Snowbirds head south - but what insurance are they taking with them?
Robin Ingle, CEO of Travel Navigator™, Novus Health® and Ingle International, reflects on the disruptions caused to tourism and insurers by Covid, and looks forward to a brighter post-pandemic future with a pent-up demand for travel
Every winter for the last 100 years there has been an annual migration of Snowbirds, older people leaving the cold climes of North America and heading due south to warmer weather, where they can congregate in communities designed specifically for their needs.
Covid-19, lockdowns, vaccine mandates, travel restrictions and fear drove many to curtail their 2020 winter season and to limit their visits in 2021. But they did go in smaller numbers, some relishing the freedom of the US and Mexico, others trying to buy a vaccine before they were readily available, while more were just attempting to bring back some normality to their lives. I have heard children of Snowbirds complain that they couldn’t stop their parents from leaving.
There were many issues facing travellers. Hurdles have included filling out multiple forms, verifying vaccines, getting PCR tests and lateral flow tests, and staying updated on the ever-changing rules for travel, entry or exit, as well as securing access to services. On top of this, travellers have had to find an insurer that would provide clear and complete coverage in case of Covid infection, trip cancellation and non-medical quarantines. Travellers had the mindset that no matter what they did, their insurance should cover it, and many countries, especially in the warmer tourist spots, demanded that travellers have health insurance coverage before they arrived.
The issues for insurers have also been difficult. Reinsurers changed their modelling, exclusions for Covid-related claims were added, some left the market, third-party claims and assistance companies were in difficulty, and travel insurers had lost large amounts of business.
Technology was also an issue. Many companies had to enhance their ability to trade online, and control messaging and communication so that consumers understood the risk and what was now not covered. Through the summer of 2021, many insurers started to rebound with domestic business as well as smaller but significant increases in international cross-border travel. Then the reinsurance markets and underwriters realised that medical risks from Covid were not extreme. Rather, the big risks were government mandates, travel restrictions and border closings that made trip cancellation a chaotic risk to manage.
Healthcare providers also faced major problems. Many hospitals and clinics, even in the for-profit environment of the US, had staff that were over-worked, emergency rooms over-crowded, and revenues that had not met the expenses of managing through the pandemic. The developing world tourist spots were in an even more difficult position since many of their own citizens were not vaccinated, they didn’t have the quantity of vaccines to manage the population, and they had limited healthcare facilities to handle their own people. Their population was in fear of foreign travellers bringing illness, but needed the travel and tourism revenue to survive. Travellers needing medical care were faced with delays for treatment, inability to access care, lack of follow-up services and an inability to get back home when needed.
Assistance providers, already weakened from a lack of travel in 2020 and parts of 2021, had to deal with a laborious set of new rules and restrictions, and policyholders who did not really understand the complications that we all faced.
So how did the 2021 Snowbird season go?
There were no catastrophic high claims from Covid infections, even though many companies might have dealt with some Covid-related claims. The governments and social systems globally handled many of the complex cases. Those Snowbirds that did travel were typically the healthiest among their age group since they were the ones taking the chance to leave the safety of lockdowns and felt well enough to go. The biggest issues were about explaining to consumers what coverage was available and managing expectations. Complaints about not being able to find the coverage they wanted, or the coverage demanded by countries they were travelling to, was the common issue on social media. Many went without proper coverage just so they could travel.
Travellers may also change their travel habits from their traditional destinations, which might not have handled Covid well, to those countries that did manage and did invest in healthcare services that demonstrated a strong response to the pandemic
How did the Snowbird season affect our industry? I believe that a slower season has helped some companies reestablish and reinvent their businesses, retrain staff, add technology and rebuild global networks. Many companies have also used the time to rethink how they engage with potential customers and how they can pivot their companies so they will not be affected to the same degree they were in the last two years. The fear of a reccurrence of pandemics, restrictions or war has forced all companies to review their business model and try to design a new direction.
The future is looking good. There is a pent-up demand for travel. Seniors, pensioners and retirees who felt the consequences of being hidden away in lockdown want experiences, want to enjoy themselves and want the freedom to travel. Domestic travel will be the fastest area of recovery, followed by short haul or traditional routes like the north/south Snowbird corridor in North America, and finally over the next few years, long-distance travel will get back to normal.
Travellers may also change their travel habits from their traditional destinations, which might not have handled Covid well, to those countries that did manage and did invest in healthcare services that demonstrated a strong response to the pandemic.
The pandemic has shed a huge spotlight on healthcare, the need for travel insurance and emergency travel assistance, and the importance of our industry. Over the last two years, I have seen a global shift in the appreciation of the work we all do and in our industry. We are a crucial part of travel and tourism; we enable travellers with the security to explore the world and Snowbirds to find a warm spot in another land.