2022 – Travel Industry, A Look Forward and Back

As the CEO of Cornerstone, the past 20 plus months have made me realize that one is stronger together than apart and that the best one can do in tough times is to lean into our purpose and find a way to serve each other and our customers. There is no doubt that we are in this with our customers and working with them to help bring back an industry that this pandemic has severely impacted.

Mat Orrego, CEO 

Happy New Year! When we sat down last year to write our retrospective on 2020, we were celebrating merely the continuation of our existence – not just for Cornerstone, but for the entire travel industry. In a way, simply having “made it” through the year was an accomplishment worthy of reflection.

While 2021 was not quite so drastic, the travel industry has not yet recovered as much as we had hoped it might by now. There was a lot more optimism in our interviews than last year but also a fair amount of realism.

Change, Community, Well-being, and Growth are the biggest themes from 2021, and we will bring them into next year with as much enthusiasm as possible. But first, we need to understand the numbers and where we find ourselves in the midst of our industry’s recovery.

2021 – The Metrics

One of the most important things we did in 2021 was to create the Cornerstone Travel Index. We are a data company, and we realized early on that we have a very unique perspective on all of the information that flows through our network every day. While the Index was technically created in 2020, it has come into its own this year as we learn which data points are the best indicators of how our industry is doing.

Granted, history will likely remember 2021 as the “first year of the COVID pandemic’s recovery”, which is unfortunately indicative of how slow the recovery has actually been. With variants such as Delta and now Omicron keeping the virus persistent, numbers have yet to return to 2019 levels in travel.

However, they’ve come relatively close. Take a look at the graphs below from the Cornerstone Travel Index which show this trend:

This first graph shows the monthly PNR transactions processed by Cornerstone since January of 2016. March 2020 is staggering to pick out when shown in this context:

Happy New Year – Travel Industry, 2022

The second graph shows the weekly PNR transactions processed by Cornerstone since January of 2021. The emergence of the Delta variant is responsible for the dip toward the end:

Happy New Year – Travel Industry, 2022

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the trends show that travel should be able to reach 2019 heights within the next calendar year. Does that mean that the industry will look the same as it did back then? Absolutely not. Our landscape has been forever changed. But we’ve changed with it, and perhaps that is a good thing.

In fact, the very idea that any “New Normal” is simply a state of flux and disruption could be quite refreshing. We’ve been shaken from a stasis. Who knows what might come from the loosened soil?

Embracing Change

After the initial shocks wore off in 2020, one thing became very clear to all of us: now was the time to change.

“Change” in this instance has many meanings. We’ve seen companies all over the world talk about “changing times” and “adapting to the ‘New Normal’.” In fact, that sentiment became so ubiquitous that it lost a lot of meaning. Marketers couldn’t type the phrase “unprecedented times” quickly enough.

However, the travel industry’s downturn and paced recovery did give us some downtime, which quickly became an opportunity to make some real and lasting changes to our organizations. No one reflected on that more in-depth than Cornerstone’s EVP of Customer Success and Onboarding, Laurie:

As Cornerstone’s EVP of Customer Success and Onboarding, 2021 showed me some pleasantly surprising things about my team.  We had a lot of change in 2021.  The biggest change was moving to a cross-functional, agile team which brought both triumphs and challenges.  In retrospect, could we have made these changes in a different way that would have been a little less stressful, yes; however, I saw so many shining moments within the team that outweigh the bumps in the road.  Team members stepped in to learn new things, to help each other out when we were short on people, and to truly collaborate to solve problems and get work done for our clients. 

More people now know how to do some things, and we’ve put new training programs in place to further grow the knowledge of each and every team member.  We’ve also reevaluated our onboarding processes and training for new hires which allows our new people to be able to start working with clients much more quickly and allows them to gain successes much sooner.  We have also identified new roles and new ways of doing things that will give us goals to accomplish in 2022.  Last year was a year of change and growth that has positioned us to be ready for a remarkable 2022 and beyond.

Laurie, EVP Customer Success and Onboarding

While the Customer Success and Onboarding team was not the only division within Cornerstone to significantly shift themselves into a different structure, it was definitely the most dramatic.

Laurie actually did an interview for our “Cornerstone Talks Travel” series in which she spoke about the impact of COVID on frontline operations in the coming years. In that survey that we conducted, over 70% of respondents did *not* anticipate their staffing levels to return to pre-COVID levels.

See Laurie’s video and transcript of the interview here.

This survey was conducted by Cornerstone among TMCs in September of 2021 and illustrates exactly how much the face of our industry is changing. Embracing this change and allowing it to fuel the reorganization of how companies in our industry have always done things has been critical.

Fostering Community

Embracing change also means reliance on one’s community. If the industry itself and the changing recovery projections cannot rely on month-to-month (thanks to new and sudden COVID variants, restrictions, etc), then we found solace in the community that we have belonged to for over 30 years.  

Last year saw the launch of a project named “Cornerstone Talks Travel” in which Cornerstone Executives sit down with travel industry leaders and talk about various pertinent topics in our industry. We’ve had so much fun with this series, and it is amazing to hear about what others within our community are up to. Getting the chance to sit down, chat, and share that discussion with the rest of the industry has absolutely been a highlight and one which we look forward to continuing!

By working as a community, we can also take advantage of the opportunity to improve and bring ideas that can help the travel industry be more agile in its processes and perhaps even help enable more environmentally sustainable and enduring travel solutions.  The biggest lesson has been that transparency and facing the truth of one’s circumstances is the best fuel to meet the challenges and opportunities of our future.

Mat Orrego, CEO

“Community” has also certainly gone beyond collaboration on projects and education. Supporting our community has meant being there for our customers when they needed us the most — in the way that they needed us the most.

“As an Account Executive for Cornerstone, 2021 has shown me that … generous offers to help our clients during this difficult time has been very appreciated by them and allowed many of them to continue to operate.”

Staci, Account Executive

Cornerstone is very proud to have been able to support so many of our customers through 2021 and will be continuing to serve our community while maintaining good business practices. The overall health of our industry is paramount and, when we come through the other side of this COVID era, we plan to have done so together alongside our customers.

We are also excited to get back out into our physical community as 2022 begins to see more and more in-person events. Last year, Cornerstone attended our first live event in 18 months, and we couldn’t get enough. Our CEO attended no less than three events and gave a talk at GBTA 2021 entitled “NDC: Hype or Disruption? A Reality Check”.

You can see the recording of the event here.

“We want to get back on the stage and back in front of live participants at talks and trade shows. Virtual events have been novel and innovative, but I don’t think anyone ever gets quite as much out of them as we do when we’re all in the same room. There’s an energy to a live talk that you just can’t replicate virtually. I’m excited to get back to that, and I’m excited for Cornerstone to get on stage as much as possible this year!”

Lierin, Marketing Manager

Getting back out into our community and seeing even more of you live and in-person is absolutely one of our biggest goals for the upcoming year, and we are looking very forward to reclaiming at least that aspect of our “old” lives.

We wrote a post at the end of 2020 called “The Future of Tradeshows Is Digital.” It is interesting to read this piece again being so far removed from the glossy newness that was the mass virtual event. In this piece, we acknowledged that virtual formats were not ideal, but at least there was still a novelty around them. Now? We can’t wait to see everyone face to face again.

The Value of Mental Wellbeing

“2021 showed me the value of daily walks”

Luke, Corporate Services

This comment from our accounting department succinctly sums up an incredible value shift that has occurred within not just Cornerstone, but corporate culture in general. We’ve had so many conversations this past year about how to best balance your work with your life, especially when everything else in the world seems upside down. If anything, the most remarked upon a comment I’ve received when wishing someone a “Happy New Year” is the response “Is it a New Year?”. And while it may sometimes seem like the time during this era has come to a grinding halt, there are absolutely lessons and reflections to take out of it to help guide us through.

Daily walks are absolutely one of those. Another comment was regarding longer daily walks with their dog. Quality time with our families is becoming less of a premium and more of a given — a value to be cherished, but also one that is more necessary than ever. The flexibility we gained from hybrid work, remote team meetings, and online collaboration has provided us with a basis on which we can build out better physical and mental health habits.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this much sunlight during the winter months before 2021. Flexible working has allowed me to take advantage of the late mornings to get outside while it’s nice out … and work in the comfort of the later afternoon with a warm cup of tea when I feel most productive.”

Lierin, Marketing Manager

Prioritization of our health – especially during a time of a pandemic – is essential. We’re very happy to see so many of our own employees listing that as one of their biggest takeaways of the last year.

Never Too Soon For Growth

Perhaps the best metric for recovery is the return of growth as a topic of discussion. In 2020, we spoke about survival and recovery. In 2021, we began to speak again about growing. More than anything else, this should give us hope for a bright future on the near horizon.

Here at Cornerstone, we even grew our staff for the first time since the pandemic began. When asked to reflect on their short time with us so far, one of our newest team members said the following:

“As new hire to the travel industry, 2021 was a weird time to jump in. What I’ve learned in the few months I have been here is that with the ever-shifting nature of travel requirements and the increasingly more volatile weather that is going to continue to impact the industry, the automation systems from Cornerstone/Apex Connect are uniquely adept at holding things together, filling in the gaps, and helping to prepare for the future ahead.”

Meghan, Quality Assurance Tester

In fact, speaking to newer entrants to our industry may just give us the best outlook. There is no “old way” for them, and there is no semblance or expectation of what “it should be like” based on “how it was”. There is simply the current state of travel and where we go from here.

This sentiment has begun seeping into our industry veterans as well. Before one of Cornerstone’s monthly All Hands Meetings where we get together and talk about our goals and accomplishments from the previous month, Cornerstone’s CFO stated that he was “removing the ‘pre-pandemic’ metrics from our slide deck because that’s no longer relevant.” Not holding ourselves to the metrics of 2019 might have been the most freeing sentiment to come out of the entire year.

Looking Forward

Change, Community, Wellbeing, and Growth – the four pillars of 2021 that have gotten us this far into the recovery of the travel industry. we will bring them into next year with as much enthusiasm as possible and let them guide us to success in 2022.

Happy New Year!