An Inside Look at the State of the Sports Travel Industry and the Possible New Normal after the Pandemic

September 3, 2020

With a stay-at-home-order issued for most of the United States and the world, the travel industry is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. In a global economy, travel is a necessary part of doing businesses, from finance and healthcare to sports travel and entertainment, traveling is a must to keep any number of industries afloat.

Since travel is such an integral part of college sports as we know it, CollegeAD talked with travel industry insiders, Christy Bruce and  Kyle McDonald of Sports & Entertainment Travel, to gauge how this sector will weather the crisis, get a look at the current state of the industry, and gain insight into how the travel space could look once the pandemic is over.

State of the Travel Industry

“While the industry may be taking it a hit, it will bounce back. The travel industry is integral to just about every other industry, especially higher education and sports programs. There will be changes on the horizon but for now there are a few things people in the sector can do to assure clients.”

Christy Bruce says now is the time to be transparent and helpful while remaining realistic and optimistic. SET is a full-service travel and tour management company dedicated to offering fan travel experiences. They cater to college sports, an industry virtually on pause during the pandemic. She says those in the travel space should continuously be in contact with their clients and offers tips for those travelers that must travel during the pandemic. Reminding people that masks, gloves and hand sanitizer should be standard while traveling and realizing that even after the immediate danger has passed, sanitation and hygiene will be paramount.

“There won’t be a switch that flips one day, life will get back to normal, but all indications are that it will be a gradual return to traveling,” Kyle McDonald explains. “Take this time to remind people why they travel with you in the first place, then reassure them all precautions are being taken now, and those precautions will continue for the foreseeable future.”

A Look to the Future

According to Bruce and McDonald with SET the short-term ramifications of the COVID-19 shutdown will be toughest on airlines and cruise lines, but there are some major opportunities that will emerge from the crisis.  

First to the new normal and what that means for the future. Bruce says initially they expect to see business travel down from previous numbers.

“People will struggle getting back to the confines of an airplane, train or bus. Investment in fast modes of travel will start to look very appealing. Also, many of these business people will now be adept at the virtual meeting, not everyone will want to give that up right away.”

She says that younger people will likely be the first to venture out, but they will be looking for fast, efficient, and clean service. People that work in the travel space will need to be innovative and competitive to notice an uptick in their clientele.

For the people in the travel industry who can offer fast, clean, efficient service there will be opportunities that grow from this crisis. Bruce says there will also be an emphasis on self driving vehicles, technology that is available but has so far been out of reach for the everyday traveler.   

“It’s going to be the time for innovation,” she explains. “Domestic travel will pick up first and we’ll have to remind people that there is more to experience within our own borders. Those who can focus on the experience of travel and how special it can be will emerge on the other side of this pandemic.”

Sports Travel

Traveling for college sports comes in a few varieties. Teams must travel to compete; fans travel to watch their favorite teams compete, and there are unique experiences like donor trips. According to SET, these will continue, but at a pace that is safe and comfortable for staff, athletes, donors, and fans.

“The health and safety of student-athletes, donors, fans, and staff become even more of a top priority. We could see a fundamental change in the behavior of how these sporting events come together,” McDonald tells CollegeAD.

He says being mindful of social distancing within stadiums will also come into play as will cleanliness. While health concerns will take priority, so will the bottom line. Athletic departments have taken a real hit during the pandemic, many have instituted pay cuts, implemented a hiring freeze, and some have laid off staff; department budgets will be impacted for the 2020 and 2021 season.

McDonalds emphasizes, “Now is the time for communication, keep those channels open. At SET we are not treating this as a break from business, now is the time we are doubling down on our uniqueness as a company. We are highlighting everything special and innovative in our arsenal. Our partners in the world of college sports know we are here to help get them through the uncertain times ahead.”

Athletic events themselves could also change, not just the way people get there. He says it’s too early to tell exactly what changes could be coming to stadiums but taking temperatures, wearing masks and gloves, creating sanitizing stations and maintaining a degree of social distancing could become the norm, and streaming live sporting events may feel safest for fans at first.

“We are already tracking the changes in the college sports industry, there will be impacts” McDonald explains. “Communication really is key here; we are actively discussing concerns and opportunities with our college sports partners at this time. All ideas are on the table.”

The safety of athletes, staff, donors, fans, and alumni are at the forefront of all current discussions about travel. SET is preparing to be proactive with all aspects of their business, this could mean stricter safety guidelines when providing vendors, helping partners come up with a checklist for all events, and being flexible with current offerings and being able to pivot off of what comes next.

“It may feel the travel industry and college sports industry are in a holding pattern,” Bruce explains, “but now is the time to prepare. Explore what those branding opportunities will look like, what are the possible travel scenarios once football gets going, talk to fans about how they will feel once the danger has passed. Being proactive will help all of us tied to college sports weather this storm.