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Open AccessArticle

Changes in Consumption Patterns and Tourist Promotion after the COVID-19 Pandemic

Faculty of Business and Tourism, University of Vigo, 32004 Ourense, Spain
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Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Stefano Za
J. Theor. Appl. Electron. Commer. Res. 2021, 16(5), 1332-1352; https://doi.org/10.3390/jtaer16050075
Received: 22 March 2021 / Revised: 29 March 2021 / Accepted: 13 April 2021 / Published: 15 April 2021

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has entailed an unprecedented health crisis with significant economic impacts in many sectors worldwide. The tourism sector has been one of the most affected, with significant impacts on the number of cancelled reservations, a decrease in international travel and changes in consumption behaviour. This study aims to analyse the main changes in promotion and marketing in the tourism sector in Spain after the pandemic. To this end, a qualitative analysis was carried out via questionnaire-based interviews with 65 experts in the areas of marketing, consumer behaviour and tourism. The main findings show that online information sources gained weight over consulting friends and relatives, and a great advance in digitization is expected, where physical travel agencies will be displaced by online platforms, except for specialized and advisory services. Additionally, technologies such as virtual reality (VR) or artificial intelligence (AI) may play an increasingly important role in the medium term.
Keywords: consumption; marketing; promotion; tourism; digitalization; COVID-19 consumption; marketing; promotion; tourism; digitalization; COVID-19

1. Introduction

In May and June 2020, countries with major tourism industries ceased marketing activities in response to travel restrictions [1,2,3,4] and focused on planning and financial support for tourism enterprises [5]. Unprecedented global travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders are causing the most severe disruption of the global economy since World War II [6]. Before assessing those aspects of tourism marketing and promotion that were affected—and are expected to change as a result of COVID-19—it should be noted that the impact came from both the demand and supply sides [7,8].
On the demand side, the crisis will bring a reduction in disposable income with the consequent reduction in tourists’ willingness to pay [9]. Calveras [10] points out that the magnitude of the reduction in tourists’ willingness to pay will differ depending on their profile and the product in question, for example, an older tourist is likely to experience a greater reduction in his or her appreciation of the product than a younger consumer. The intensity of the willingness to pay will also be conditioned by the characteristics of the destination, for example, in areas of greater tourist congestion the reduction in the willingness to pay may be limited by a foreseeable lower tourist overcrowding in those destinations.
The uncertainty caused by the pandemic [11] led tourists to delay their purchase decision until the last moment. Travel contracts made months in advance, which have been common until now, have plummeted due to the high risk of cancellation. A study by Destinia shows that 89% of bookings by Spanish tourists in the first week of August 2020 were for immediate travel [12]. Certainly, this move towards last-minute purchasing is motivated by the uncertainty of the situation. A macro study conducted by Travel Consul [13] in twenty countries shows that in the last two weeks of September, clients are either waiting to decide when to travel (48%) or are booking an international trip less than a month in advance (21%). Last minute bookings are becoming more prominent for European travellers (34%). In contrast, 31% of North American clients are booking a holiday seven months to one year before departure. It is noted that changes are taking place in the consumption patterns of tourists and users in general [14]. Specifically, there is an increased use of the Internet throughout the purchase process, from the search for information and online shopping [15,16] to post-purchase and the exchange of information and recommendations among users via electronic word of mouth (eWom) [17].
The tourism sector has been one of the most affected by the current pandemic. Restrictions on mobility and closures of companies in the sector, either totally or partially during certain periods, have had a notable influence on this sector. There have been changes in tourists’ consumption patterns and, consequently, in the offer business strategy. A large volume of the studies that are addressing the issue focus on descriptive research on the immediate and short-term effects of the pandemic. This research often simply confirms that the pandemic is ruining the tourism industry worldwide [18]. The aim of this work is to find out what the main changes have been. Based on this information, the companies in the sector can orientate their offer towards the new consumption patterns and adapt to the new situation. Two hypotheses are proposed:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
COVID-19 has influenced the marketing strategy of the tourism sector.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
COVID-19 has reoriented the promotional strategy of the tourism sector.
In addition to verifying whether both hypotheses are fulfilled, the aim is to find out what changes have occurred. Based on the strategies adopted by the most resilient companies, the rest of the sector can adapt by taking these actions as benchmarks. At this time of uncertainty there is a lot of information generated about the pandemic, but there are no benchmark actions from which companies can benefit in a practical way.
In order to answer both hypotheses and obtain in-depth quality information, a qualitative methodology has been chosen as the most appropriate for this study. Through questionnaire-based interviews, 65 experts in Spain in areas such as marketing, consumer behaviour and tourism were asked about the expected evolution and trends in the use of e-commerce, the sources of information used and the role of new technologies. Prior to conducting the interviews, a theoretical review on the marketing and promotion of tourism during COVID-19 was carried out by consulting the very recent publications. Finally, the discussion on the work and the main conclusions are presented.

2. Literature Review

2.1. Consumer Behaviour and Tourism Marketing during COVID-19

Consumer demands and purchasing behaviour have radically changed [19], and as a result, companies have had to innovate their marketing strategies in order to survive. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly influenced our daily and social lives, as well as our consumption patterns [20]. The pandemic gave rise to a new and fundamental dimension in the tourism product: health security [21,22,23,24]. In other words, exposure to COVID-19 and the risk of contagion must be minimal in the consumption and production of tourist activity. In their study, Campbell et al. [25] warn of different threats derived from COVID-19, from health threats to economic, social, informational and environmental threats, and Galoni et al. [26] assert that the presence of disease can systematically alter consumer behaviour in a real way that is relevant to marketers. Therefore, in the face of such a global pandemic situation, changes in consumption are to be expected.
There are tourist behaviour phenomena that help us to understand the psyche of consumers and their perception of risk. For example, the preference for group travel, taking out travel insurance, and loyalty to the destination provide tourists with a sense of security that reduces the perception of risk. Understanding these phenomena, and how they relate to each other, contributes to a deeper understanding of the relationship between the pandemic and the psyche of tourists [18]. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a substantial challenge to global human welfare. Like other challenges, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic depends on the actions of individual citizens and, therefore, on the quality of information to which people are exposed [27].
Still, prior research shows that marketing innovations could help firms survive risks [28]. In this process of redesigning the tourism product, companies must combine two factors [10]: (1) offer a safe product in terms of public health, with minimum risk of contagion, and (2) offer a profitable product, with a sufficient relationship between the customer’s willingness to pay and the average costs of offering the service.
The two main measures implemented by the travel operators during the third quarter of 2020 were “adjusting the business model” and “design of new products” (45%). The strategy of “improving the current products” is the third most chosen (35%). The strategy of “focusing on training programmes” decreased by 11% with respect to the second quarter [13].
The tourist voucher is used by some destinations as a new product to stimulate local customer consumption. Tourist vouchers are based on the discount voucher model for purchases in hotels and other tourist accommodation, restaurants and the tourism industry in general, with the aim of revitalising one of the sectors most affected by the crisis [29]. For example, at the end of November 2020, the Basque Country (Spain) issued nearly one million vouchers in tourism, hotel and commercial services in the Autonomous Community, with different discounts for citizens for a total value of 9 million euros, and is expected to produce an economic impact of 26 million euros. The Basque Government provided 5.7 million and the rest was contributed by other collaborating institutions (provincial councils and chambers of commerce of the three territories). These vouchers can be purchased by residents in the Basque Country or by visitors from other places and will be valid until May 2021 [30].
For most travel operators, social media is the main marketing activity for recovery in the coming months [31]. Seven out of ten respondents in the Travel Consul study [13] stated that social media marketing was their primary focus. Digital marketing and direct sales came in second and third place, respectively [32]. Citizens have had to isolate themselves in their homes and avoid physical contact to prevent contagion, so companies have had to pay more attention to developing and strengthening online business by adapting rapid marketing innovations [33]. In service-oriented industry, and particularly in the time of an epidemic such as COVID 19, the service failure has increased and business turned online to keep the connection and good relationship with customers. Online customer retention has become important for business more than any time, especially when it comes to services such as airline industry and hospitality and retailers [34].
Digital marketing is a broad umbrella that includes the following activities and instruments [35]:
  • Presentation and interaction: website, apps, blogs, podcasts.
  • Communication: social networks, web series, online platforms.
  • For sale: e-commerce, social networks, marketplaces, blockchains.
  • Strategic: SEO (search engine optimization), SEM (search engine marketing), content marketing, attraction marketing.
  • Analysis and measurement: data generation, big data, metrics, key performance indicators (KPIs), analytics, data services. Monitoring of the actions carried out and adoption of new KPIs. Using big data techniques and the use of chatbots, customers’ needs and decisions are analysed and future lines of action are redefined [36].
During the pandemic period, companies face a new situation, with the challenge of retaining customers and increasing their re-purchase intention. Online customer retention is based on the customer’s online experience and relates to the following factors [37]:
  • The online service quality, such as the time of delivery;
  • Attitude toward the use of online buying;
  • Satisfaction with the online services;
  • Ease of using the online platform.
Crowdmarketing campaigns on social networks are likely to have a greater presence. Crowdmarketing tries to mobilize all lovers of a destination so that, by virtue of their emotional ties to it, they even become its best activists by sharing (under a single hashtag that reinforces the brand and favours go viral) their experiences, memories, images and everything that was memorable because it made them happy [38]. The visibility and credibility of the messages are superior to those used in institutional campaigns. Its vital pulse and topicality bring the emotion closer—so necessary in these times—due to the speed with which messages can be issued through smartphones [39]. In short, social networks are currently one of the most effective channels of communication with customers, so the actions must come from the commitment of the organization’s management and not exclusively from the marketing department [37].
Williams and Baláz [40] point out that the use of Big Data reduces the risk in situations of uncertainty. In the current situation, there have been initiatives in this regard, for example, in 2020 the European Commission reached a historic agreement with Airbnb, Booking, Expedia Group and TripAdvisor on data exchange through Eurostat. The involvement of the major online tour operators also favours the establishment of methodological standards, hitherto non-existent, which would favour comparability between destinations and guarantee the transparency and rigour of the process [41].
While some businesses are struggling, some businesses are thriving. This is true for a number of Internet-based businesses, such as those related to online entertainment, food delivery, online shopping, online education, and solutions for remote work [42]. The COVID-19 outbreak poses a unique opportunity to study how markets are created and how they disappear within a very limited time span. It would also be interesting to explore whether the disappearance of one solution for a market may be replaced by another (e.g., online marketing).

2.2. Changes Detected in the Promotion of the Tourist Destination during COVID-19

Whereas tourism marketing in destinations is a well-known activity, the essence of these responsibilities changes when having to face a disaster and deal with its consequences [43,44,45]. Tourism management organizations, hotel establishments and other tourism and destination businesses should coordinate their promotion and marketing initiatives [46].
Prior to COVID-19, online sales promotion has been widely used by online retailers to increase product sales and boost brands [47]. During the pandemic period, its use has increased, becoming a key marketing tool. The use of social networking and online connection technologies were already popular [48]—this year, they have grown even more.
One of the trends detected by the increase in Internet use is a change in online impulsive buying behaviour (OIBB). In a study on the influence of website quality on OIBB, Akram et al. [49] state three main points: (i) the website quality positively affects the OIBB; (ii) the sales promotion significantly influences OIBB and acts as a strong moderator on the relationship between website quality and online impulse buying; and (iii) the online impulse purchases are positively influenced by use of credit cards, and the use of credit cards enhances the relationship between website quality and online impulse buying.
During the 2003 crisis in Southeast Asia caused by the SARS-CoV virus, McKercher and Chon [50] warned how the lack of coordination and the wrong decisions of those responsible for tourism had a major impact on tourism flows. The health crisis soon attracted media attention [51]. This crisis mainly affected countries in Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam [52]. The number of passengers on international flights fell in Hong Kong by over 80% in the year-on-year rate of change and the hotel occupancy rate fell from 90% to 10% in some cases [53].
As a measure to rebuild the region’s battered image and attract tourists and businesses, the Hong Kong government approved a HKD 1 billion (EUR 118 million) aid package that included the launch of a HKD 400 million (EUR 47.1 million) tourism campaign over nine months. The most used strategies by lodging businesses and airlines to attract customers were discounting and cancellation without charge of the booked places to strengthen demand confidence [53].
The current situation in many Western countries seems to replicate that crisis (although much more aggravated in extension and intensity), that is, the existence of an initial under-reaction, counterbalanced by a late over-reaction by governments. All of this is motivated by the lack of experience in managing this type of health crisis [54]. One lesson learned from experience is the need for strong collaboration and coordination at national and international level among the various departments in the tourism area to develop effective responses to the crisis. From an international perspective, movements that promote a lack of understanding, or encapsulation, go in the opposite direction of what a resilient destination strategy advises [55]. From an international perspective, movements that promote a lack of border understanding, or encapsulation, go in the opposite direction of a resilient destination strategy [55].
In the midst of the world tourism crisis, on 28 May 2020, the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) published the document “Global guidelines to restart Tourism”. In the area of destination planning and management, the recommendations were as follows [56]:
  • Introduce and adapt actionable and harmonized processes and procedures in line with public health evidence based risk assessment and full coordination with relevant public and private sector partners.
  • Support companies in the implementation and training of their staff on the new protocols (financing and training).
  • Enhance the use of technology for safe, seamless and touchless travel in your destination. A critical element in the reorganisation of the industry will involve the increased incorporation of automation technologies [57].
  • Provide reliable, consistent and easy to access information on protocols to the private sector and to travellers (send SMS—short messages service—to tourists to inform them of national and local heath protocols and relevant health contacts).
  • Create programs and campaigns to incentivise the domestic market in cooperation with the private sector (incentive schemes, possible revision of holiday dates, transport facilities, vouchers, etc.) and integrate destinations.
  • Promote new products and experiences targeted at individual and small groups of travellers, such as: special interest, nature, rural tourism, gastronomy and wine, sports, etc. [58].
  • Consider the data privacy policies when there is a proposal of developing tracing apps. The WHO (World Health Organization) will develop guidance on the use of digital technologies for contact tracing?
  • Enhance and communicate medical capacity and protocols at the destination (e.g., safety seals) [59,60].
  • Ensure coordination among tourism, health and transport policies.
  • Define roles and responsibilities for governments, private sector and travellers.
Destination managers are responsible for activating the promotion of destinations, for example, by using travel vouchers and incentives and developing strategies for re-opening [61,62,63,64]. Health and safety protocols in tourism should be established, for example, by creating travel bubbles or tourist corridors, and by relaxing restrictions and reopening tourism businesses [65]. Given the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, it is particularly important to adopt strategies to improve tourist safety in the post-pandemic context and strengthen public confidence [66,67]. A recent international study by Zheng, Luo and Ritchie [68] suggests using measures to maintain social distancing, making accurate communication interventions and providing information on prevention measures.
Longer-term transformation scenarios are drawn up [69] that also have to do with the need to move towards new models of society in which consumption has to be reoriented to avoid the threats affecting society and the environment. Santos [70] announces the arrival of a time in which the 4 Ss (solidarity, health, sustainability and safety) will be enhanced compared to the 4 Cs (customer, cost, convenience and communication) and 4 Ps (price, product, place and promotion).
Vargas [38] points out that although promotion will be necessary—for tourism markets to awaken from the lethargy after the initial impact—promotion should not be the same as before. The strategies of tourist destination managers will not only be based on promotion, but also on reconfiguring the offer in the light of the new social reality resulting from the COVID-19 disaster.
Henderson’s study [71] on the role played by national tourism organizations (NTOs) in the crisis in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s shows that promotional efforts have limited influence. NTOs do not usually operate with products and direct marketing methods, but in recent years, sales promotion has undergone a change with the incorporation of online channels. These aspects were examined by Dore and Crouch [72] in an exploratory study on the evaluation of the promotional activities of Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) and especially the effectiveness of the use of advertising and public relations. According to Dore and Crouch [72], advertisements are the most widely used promotional tool by DMOs, mainly for consumers, whereas personal sales are mainly used in the tourism industry (trade fairs, familiarisation trips, incentive trips, etc.). Some authors defend the use of new technologies as advertising to relaunch the sector, for example, using augmented reality in the tourism sector in accordance with the WHO and UNWTO guidelines [44].

2.3. Digital Marketing as a Business Support Tool during the Pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted the stability of the economies of many countries, as well as business activities in many sectors. After the changes in marketing processes due to the pandemic, digital marketing has become a main support tool for companies—thanks to this tool, they have been able to gain competitiveness in the market [73].
Digital marketing has changed and improved the way of doing business. Kotler [74] argues that digital marketing is the combination of traditional aspects of marketing with digital novelties. The Spanish International Institute of Digital Marketing defines digital marketing as a type of application of marketing strategies carried out through digital media [75]. The Internet plays a key role in the competitiveness of companies in all sectors and industries; therefore, at the present time, companies must implement digital marketing actions, some of which are shown in Table 1.
Individuals are increasingly influenced by digital media. The increased use of the Internet in the pandemic situation has exacerbated this trend, causing the way people relate to brands, products and services to be transformed [76]. Businesses must adapt and strive to have a good online reputation, as the web is where individuals will search and obtain information. Online reputation is an asset that links the perception of the public and the stakeholders with whom it relates [77].
Several scholars have also argued that this pandemic may have transformed the structure of the market, and perhaps forever. In particular, there has been a digital transformation in consumer buying behaviour. For example, online shopping has increased significantly in 2020 and the consumer outlook shows a clear trend towards e-commerce. Faced with this situation, companies must adapt and use digital technology in their sales to turn this crisis into an opportunity [78]. Virtualization has been implemented during the pandemic, for example, in meetings and project management, and this transformation has not been particularly complicated for many companies [79]. In addition, most companies have made the transition to online operations successfully, so COVID-19 has become an opportunity for many to evolve digitally. The objective is to continue working in this line from now on, taking advantage of all the benefits of the online market.

3. Materials and Methods

Qualitative and quantitative research methods differ in a number of ways, both in data collection and their interpretation. While qualitative research prioritizes the depth and quality of data collected, quantitative research maintains premium on the number and volume of data collected [80]. Qualitative researches attempt to go beyond descriptions to provide a researcher with an in-depth understanding of a phenomenon, which is why this methodology has been chosen for this work. Interviewing is a highly used method of collecting data in qualitative social research methods [81,82]. Kvale [83] described the purpose of the interview as a method of data collection in social research as “…to gather descriptions of the life-world of the interviewee with respect to interpretation of the meaning of the described phenomena” (p. 174). Nunkoosing [82] emphasized the importance of the interview as a method of data collection enabling individuals to think and to talk about their predicaments, needs, expectations, experiences, and understandings.
In this research, open-ended interviews with semi-structured questionnaires have been used as a method to collect and analyse data on organizations, combining data collection and interpretation of the information obtained [84]. This method has a descriptive purpose of the phenomena of interest, as well as of the human behaviours. It is a systematic way of interpreting reality and understanding phenomena through the opinions and experiences of observers, informants or research participants [85].

3.1. Sample

Interviews were conducted with Spanish professionals in the areas of marketing, consumer behaviour and the tourism sector. A total of 65 interviews were conducted with experts, researchers, managers and entrepreneurs from various subsectors of the tourism sector (see Table 2). Most of the interviewees hold senior positions in their organizations, i.e., senior researchers, general managers and owners.

3.2. Data Collection

The interviews were conducted in November 2020. Due to the closure at that time of a large number of business activities, and the restrictions on mobility decreed by the authorities because of the pandemic, face-to-face interviews were ruled out. In the first phase, experts and researchers were contacted by e-mail and telephone to inform them of the content of this research and request their participation. The database of experts and researchers from the Spanish university network of postgraduate courses in tourism (Redintur) and managers from collaborating companies in the tourism sector was used.
In a second phase, an online questionnaire with 8 open-ended questions was sent to the participants. During this phase, one of the project’s researchers carried out the follow-up, answering by telephone the doubts and questions that were presented. At the end of this phase, 65 respondents sent the written questionnaires. Each questionnaire was subjected to an initial review to check its completeness and validity, requesting, if necessary, clarification of any of the answers. The questions included the following aspects:
  • Section I:
    Sources of information and communication channels
    Online shopping experience
    Role of new technologies
  • Section II:
    Changes in marketing
    Changes in the promotion
Section I is made up of 5 open questions with the aim of not limiting the answers and to obtain as much information as possible. Once in a first round of questions the channels and factors that motivate online shopping are obtained, respondents are asked via email to quantify them on a scale of 1 to 5. It also adds semi-open-ended questions that ask about information sources, channels and factors of online shopping. Once the main ones have been identified, the interviewees are asked to quantify them on a scale of 1 to 5. The questions posed are the following: since the beginning of the pandemic, what sources of information do tourists consult? What are the most used channels? What factors make online shopping a good experience?
This section also asks about the main changes detected after the pandemic in the tourism sector. Opinion is requested on aspects such as health security, public safety, quality seals, and the role of physical travel agencies, price, promotion and loyalty to the tourist destination. Finally, opinions are sought on the role of new technologies in this new landscape, and the fundamental changes in tourist consumer behaviour in the wake of the pandemic.
Section 2 focuses on the hypotheses raised in this research:
  • Have there been changes in tourism marketing after the pandemic? Which ones?
  • Have there been changes in tourism promotion after the pandemic? Which ones?

3.3. Data Analysis

All responses were recorded and tabulated in Excel sheets for analysis. A thematic analysis and coding techniques were carried out in order to identify the main themes in all interviews. Thematic analysis is defined as a method to identify and analyse reporting patterns within the data [86]. Such analysis offers an accessible and flexible approach to analysing qualitative data. According to this technique, the transcribed information is read by the researchers in order to get into the content in a deep and wide way, and then extract the relevant information. In a first phase, repeated and patterned responses were identified. A review of the themes was carried out, paying special attention to the use of online tools. The results were grouped into three areas, namely, information sources, marketing of tourism products and services, and promotion of the destination. Finally, the current situation and expected changes were analysed.

4. Results

4.1. Sources of Information, Communication Channels and New Technologies

The first section addresses the use of information sources and channels. Respondents agree that during the pandemic the use of the Internet and online information sources gained significance over personal consultations with friends, family and acquaintances, especially during the period of confinement. Experts were of the view that the sources of information to which consumers are going to give more truthfulness for decision-making after the pandemic are the following: the online network, recommendations from peers, other tourists, and the use of credible sources for tracking health information and other statistics, i.e., government sources. In particular, social networks and blogs are widely mentioned, followed by eWom (electronic Word-of-Mouth) and government sources alike (see Figure 1). Other channels were mentioned, such as the official websites of the destinations, tour operators and travel agencies, mainly the specialized ones, with traditional word of mouth and recommendations from friends and family taking a back seat.
The experts opined that the communication channel with tourism companies most used by tourists will be the mobile phone, followed closely by social networks. In-person communication is expected to be secondary (see Figure 2), i.e., contact will be mainly online (networks, mail, official websites, etc.) and travellers will go to physical travel agencies in specific cases where the organization of the trip is complex or to travel to distant destinations, with different language and culture.
Speed and availability were considered key factors in the decision making process of the online purchase of tourism products and services in order to achieve a better experience for the tourist (Figure 3). Convenience and price were the next best valued factors. Still, some experts believe that online shopping is not always the best option. In the case of complex products, high-budget trips and exotic destinations or, in order to achieve more security and extra guarantees, the purchase in physical travel agencies is still a better alternative because they have specialized staff who can advise the tourist.
Interviewees were asked for their views on the situation of the tourism sector in the aftermath of the pandemic. The responses received are grouped into seven proposals that are shown in Figure 4. It can be seen that health safety is considered to be the most determining factor in the image of a destination. It is expected that the price will continue to be a key variable in the process of tourist purchase and—as we have seen before—physical travel agencies will lose their prominence. Although not the most valued factor, some respondents consider that quality seals will have a greater influence on the perceived image of the destination, company or product. In this case, there is no unanimous opinion on the matter, but two divided groups: on the one hand those who think that these seals provide confidence and credibility, and on the other those who consider that they are not sufficiently perceived by the tourist and there are other more visible criteria such as the stars, in the case of tourist accommodations. In some cases, it is believed that their proliferation has undermined their purpose.
Despite some of the negative aspects for the sector, such as the loss of purchasing power for families during the pandemic, experts believe that the tourism sector is highly resilient and will grow again. The key elements are security and greater sensitivity and attention to health-related aspects, for example, organizing visits by smaller groups; the demand for a more personalised service, with a key role here being played by the new technologies mentioned above; and the search for experience and variety in the tourist offer.
Regarding the role of new technologies in the tourism market, experts were asked about the use of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) during the purchasing process. Some of the interviewees consider that these technologies are already a reality in the sector, and almost all of the interviewees consider that their role will be increasingly relevant in the medium term. The following quotes illustrate the above arguments: “In the medium term, [VR and AI] will converge with other technologies, causing a substantial change in the tourism experience” (participant 15); “AI will help to better define and personalize products and VR will give the possibility to make services tangible and offer added value to monuments, museums, etc.” (participant 10); “This is an important line of work, both before the trip and at the destination. The AI will allow to provide tourist offers in a more personalized way and the VR allows to be an element for the purchase decision. At the destination, VR will allow recreation with a better personal experience” (participant 47).

4.2. Expected Changes in Tourism Marketing

Despite the fact that we are facing a global crisis in tourism, unknown for its characteristics and dimensions, and the uncertainty about its evolution in the current tourism context, the responses obtained show a striking homogeneity. Most experts believe that the use of online channels will increase and the personalization of services to travellers will grow in importance after the pandemic. An expert explains it this way, “there will probably be a bipolarization. With more conscious purchases, with greater expenditure and through channels with greater personal contact, on the one hand. And more unconscious purchases, with less expense, based on price and automated processes, where digitalization will play a very important role.” Another element that can be seen is the emergence of large marketers such as Amazon—which took advantage of the period of confinement and closure of local commerce to grow—which may displace travel agencies to some extent in the management of tourism products. On the other hand, the importance of personalised advice for travel agencies is underlined, which will be increasingly inclined towards consultancy services, since as one interviewee stated, “physical agencies with a contact person can transmit a lot of confidence at the time of purchase”.
Figure 5 shows the key concepts, highlighted by the experts, of the main expected trends in tourism marketing processes. An increase in the use of online channels is expected, with greater interaction with the consumer through a growing multiplatform structure. This is made possible by a renewed intensity in the use of technologies and their effectiveness in achieving high levels of customization.
Below, we summarize the main trends expected in marketing processes. The online channel will continue to be exploited to reach more potential consumers through new technological forms, such as augmented reality; there will be an increase in online channels, with new players in the different sectors, such as transport, agencies, accommodation or tourist activities; there will be new channels, both at the level of information search for travel planning as well as in the booking process and in contracting and after-sales, for example, in theatre/concert/museum tickets; and it is quite possible that multi-channel distribution will bring about aggressive pricing policies among the different agents.
The knowledge of the customer, beyond the generic segmentation, can lead to the personalization of the product, in the mode and time of consumption. This knowledge can come from direct contact with travel agents or through multi-channel interaction. At travel agency level, an increase in the importance of highly personalized advice and attention—with greater involvement with the client—is expected.
With regard to digitalization and technology, the relationship with tourists and technological competition will be the new value proposals in innovative business models. Tourists will increasingly use technology as a source of destination information to decide what to buy, what to visit, and what to do. A digital transformation of the industry is expected, so that the virtuality of the tourism marketing process is considerably increased, as well as the use of Big Data, AI (artificial intelligence) and processes based on algorithms for a better adaptation of marketing to customer tastes.
As for the new players and sales models, two different trends can be observed: (i) the concentration of distributors in large online groups, which may be joined by technological giants such as Amazon and Google, and greater weight of platforms and hybrid models such as Tripadvisor, Airbnb and Booking, and other similar ones that may arise; (ii) the hyper-specialisation of small operators in products or activities for more complex micro-segments and markets. The B2B (business to business) channel will gradually lose weight and direct sales to customers, i.e., the B2C (business to consumer) channel, will gain importance. There will be an increase in tailor-made trips at the expense of tourist packages. Several experts predict the disappearance of some Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and concentration on a few agencies, with a greater presence of direct marketing, that will take a piece of the pie.
Interviewees were asked for their views on the main expected changes in the tourism consumer. Two opposing behaviours are expected; on the one hand, the more conservative consumers will delay their trips for a while, postponing spending (even saving for later higher spending trips), on the other hand, there is a group of consumers who want to travel as before the pandemic. In the short term, the experts are inclined towards a greater presence of the first group, which has greater security requirements in the destination (mainly security health) and in the means of transport. This group of consumers is conditioned by the memory of the pandemic, by cultural and psychological closeness and, possibly, by a greater awareness of environmental and mobility issues. Finally, the most notable changes in the consumer are succinctly listed:
  • Flexibility and transparency in trade policies were a requirement during the pandemic. The client will hardly understand a reversal in this regard.
  • A greater prominence—more power—is expected from the final tourist as opposed to the current prominence of the intermediaries.
  • Increased traveller attention to safe destinations.
  • Increased importance of the experience attribute and emotions.
  • Increased exchange of information between consumers (P2P—peer to per—networks).
  • Increased awareness of environmental sustainability and landscape and heritage preservation.
The interviewees mentioned numerous changes in tourism marketing. The first hypothesis (H1) is thus accepted.

4.3. Expected Changes in Destination Promotion

The responses of the interviewees are more varied than those obtained in the marketing of products. Some scenarios that arise for the future are the following:
  • For a long period, we will have important quotas of local demand that will determine the promotion of the tourist destination.
  • We will see a shift from traditional to digital media budgets. This means a change in promotion strategies, from the traditional tourist fairs or general advertising campaigns towards digital and defined strategies. Online commercial communication will increase in all segments. Traditional commercial communication may continue to be used in mature segments.
  • In a scenario of increased competition to capture the attention of markets, apparently opposing strategies can coexist, that is, personalized promotions aimed at small niches with the use of mass media, online and offline. In this sense, “the organization of singular events that stimulate the involvement of the consumer or potential visitor can be interesting for the future” (participant 56).
  • Greater transversality will be perceived through the incorporation of “non-tourist” agents and elements, indispensable for the increased demand from tourists.
The key aspects identified in the interviews were those of strengthening security and the image perceived by tourists, and employing strategies that favour personalisation. Thus, important changes are expected in the following areas: (i) Security; attributes related to safety and trust in the destination will be more important. For this reason, work should be performed on the enhancement of health security measures, real-time care, and content that reinforce confidence and the image of a safe destination. (ii) Engagement; the promotional campaigns will be more focused on emotions and experiences and show how tourists will feel when they arrive at the destination. AI will be crucial to accurately segment each campaign. Engagement marketing is oriented towards the generation of positive experiences, with the emotional component playing a greater role. (iii) Personalization in communication; it advocates more direct contact with the tourist, greater interaction and closeness to the client. A greater importance of personalized communication. This can be achieved through increased use of social media campaigns and online platforms.
Figure 6 shows a word cloud with the most prominent expected changes, taken from the interviews with the 65 experts.
The use of information systems is seen as a key factor in capturing consumer interest and for “making decisions to anticipate undesirable outcomes and direct promotion in the various market niches available at any given time in the financial year” (participant 38). Another expert points out that “those destinations that know how to collect and exploit data on their customers and markets can be projected more efficiently and directly. That is, adapting not only to specific markets, but to specific types of customers in those markets, creating an illusion of customization” (participant 14). In this sense, more weight is given to social networks in communication. On the other hand, it is expected that the emotional aspects linked to security will have more weight in decisions, so strategies should focus on “reinforcing the confidence of the tourist, developing messages oriented to the emotional side and focused on consolidating the security perceived by the tourist” (participant 32). Digital media, such as augmented and virtual reality, are configured as some of the instruments for the stimulation of the experiential approach.
Many of the interviewees consider that the influence of the old strategies will slow down change in the short and medium term. This form of inertia is pointed out as a need for a greater role for professionals in the tourism sector in the development and implementation of promotional strategies, and less so for political representatives. The development of the destination will also depend on the relations with large tour operators. One of the experts points out that “large companies are involved in the search for liquidity and survival (…). If the destination works with tour operators, those destinations that offer better conditions (safe destination image, climate, nature) and, above all, price in tourist packages to companies will be able to recover more quickly” (participant 40).
Given the numerous changes in tourism promotion mentioned by the interviewees, the second hypothesis (H2) is also accepted.

5. Discussion and Conclusions

Due to COVID-19, the tourism sector has suffered a worldwide paralysis unprecedented since the Second World War. The way businesses operate has been altered by social distancing and forced shutdowns, requiring radical changes in operations and configurations [87]. The lack of tourist activity, confinement and restrictions on mobility have stimulated the use of the Internet as a means of consulting tourist information and reservations. Previous studies have acknowledged the role of word-of-mouth (WOM) as one of the most relied-upon sources of information for destination selection [88,89], and during the pandemic, the eWom effect has increased as a source of information and as a means of sharing opinions. The growing significance of digital media as a source of information, which seems to outweigh the direct recommendations of friends and relatives, may be due to two main reasons: first, the volume of information is so large that nearby sources do not have the capacity to process and synthesize the information in all its breadth and at the high rate at which it is generated; and second, the weight of health safety-related factors in consumer decision-making has grown enormously.
The mobile phone and computer are the devices most used as means of communication, and will continue to be so after the pandemic. The possibility for tourists to have internet access in their pockets is a great opportunity for companies and tourist destinations. They can provide information at any time, before, during and after a trip. On the one hand, business and destinations can obtain prior information about the tourist’s interests and adapt their offer. On-site, they can enhance the tourist experience by providing real-time information. After the trip, visitors can share their experience through the aforementioned eWom.
The impact of the Internet on the tourism sector and consumers relies on online reviews to form purchase decisions, and this was anticipated by Fang et al. [90]. Tourists can communicate with the service provider at any time during their trip or tourism experience—via an app or online chat. Expectations are that the online trend will continue after the pandemic—this will favour the business–tourist or destination–tourist connectivity in the tourism industry. The fact that users have been forced to intensify their use of online channels in the tourism sector will be a benefit in the aftermath of the pandemic.
On the other hand, the good rating received from the online shopping experience during the pandemic, mainly due to factors such as speed of service and convenience, places this type of purchase as a growing alternative. Tourists who had never shopped online before have seen the benefits. Experts predict that, in the wake of the pandemic, some tourists will shift their consumption patterns to online. Companies in the sector must anticipate and adapt their online sales channels to these new users. As Higgins-Desbiolles [91] argues, the COVID-19 crisis has inspired transformative thinking, as a movement of great potential.
The relationship with the tourist and the technological competition will be the new value proposals in innovative business models. A digital transformation of the industry is expected, so that the virtuality of the tourism marketing process is considerably increased. In terms of marketing tools, social networks and digital marketing will be the main instruments for recovery in the coming months [13]. Digital marketing is a broad umbrella that includes sales and communication, presentation and interaction, strategic analysis and measurement instruments [35]. During the pandemic, the time spent by consumers on travel planning has been significantly reduced, and the percentage of last-minute bookings has increased [12]. Experts say this buying trend will continue until the situation returns to safety and normality. In the recovery period, many tourism businesses will have to adapt their business model, as well as design new products, for example, the tourist voucher is being used by some destinations to stimulate local customer consumption.
Moreover, previous studies have already identified the major influence of health security on travel decision-making [92,93,94]. With the evolution of the epidemic, a further step has been taken and has placed health and safety certifications as a key element for promoting destinations, in fact, some studies highlight security certifications as one of the main reasons when choosing a destination [13]. A more precise and synchronous monitoring of the incidence of the virus and infections in the territories and tourist destinations is necessary, and this is only possible through the use of online sources for tracking health information.
Many of the measures proposed are common in the marketing of the tourism product; however, there is evidence that many of the operations and marketing practices will no longer be able to follow the usual route—business as usual—but that small and large businesses will have to reinvent themselves to reach a customer who is different in their outlook and consumption habits. Some authors point out that there will not be a return to the “old” normality and the strategic challenge that tourism companies must inevitably face on this path is that of change or transformation [36]. Sigala [65] argues that the tourism industry must reset itself to adapt to the new normality. In this new scenario, the tourism offer will have to be restarted, reformed and reinvented, adapting the following measures: the re-engineering of business operations; technological solutions for the control of hygiene, health and safety; updating and redesigning the booking forecast, revenue management and pricing systems; accelerating digital and data analysis; redesigning the way in which the tourism experience is lived and the emotional contribution of the activities. Moreover, as He and Harris [87] pointed out, there have been fundamental changes in the macro marketing environment, the repercussions of which will reverberate for decades to come.
Experts stress that in a period of high uncertainty, information is key. Given the panic caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, it is particularly important to adopt strategies to alleviate public fear and improve tourist safety in the post-pandemic context. There is a direct and important relationship between perceived risk and the quality of information, since the more reliable a source is considered, the more effective and informative the message will be [95]. Zheng, Luo and Ritchie [68] suggest practical implications: (i) there is a need to provide tourists with real-time social distancing information, for example, through webcams, and short messages with information on achievements in protection measures; (ii) at the personal and emotional level, communication interventions should be oriented towards developing individual capacity to deal with an unknown crisis such as the current one, i.e., strengthening individual resilience. This is important as the current crisis may persist for years.
The thrust of the large international technological groups in tourism marketing operations is expected, displacing the traditional travel agencies—physical and online—which should continue on the path towards specialization opportunities, niche product and markets searching, Internet technologies, and consolidation and reduced competition [84]. At the same time, the pandemic is expected to be followed by an era of increased use of online channels and greater personalization of travel advice and services.
It is expected that the B2B channel will gradually lose relevance, and the B2C channel of direct sales to the client will gain more prominence. DMOs are emerging as the ideal organizations to lead proactive initiatives and build trust. These entities, responsible for the tourism management of the destination, were for a long time a reliable source of information for travellers. This function should be used in the current situation. In the areas where DMOs have a position of coordinating body for other stakeholders, or are directly responsible for the measures being implemented, the European Travel Commission [96] specifies four measures that DMOs can develop in the field of B2C communications: (1) Reassess target markets in light of ease of access, propensity to visit within the next 6–12 months; (2) Promote destinations and experiences that match consumer sentiment and ease of access, e.g., leisure market, outdoor tourism and less crowded destinations; (3) Provide updated practical advice on “How to plan your visit” in light of social distancing and hygiene measures; and (4) set up and run domestic marketing campaigns, e.g., around voucher systems for residents.
Aspects such as personalization, digitalization, security, use of online channels, new technologies and the redesign of products and strategies will be the keys to continue marketing in the tourism sector from now on. Traditional media were already being displaced by digital media; this crisis has accelerated this process. Communication should also benefit from the use of online media to reach potential tourists, with contact being increasingly direct and without intermediaries.
As a limitation of this study, the timing of data collection should be noted. The novelty of the current situation, the absence of previous references and the uncertainty about the behaviour of the industry and consumers can be a limitation. In addition, the qualitative data collection technique used allows for better quality and depth of information, but at the same time limits the analysis information to the subjective opinion of the interviewed experts. As the pandemic is currently at its peak (at the time of writing we are in the third wave), future research should continue to analyse the situation according to the evolution of the crisis, confirming or correcting the trends detected and establishing new scenarios for the tourism sector. In future research, data could be collected using quantitative techniques such as tourist questionnaires, thus complementing expert opinion with the opinion of tourism consumers.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, N.A.V. and J.A.F.B.; methodology, D.R.T. and N.A.V.; formal analysis, D.R.T. and N.A.V.; investigation, N.A.V. and D.R.T.; resources, J.A.F.B.; data curation, N.A.V. and J.A.F.B.; writing—original draft preparation N.A.V. and J.A.F.B.; writing—review and editing, D.R.T.; supervision, N.A.V. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Funding

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Figure 1. Sources of information for making tourism decisions after the pandemic.
Figure 1. Sources of information for making tourism decisions after the pandemic.
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Figure 2. Communication channels used with tourism companies (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
Figure 2. Communication channels used with tourism companies (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
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Figure 3. Factors making online shopping a better experience (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
Figure 3. Factors making online shopping a better experience (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
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Figure 4. Post-pandemic tourism expectations (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
Figure 4. Post-pandemic tourism expectations (Likert scale from 1 to 5).
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Figure 5. Expected changes in tourism marketing processes. Keywords.
Figure 5. Expected changes in tourism marketing processes. Keywords.
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Figure 6. Expected changes in tourism promotion processes. Keywords. 1. DMO: Destination Marketing Organizatio. 2. ICT: Internet and Communication Technology.
Figure 6. Expected changes in tourism promotion processes. Keywords. 1. DMO: Destination Marketing Organizatio. 2. ICT: Internet and Communication Technology.
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Table 1. Digital marketing actions.
Table 1. Digital marketing actions.
ElementAction
HardwareNearly 90% of consumer transactions start and end on an electronic device, primarily mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.
Content marketingThe information provided by the website and/or social networks must be real and in line with what is offered, so it will be possible to ensure the return of customers (customer loyalty).
Organic searchCustomer use of search engines. It is necessary to achieve high visibility and traffic on the website, attract and persuade customers.
E-mail marketingAn appropriate e-mail campaign allows you to close a deal with a potential customer, for this it is necessary to have content that can convince the customer.
Social media marketingThe first step of the contact with the customer lies in the social networks, in this step an interaction between the brand and the user is established.
Web developmentThe website presents the business and must detail everything it offers because on social networks only the ad is shown.
Corporate imageThis point is essential for the business as it allows the establishment of an identity and recognition among users.
Positioning in GoogleA ranking within the search engines will not only give visibility to the brand, it will also give confidence and security.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization)Through organic growth, it aims to improve the position of a website in search engine results for specific search terms that relate directly to the business.
SEM (Search Engine Marketing)In this case it improves the position of the website through paid advertising. It allows the site to be shown in the first positions when the user searches for a specific item.
Advertising campaignsThe medium and mode of dissemination are decisive to reach potential customers, and it is possible to know the customers’ tastes thanks to the data shared by users and reactions to the published content.
Source: Own elaboration based on Hoyos-Estrada and Sastoque-Gómez [73].
Table 2. Sample participants.
Table 2. Sample participants.
ParticipantsSample
University and Technology Centres25
Business consultancy11
Restaurant business12
Rural tourism5
Tourist accommodation7
Winery-Enotourism4
Media1
Total65
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