Impacts of COVID 19 on Travel in the U.S.
Impacts of COVID 19 on Travel in the U.S.
By Nicole Mahoney, CEO, Break the Ice Media, Podcast Host, Destination on the Left
Traveler sentiment in the United States has remained stagnant over the last six weeks, with roughly 50% saying they feel safe traveling outside their community. Mask wearing and social distancing practices are very important to American travelers, with 47% stating they will only travel to destinations with these protocols in place and 55% want to know what the hygiene and cleaning protocols are at lodging properties when considering where to stay.
With 76% of American travelers reporting that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their travel plans, 12.1% reported having already travelled, according to a September 21 Destination Analysts weekly Coronavirus Traveler Sentiment Index Study. The study also found, “when a traveler successfully completes a trip, their confidence for future travel increases. In fact, those who are ‘already traveling’ have nearly three times the confidence level in their ability to travel safely right now compared to the average American traveler.”
Since the beginning of March, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over $386 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy. Even with increased travel over the summer months and through the Labor Day holiday weekend, every sector has seen significant declines year over year. For example, air travel was down 69% year over year in September, and hotel demand post-Labor Day has plateaued, with indications that it will remain at these levels until corporate travel returns. Thirty-five percent of business travelers say they expect to take a business trip in the next six months and the percentage of business travelers with an international trip planned is slowly increasing.
Domestic leisure travel is leading the recovery in the U.S., with 33% of American travelers saying they changed their vacation plans to a driving destination and 2/3 of American travelers saying they plan to travel in the next six months.
In the September 21 survey by Destinations Analysts that tracks key consumer perceptions, attitudes and behaviors of American business and leisure travelers, they found:
- Amidst rising stress, Americans are reporting stronger prioritization of relaxation and many (54%) are “ready to travel” to achieve it.
- The level of excitement for learning about new travel experiences or destinations is at a pandemic-period high—not seen since the end of May, at the start of the summer season.
- Over half of respondents continue to say they are at least somewhat confident they can travel safely in this environment.
- Unlike earlier on in the pandemic, less than 50% now consider staying in a hotel, dining in a restaurant or visiting an amusement park to be unsafe.
- Just 37% agree they need a vaccine to travel, down from a high of 45% at the start of August.
- Even among those saying they will change the types of destinations they visit, more positive reasons are now being offered, including an increased willingness to explore new destinations and crossing places off their bucket lists.
Advance bookings remain deeply negative when looking at year over year comparisons, but they do show slow signs of a recovery, with data from ADARA presenting the following trends:
- Domestic air and hotel bookings for future travel improved significantly—from -60% y/y two weeks ago to -54% y/y last week.
- States with wide-open spaces and outdoor experiences saw the smallest percentage of declines year over year, with Montana (-7%), Wyoming (-8%) and Idaho (-15%) experiencing the lowest declines.
- Domestic destinations with higher populations and more reliance on international markets saw the deepest declines in bookings, including New York (-74%), Massachusetts (67%) and New Jersey (-66%), but improved compared to the previous week.
- International bookings for future travel to the U.S. in general are significantly worse than domestic bookings and fell from -67% y/y two weeks ago to -75% y/y last week.
What does it all mean? Smaller, rural destinations have an opportunity to recover quicker than their larger metropolitan counterparts. Vacation rentals and hotel demand in these destinations over the summer months was strong. Destinations in close proximity to National and State Parks did even better than those without those anchors to draw in visitors. We have seen destinations within a two-hour radius of these parks benefit from overflow traffic, especially as some parks close their gates early in the day after reaching capacity based on the allowable guidelines for safety. Many destinations are starting to position themselves to attract travelers interested in schoolcations or workcations, as much of the U.S. market continues to work and attend school remote.
When thinking about 2021 planning, we recommend the following considerations:
Focus on Health & Safety
- Travelers care about health, safety, trust and flexibility.
- There is an emphasis on outdoor, open-air attractions and destinations.
- Visitors are looking for intimate settings (small groups) and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
- Digital and virtual experiences will remain popular.
- Visitors will likely need added value and incentive to travel.
- Visitors continue to seek confidence that their money is secure in the event of a cancellation.
- Baby Boomers’ adoption of technology will change how they plan travel.
When Travel Will Return
- Day trips and drive markets will return first. Destinations are beginning to see an uptick in visitation.
- Group travel planners are looking at Spring 2021 for earliest return.
- Meetings and events planners are looking at late 2021 and 2022 for return.
New Messaging to Consider
- Increased safety, health screenings and mandates around protective gear.
- Increased sanitation protocols and detailed cleaning procedures.
- Physical distancing measures and ways of enforcing when offering an experience to several groups of travelers simultaneously.
- Continuation of new offerings, such as retaining to-go beverage pick-up or keeping virtual offerings even post-pandemic.
- Flexible booking and cancellation policies.
- Be prepared to show – don’t just tell – use videos/photos to help visitors know what to expect when they arrive in your destination.
Destinations that act now will be prepared to come out of this pandemic stronger than before, as travelers are looking for inspiration on future travel and doing research across DMO websites, review sites, travel articles and more. They are thinking about local, drive destinations and planning their long-haul “bucket-list” trips. Now is the time to focus on recovery plans – both short term and long term with the ability to pivot along the way.