we work with some of those communities or towns and their businesses so that incentive travel has a double impact, on those going and also on those who desperately need the business to start their lives again.

That may involve more local travel, to support local communities and put money in local pockets and show solidarity with customers or suppliers. That would not be a bad thing at all. Too often, we think travel has to be exotic and long-distance, but I have always marvelled at how many people in Australia would just love to come to a Greek island, and how many Greeks who live on these islands have always wanted to go to Australia. Maybe that is one other positive lesson to come from all this: we have so much that is beautiful and inspirational all around us. We should learn to enjoy it and appreciate it more than we have in the past.

The sudden shut-down of travel and business has also has a profound effect on the natural environment, and I don’t think that is lost on people. I expect that we will see more awareness of the need and opportunity for travel to have a different environmental impact, maybe even a positive one, as the world opens up again. That, certainly, is on our minds, and I think many companies will welcome an approach that draws positive lessons from all of this.

Even the word ‘incentive’ will most certainly have a slightly new meaning, for some considerable time to come. So many businesses will want to find ways to thank customers and suppliers and other stakeholders who have stood by them, who did not demand refunds or even monthly payments.

So, one way of thinking about ‘incentive’ may simply be “thank you for standing by us when we needed you.” That is a powerful and valuable message to send. Loyalty in business is everything.  There are many ways to send that message, but it will need to be tailored to post-Covid-19 budgets, markets, and sensitivities.

But how will it work, post-Covid-19? Will people even want to travel, or will they be too afraid?

An excellent question, and the short answer is that yes, people will want to travel, but only if their fears are eased, only if they can be certain that the risks are miniscule. Just as we worked with all our travel partners on new security measures post-9/11 – and the list of those precautions would blow your mind – we will do the same after Covid-19.

We will need to ensure that all health guidelines are met and exceeded, so people will know that they are as safe, maybe even safer, on a planned and tightly managed incentive trip than they would be at home. That means a lot more than a few masks and a pamphlet on social distancing. It means knowing everything we can and controlling everything we can, from seating in a restaurant to the cleaning and sanitising in a hotel, and a hundred other details. This would hold true until the eradication of Covid-19, though the effects will reshape an enduring way of living.

It may feel a bit premature to say these things right now, obviously, but we are certainly thinking and preparing for that day, because it will come, and probably sooner than we expect. Even now, even in these tough days, we need to be planning. We need to be ready. Our clients will need us more than ever when this is over and our contribution will be an integral element in the recovery of business, client interaction and reshaping the incentive and travel industry.