Reports offer cautious optimism for industry's future

Roadtrip Sunrise
Domestic travel, including road trips, will drive recovery for the next few months. Photo credit: Photo credit: Getty / E+ / asonfang(Photo credit: Getty / EPlus / asonfang)

Two recent studies examined the difficult relationship between travel-related industries and the new normals brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

BVA BDRC Examines Consumer Sentiment

The fourth COVID-19 U.S. Sentiment and Purchasing Intent Survey by international research company BVA BDRC suggests that while more than one-third of Americans (36 percent) now believe that life will not return to pre-pandemic normal until at least 2021, people are preparing to spend on leisure activities, including travel. 

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"Overall consumer mood has held steady since mid-April while confidence in federal and local government continued its gradual decline. Nearly half believe that the worst is still to come with half of consumers expressing financial concerns. Only a quarter of Americans now believe that life will return to normal by summer and nearly half by 2021 or later," according to the report.

But there is still optimism for the travel sector. Early June saw a significant jump in consumer intent to plan a domestic vacation and/or book a hotel in the next month to reach a quarter of Americans. However, hotel guests have "clear expectations" for hotel brands and property owners, primarily for sanitizing hand gels and new cleaning policies.

Relatively few consumers intend to book a flight or travel internationally in the next month. When Americans do travel this summer, they likely will take fewer and shorter trips than normal. A quarter of Americans plan to travel closer to home this year than normal, and among these consumers, more than half will travel less than 250 miles from their home. And perhaps reflecting the financial concerns, more travelers intend to book a hotel this year via an online travel agent than before COVID-19. Results suggest that consumers are looking for deals and access to the best rooms when booking through OTAs. 

"As people come to terms with the longer-term impact of COV ID-19 on their lives, they are adjusting their behavior," said Matthew Petrie, president, BVA BDRC U.S. "They are going to take calculated risks to restart their favorite leisure activities over the summer months, and they’re making holiday plans to visit family, friends and the great outdoors where they can manage potential health risks.

"Destinations that offer fresh air and single-family accommodation where interaction with others can be limited should see a boom in bookings," he added, "if they get their marketing and communications campaigns right."

TripAdvisor's Five Stages

OTA giant TripAdvisor's "Road to Recovery" report began with the acknowledgement that the travel sector "will not be able to operate simply as it did before, in part due to continuing interventions from governments, but also as a result of changing consumer expectations and spending power." As such, the OTA predicts a "phased recovery" with five distinct stages.  

The decline stage began when governments implemented restrictions on travel, resulting in a sharp decline in bookings and a sharp increase in cancellations. More than a third (34 percent) of consumers surveyed in late March reported rescheduling a trip due to COVID-19 rather than canceling it, with another quarter (27 percent) planning to reschedule a canceled trip at a later date.

The plateau stage began about a month later. In April, more than two thirds (68 percent) of surveyed consumers said they were still thinking about travel and where they wanted to go next. Searches for domestic travel more than 90 days away began to noticeably increase in markets like the U.S., Germany, Australia and Japan, sowing the seeds for the next phases of recovery.

The emerge stage "define[s] how quickly the industry will recover" as certain markets gradually reopen. Fewer than half (42 percent) of consumers said they will eat at restaurants just as they did before the pandemic, but others are more cautious. More than a third of consumers (35 percent) said they will put an emphasis on dining at restaurants that keep customers safe. Around one in six (16 percent) will avoid dine-in experiences altogether in favor of delivery or take-out. Nearly nine in 10 (86 percent) consumers said cleanliness will be very important when selecting an accommodation after COVID-19, with the provision of hand sanitizers and sealed amenities, the frequency with which rooms are disinfected, and the use of temperature checks for employees and guests all now cited as top considerations.

The first steps into the domestic stage can already be seen as travelers drive to their destinations. The report suggests searches for domestic travel more than 90 days out will grow as consumers tentatively plan how to travel safely. The same growth is evident in searches for trips less than one month away, likely reflecting consumer uncertainty about when domestic travel would be allowed again, the survey found. 

The last stage of recovery, international, will the most difficult to decipher as differences by market, already evident in the domestic stage, become more pronounced. A range of factors will determine how quickly outbound and inbound international travel recovers in each market, and the two may not always go hand in hand. Many destinations will face what the report calls "a delicate balancing" act to protect the quality of the inbound tourist experience while also ensuring that travelers regard it as a safe place to visit.