Only a quarter of the world’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID 19. And that’s a problem for the travel industry. No one wants to vacation somewhere unsafe.
For Expedia Group, the solution was obvious: Get more people vaccinated.
Earlier this month, the parent company of Expedia, Hotels.com, Vrbo, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, ebookers and CheapTickets announced an initiative called Give the World a Shot. It’s a partnership with UNICEF to give people access to COVID-19 vaccines and increase global vaccination rates.
I caught up with Peter Kern, CEO of Expedia Group, to talk about vaccines and the future of travel. Here’s our interview.
Corporate responsibility and COVID vaccines
What kind of responsibility does the travel industry have, when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines? How is it different from other industries?
Lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines is a significant barrier to the return of global travel, economic recovery, and the restoration of our way of life. Until we make significant progress in vaccinating the world’s population, none of us will be truly free to travel the world.
And, while accelerating access to COVID-19 vaccines is aligned with our mission and purpose of bringing people together, I believe all companies with the means to help owe an obligation to do so — not simply travel companies. Travel and tourism-related companies have been the hardest hit by COVID, but many other industries have actually benefited from the pandemic.
All of us need to do more lest we prolong the problem and human suffering that will come from the virus itself and the global financial issues it will create.
What was the thinking behind the “give the world a shot” initiative?
Vaccines have proven to be the best tool against the spread of COVID-19, and in many ways, the ticket to the return of life as we knew it.
But right now, only about 25% of people in the world are vaccinated, and in the developing world that is closer to 1%. There’s an urgent need around the globe, and we are all being short-sighted if we think we will get rid of COVID without making a serious dent in those numbers.
So this is the solution?
We believe the best path forward is to help vaccinate people as quickly as possible, because of the obvious societal and public health benefits, and for our collective self-interest of opening the global economies. This responsibility should not solely sit with governments and health authorities — the private sector must help, too.
This is why we are working with UNICEF to help facilitate equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines through our Give the World a Shot campaign. I hope other companies will join us in supporting UNICEF and other charities or programs that are getting vaccines out to the world.
How to give the world a shot
How can your customers participate in this campaign?
You can download the app for any participating Expedia Group brand and purchase a trip through the app. Each purchase made through Expedia Group’s mobile apps will result in a donation.
Other than booking a trip through an Expedia company, do travelers have to do anything else to participate?
We designed the campaign to be frictionless for travelers, and part of that was eliminating any additional steps. Every booking made through an Expedia Group brand app automatically contributes to UNICEF’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
You started this campaign earlier this month. How is it going so far?
Since we launched Give the World a Shot on Aug, 5, we’re approximately halfway to our $10 million donation target as of this week.
Who will benefit from this initiative?
Each purchase made via our brands’ mobile apps results in a donation to help UNICEF distribute safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in over 180 countries. As the world’s biggest buyer of vaccines, UNICEF’s expertise uniquely positions it to help address the logistical challenge currently facing many low-income countries around the globe.
Where can your customers go to find out how their donations have helped?
We plan to provide an update near the end of the campaign. In the meantime, we urge customers and anyone else interested to visit UNICEF’s website to learn about opportunities to help.
What to do about bad customer service during COVID
We’ve heard so much about customer service during COVID — long waits to talk to airlines by phone, expiring vouchers, overall poor service. How is Expedia adapting to meet the needs of travelers?
Like many other companies, our global workforce transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, and we took precautions to support employee safety. With COVID-19 impacting countries at different times and significant increases in service needs worldwide, our call centers had to adjust, and in some cases, struggled to keep up with demand.
I’ve heard from many customers who say they saw these struggles firsthand. How did Expedia handle this challenge?
This challenge, along with the issues many travel partners faced, created a lesser service level than any of us would have liked. But, while service levels remained elevated and work constraints added new challenges, we worked tirelessly to help our customers.
We focused heavily on technology to simplify the customer experience, including our virtual agent and one-click cancel tool, designed to assist customers who need to modify or cancel a booking, or find answers to questions without having to call.
For flight credits, we launched a page where travelers can better understand their credit redemption options and status. We also added a COVID-19 Travel Advisor tool, which informs travelers of destination-specific restrictions and guidance, so they can plan accordingly.
Why you shouldn’t always book direct
One of the most common refrains, when something goes wrong, is: You should have booked directly with the airline or hotel. How do Expedia customers benefit, in terms of customer service, when they book through an Expedia company — especially during the pandemic?
We have a wide array of travel options across virtually all desired experiences — flights, hotels, vacation rentals, car rentals, cruises, and activities. Access to this kind of inventory not only presents incredible choice for consumers, but it also means travelers can come to us to book their whole trip easily and have a single point of customer service to contact across the entire itinerary.
As one of the biggest travel companies in the world, we have unparalleled expertise in serving traveler needs and we continue to advance our platform with an eye towards constantly improving traveler experiences and helping them stay ahead of any issues as they arise.
What is your outlook for travel this fall and winter? How has the delta variant affected bookings?
There are certainly unknowns regarding how variants might impact travel in the months ahead. There is also uncertainty about travel patterns in the fall as children go back to school and adults go back to work in many parts of the world. We saw very strong demand going into the summer months, but we did see a reaction to the delta variant as it became the top news story around the world.
We are seeing people planning trips to get ahead of the holiday season, but the broader near-term picture of travel remains uncertain. We don’t spend undue time trying to forecast the unknown — the world will continue its upward trajectory out of COVID, perhaps with a bump here or there, and when people feel comfortable, they will travel — likely at record levels. Whatever the timeline, the threat of COVID-19 will diminish and travel will be back — bigger and better than ever.
Advice for post-COVID travelers
If you could offer any advice to people planning their future trips — other than to get a vaccine — what would it be?
Our goal is to make travel as seamless as possible, something made especially hard when navigating COVID-19 restrictions. We offer many resources to reduce the friction associated with planning trips during the pandemic. It’s also important to be aware of the ever-changing landscape of restrictions and protocols for travel.
Well-meaning governments around the world have unfortunately created a patchwork of regulations and rules that lack consistency and tend to confuse travelers. So, be informed, use a travel company like ours that has your back, and be flexible when thinking about where and when you go.
Travel is probably one of the most joyful things any of us gets to do, and it’s important to appreciate and take advantage of whatever is available to you even if it’s not exactly what you had in mind.