Innovation is reshaping the Covid-19 crisis as the Covid-19 crisis is reshaping innovation. The usual resistance to innovation efforts is gone. We need it. We need it fast.

Typical reactions to an economic crisis are: efforts to preserve cash, reduce costs, and search for new revenue sources. We commonly see layoffs, hiring freezes, and cuts in any expenses seen as non-crucial such as travel, conferences, and training. Traditionally, particularly in travel companies, the innovation department falls into the non-crucial category. Innovation would be deemed for deep cuts, if not complete elimination. No longer.

In fact, today’s reality is the complete opposite. We see that a rapid response to the crisis and use of technology may equate to survival for most businesses, and will likely be essential for smooth recovery.

What is unique about the current crisis? The key difference between the Covid-19 crisis and previous ones is that INNOVATION IS EXPECTED. In the current crisis, both consumers and providers are welcoming innovation efforts, responding rapidly, and willing to go through learning curves to make it happen. For businesses, responding proactively is crucial, and in order to do so they need a well positioned and well utilized innovation department that can be a key player in finding rapidly those extremely needed new solutions.

So, what does it mean to be a “well positioned” innovation department? It means an innovation department that is agile, i.e. able to quickly shuffle its priorities and adopt them to the new crisis, and that has international reach to find solutions that can be easily deployed and that are not expensive. Moreover, it has to have credibility in the different startup ecosystems to bring in the most efficient solutions fast, and have the best startups focus on travel versus other verticals. Companies must be connected to the core of the solution providers’ efforts, i.e., be on the top of their list of priorities, working to have the technology fit specific and urgent needs.

Challenges of the sudden shift to innovation

The crisis arrived almost as a shock. We witness companies of all sizes and all sectors taking unusual steps to accommodate sudden shifts in demand, manage internal and external interaction and communication, and improvise new delivery methods. However, even though in many ways we are more opened to innovation, the sudden, non-planned, and time sensitive nature of the situation brings additional obstacles.

Take for example the move to home offices. It was not a planned move. It happened overnight, thereby exposing customers and corporations to phishing scams, cyber-crime and fraud. According to Cyber-crime experts, since the beginning of March 2020, in the US only, there was an increase of 667% in phishing emails. Hackers are looking for quick profits and organizations are not well equipped to protect themselves. The home networks may not have the appropriate level of security. Many of the computers used are personal, and the home networks make data and information vulnerable to hacking. We need expert cyber security that can address the sudden change in which most employees work from home and email is the main form of communication.

Hygiene and safety are other issues that operators are facing. Specifically in the service sector, the consumer is part of the production process, so how can operators assure their safety? Partly, with automation and ability to work remotely with less employees which reduces human touch, hence lowering chances of infection as well as reducing costs. Additionally, there are solutions that simply provide a clean and safe environment, for hotels, airlines or cruise lines.

 A plethora of opportunities readily available

One can never let a good crisis go wasted. It may sound like a cliché, but we must transform challenges into great opportunities. The threat of Covid-19 affects decisions in pricing, supply management, security, communication, safety, and marketing practices.  So the world’s two-front fight – fighting the spread of the virus and fighting for our economy – includes not only medical and health technologies, but also solutions in service, optimization, safety, cyber and many other technologies. The globalized response can be much more effective and efficient with the right tools.

Under the current scenario, the travel industry can benefit from technologies that are readily available, but normally not easily accessible. The startup ecosystem in Israel offers key solutions to managing the crisis. In Israel, there are about 7000 startups, of which less than 300 are in travel. The remaining ones do not focus on the travel industry – at least not at this stage. The reason is not because their products do not fit the travel industry, but the fact that other industries are more lucrative, easier to work with, have bigger players, and more accessible (many have local representation in Israel). However, currently, with the threat of the Covid-19 and home confinement, their ability to get to their target audience and find new customers is extremely limited. There lies a great opportunity for the travel industry. If companies proactively reach out to the most promising and competitive startups with an interesting use case, we can have a win-win partnership. In such scenarios, the travel organization solves an immediate problem with an essential solution that 1) is not currently available in the travel market 2) is relatively cheap. On the other side, the startups get a new client and access to a whole new vertical.

We are at a historical moment. The global health crisis triggered an enormous financial crisis that not only slowed down economic activity but is leading to a complete change in human’s behavior in all sectors, including consumers, suppliers, employees, investors, and government. As a society, we are longing for solutions, in dire need of reliable knowledge and robust institutions. We are suddenly open for insights from different areas of knowledge, which can impact our life outlook and our ability to cope, as well as viable ways to fulfill our most mundane tasks. That mind shift is happening on a personal level, community, national, and global level, shaping public policies, and impacting business strategies, we cannot let this opportunity for change go to waste.

It is time to act. This is not 2001 or 2008. It is 2020. There is a plethora of easy to implement solutions that can help us overcome the current crisis. The timing is on our side for catching up with what technology can offer our industry. The ones that will, not only will weather this unprecedented crisis, but will also come out stronger and more equipped to deal with a completely new travel market.

By Rom Hendler and Flavia Hendler | April 7, 2020