A few weeks ago, I shared an update to friends and partners across the world on what was happening in India. The world was reading about how a story of ‘horror’ was unfolding in my country as the second wave of the pandemic hit us.
Now, the stories were not all false of course. As a nation, we became complacent and far too much relaxed. Experts had predicted that India could not be immune to a resurgence of the virus. Our government made us believe that we had beaten the virus. Our second wave came much later than the West, and we paid the price for having our eyes closed.
Gradually, global media also started covering a different story about India. How hundreds of thousands of common citizens are rising to the cause of supporting those affected. How the spirit of volunteerism has surged across the nation. How examples of positivity are emerging from the ashes of despair. Group after group, community after community, have all banded together to find equipment, supplies and whatever else was required to support anyone in need.
The average man gave up on the government and decided we will fend for ourselves. There has been a tsunami of goodwill across all segments of society (except the politicians and bureaucrats). This is an India that demonstrated the rise of true leadership from the grassroots, provided inspiration from the masses; creating hope for all. This is the India that makes me proud.
But what is likely to happen to incentive travel?
An eternity ago — in May 2020 — I wrote a piece for SITE (Society for Incentive Travel Excellence) called “Chicken Little & Incentive Travel”. I said back then: “We are all guilty of the Chicken Little Syndrome. It is a very basic human instinct.…When crises occur, it is very easy to let your imagination run wild. For stories to be conjured up in our heads. We need to be aware of the danger of our industry slipping into a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, despair, and decline. If we as professionals keep on talking about the end of our world, can you imagine how our clients will react? How our employees will feel? Our suppliers partners?”
Now, many moons later, I stand by what I said to all my friends and colleagues in our industry: Optimism isn’t optional but compulsory.
Green shoots of interest in incentives and return of events
We have all seen global rankings on the top 10 most stressful occupations — event planners are on this illustrious list. The logistical issues of this pandemic are probably not what worries us as much as has the pure economic devastation it has brought across the global MICE industry. But stress is in our DNA. It is our drug of choice.
But it is also time to move on. What happened, has happened. There was and is nothing we could do about this situation we find ourselves in. But we can most certainly work on getting back on track.
SITE recently had its first in-person event with its Incentive Summit Americas. This week the Arabian Travel Mart started in Dubai — I saw pictures online and it was so thrilling to see exhibition booths 'live'. There are other events taking place across the world, where local rules have allowed. The green shoots are emerging.
I am putting my money on this statement: “We as incentive travel specialists will see an increase in interest in planning groups for 2022 and beyond.” I predict that these green shoots will grow a lot faster than we think.
Why? Because I see that in how my global clients are reacting. Even for a destination like India, which was never the first choice for incentive planners, I am getting requests for next year. I know destinations like Mexico, Egypt, and Morocco are seeing interest. The traditional European destinations are already opening up for vaccinated travellers. I see third parties in many parts of the world active in engaging clients and talking about the future. There is activity on the ground. A buzz is emerging.
It's time to reach out, reconnect
I think one of the mistakes that our industry media makes is by judging the entire global industry based on what happens in the US, UK or other developed countries. That negativity in coverage leads to the ‘Chicken Little’ effect becoming amplified. The world is so much bigger, and the industry so much more diverse. There is so much business out there to be tapped. It just takes getting out of one’s comfort zones and looking at new opportunities. They are out there for sure!
Also, one piece of advice I would give — please engage with your industry associations.
Incentive travel is what floats my boat, and SITE is my professional home. They have been doing a tremendous job in keeping their membership engaged and morale high. We have been talking to end clients and working on them to deepen their understanding of incentive travel as the ultimate tool for employee motivation. I am just so proud of SITE’s leadership, who are pushing us all to do better. Of course, there is hesitation on all sides.
But talking is therapeutic, and associations like SITE help to hand hold the nervous ones towards the right side. So, whether you align yourselves with SITE, MPI, PCMA, ICCA and anyone else, go out and connect. It will help you grow personally and professionally.
This week, we are seeing a drop in daily new cases. Supplies of oxygen concentrators, ICU bed availability and essential medicines are up, so the panic has somewhat come down. Not the time to break out the champagne as yet, but it is a good sign. Don't forget that India has some of the best doctors globally, and we salute the medical teams working under intense pressure. India has always been called the pharmacy of the world; more than 60% of all global vaccines for most of the pharmaceutical giants are manufactured in India.
India still has one of the lowest per million caseloads and one of the lowest mortality rates at 1.10% against the world average of 2.12%.
We are also running the world’s most extensive vaccination programme. More than 39,000 vaccination centres are operating seven days a week, and so far, some 182 million doses have been administered. India also donated millions of vials to neighbouring nations and other developing countries. The largest vaccine producer in the world is in India and is working overtime to fulfil all its orders. Yes, we do have shortages right now, but I hear that shall be overcome in a few weeks.
We have lockdowns imposed again in most major cities, and we all agree we need some of that. It is having a positive effect on case numbers for sure. We need to break the chain. It does not alarm us as we now know how to navigate life in that state. The past lockdowns helped us last time, and now with this and the vaccination drive, it will help even more. The silver lining on this dark cloud is that all essential services are operating just as normal, so nobody’s daily lives at home are impacted at all.
Indians are resilient by nature. We have been through many a crisis before, and we have learned how to support each other. As I mentioned above, the grassroots support systems that have cropped up across the country are heartwarming. No matter what religion or belief they have, all communities have come together to work as a team. People have grouped to lend a hand of support to anyone who needs it, whether it is to deliver home-cooked meals to those in isolation or getting oxygen cylinders delivered. There are support lines and WhatsApp groups working overtime to make sure we all get through this together.
As we face the realities of this pandemic, we also look inward for strength from our beliefs. Like all our tragedies and trials of the past, we shall rise as a proud nation, bonded as one to show the world what Indians are made of. India is incredible.
At the end of the day, we will all soon sit back and share stories of how we survived the great pandemic of the 21st century, how we had losses, how we had success. How our appreciation for nature, our families, our friends grew. What new hobbies we took up, what books we read. And we will share these stories on trade show floors, in bars and cafes, on fam trips and during event operations.
For now, the world continues to spin.
Rajeev Kohli is the joint managing director of Creative Travel, one of the most established DMCs in India.