The pandemic has changed the way people view, travel and connect with other travellers, and TBWA\Hakuhodo’s Masakazu Tagai says brands should consider what new connections they can create for globetrotters.

Japan has suffered repeated lockdowns since COVID-19 made its presence felt. In Tokyo, where 10% of Japan's population is concentrated, a state of emergency was declared, for one day every two days, restricting travel across prefectures. As people were forced to give up travelling, the tourism industry in Japan, like in other countries, was severely damaged.

However, under such severe circumstances, a new form of travel that has never been seen before was born. As the etymology of the word "travel" (旅, tabi) in Japanese means "connection" (交流, kouryu), one of the essential pleasures of travel is the connection with local people, nature and culture. This connection is becoming more and more diverse, thanks to the pandemic.

New connections: From social distancing to online encounters

People who were forced to observe social distancing and gave up on travelling went online to make new connections. WhyKumano, a guesthouse operator in Wakayama Prefecture, developed an "online accommodation" service in the wake of the coronavirus disaster, which led to a series of cancellations.

Guests can check in online from their homes and enjoy a virtual tour of the area and interact with other participants. More than 700 people from all over the world have participated in these online lodging events, which have been held more than 100 times.

Now that people are starting to travel again, some of the participants have reconnected with other participants and locals in the area, and about 40 people so far have stayed in guesthouses after their online stay.

These online connections have also played a role in inviting people who had previously given up on travelling to a new stage of travel. Handy Network International, a company that sells nursing care products to nursing homes, developed an online tour that can be joined from the facility for those who need nursing care and are unable to go out.

These virtual tours, including a drone video of a view with autumn leaves, have been well-received by residents who had given up on travelling after moving into the facility and their families have expressed their gratitude by saying: "It's been a long time since I saw my father in such good health.”

Online travel is creating a new market and businesses outside the travel industry are beginning to offer travel services.

Deeper connections: From sightseeing to “sightdoing”

In the past, the most common form of travel was as a "guest" receiving the hospitality of an inn or hotel and enjoying pre-prepared experiences and meals. But services that create a deeper connection are gaining popularity.

In the style of hotels and inns called “machiyado”, the inn becomes a gateway to the city for the guests, who become part of the city's daily life. At “Manazuru Shuppan”, one of the machiyado hotels in Kanagawa Prefecture, a tour called Machiaruki led by the inn's staff is included in the stay. The guide takes guests on a tour of the town, showing them the daily life of the town, which is not covered in the guidebook.

More and more people are now re-evaluating their own lives because of the pandemic and in addition to the sightseeing form of travel, which is a special and extraordinary experience away from the ordinary, the “sightbeing” experience, which is enjoying someone else's different everyday life, is spreading.

In addition, “sightdoing” travel, which is a way to contribute to others in the everyday life that you have entered, is also spreading. A service called "Otetsu Tabi" is a matching service that connects farmers and inns with limited staff with people who want to help.

This service offers a more in-depth experience than traditional tourism services in that you get to understand the real and authentic charms of the area while working with local people. Before the pandemic, most users were students who had time to spare. But with the spread of remote work, the percentage of working people has increased to the level of the students. Some of them work early in the morning as asparagus farmers and then start their main job at 10:00.

Sustainable connections: From travel agent to “life agent”

This kind of deeper experience, which was not available in conventional tourism, has led some to seek a continuous connection with the tourist destination. LivingAnywhereCommons is a subscription service that allows you to live in multiple locations in Japan for a fixed monthly fee. Each location is staffed by a community manager who serves as a link between guests, and between guests and locals.

In addition, members are invited to a dedicated Slack community, where they can continuously communicate with people they meet locally, as well as communicate with them online even before meeting them in person. With fewer restrictions by location, thanks to general acceptance of remote work and online classes, there has been an increase in the number of office workers or university students in their 20s and 30s from central Tokyo seeking to meet new people.

The number of people who have moved to the local area after this kind of migration experience is increasing. In June 2021, the number of migrants increased 4.1 times compared to the same month the previous year and it is estimated that 3.09 million people, or 12% of the population of central Japan, where one-third of the country’s population is concentrated, are considering moving to the countryside.

During my chat with Takaya Ushiro of WhyKumano, he said that some people are moving to Wakayama as a result of online lodging and that he also introduces them to housing and jobs in their new home. This change is becoming more and more apparent as tourism businesses, which used to be in the role of guiding people to local sightseeing spots, are now supporting the lives of immigrants as well.

Now that remote work and other forms of online communication have become commonplace, the travel-life boundaries have blurred. The existence of travel agencies, which used to be about creating memories for travellers, will evolve into a role of creating the future, including our lives.

Reimagining the connections of travel experiences

As discussed, COVID-19 has shifted and diversified the forms of "connections" in travel. From offline, local and physical relationships, to new forms of relationships online. From a relationship of just sightseeing or being sightseen, to a deeper relationship of "sightdoing" with close involvement with locals.

And from travel being only about leisure time, it is becoming more and more about sustainable time to contemplate and develop one's self and lives. In this "with-COVID era", it is important for brands to understand these shifts to provide travellers the connections they want to create from their travel.

Here are the three questions that can help brands to find their own "connections" style:

  • Who could be the "travellers of destiny" that you can only meet online?
  • What are some of the "sightdoing" actions that the travellers can do for us?
  • As a "travel guide to life" or "life-agent", how can the experience we provide improve the lives of travellers?

As the pandemic slowly becomes accepted as "endemic" around the world and people begin looking into new travel destinations, now is a good time to think about the new connections that brands can create and provide to travellers.