Hotels grapple with ‘new normal’ influencing leisure bookings

Over the past 20 years the who, what, where, when and why of how leisure guests book travel has undergone massive changes as cheap airfares, online travel agents, experience-based and sustainable travel, and short-stay/long-distance trips proliferated. However, as COVID-19 restrictions ease and hotel occupancies start recovering, a “new normal” for leisure travel booking is emerging with its own consumer behavior and terminology upending some long-held trends while enhancing other previously growing segments, posing both a challenge and opportunity for hoteliers.

Slow Travel

Since the late 1990s, budget airlines, online travel agents and the explosive growth of the internet and social media have driven the popularity of the short-stay getaway. Everyone from couples to bachelorette parties were able to easily and affordably book accommodation and airfare to long-haul and international destinations. Travelers compiled “bucket lists” of top destinations and focused on short-stay/long-distance trips, often cramming several cities or even countries within a five-day trip. This manic race to visit as many locations as possible led the average length of stay at hotels to drop and the era of a one-week stay at one property to become increasingly rare.

Now those behaviors are shifting. Due to safety concerns about air travel and crowded public transport, varying quarantine restrictions as well as increasing awareness of sustainability, guests are much more interested in staying longer in one destination. This growing ethos of “slow travel” has hoteliers seeing the average length of stay increasing in many destinations. Many hoteliers have embraced the trend and are offering discounts based on length of stay and offering in-depth experiences and activities to encourage guests to linger longer and fully appreciate the local area.

Nuno Almeida Leite, GM of Burel Mountain Hotels’ properties Casa das Penhas Douradas and Casa de São Lourenço in Portugal, confirms this shift. “Before the pandemic our average length of stay was two to three nights but over the last year we have seen average stays increasing to four or five nights or even longer,” he said.

The weekly demand calendar also has shifted with Thursdays becoming the new Fridays. “A significant amount of our check-ins are now happening on Thursdays and checkouts [are] occurring more frequently on Mondays instead of Sundays,” Leite said.

Work Trends

As pandemic lockdowns shut down cities and countries, working from home became the new norm—but the trend also presents an opportunity for hotels. Working from home can easily translate into working from hotel, especially as guests increasingly mix leisure travel with work. Consumers are eager to escape the confines of their home, with Forbes Magazine reporting that a study of 400 business professionals showed that 42 percent would consider working from a hotel room.

This new market segment is helping offset the loss of business travel that hotels are experiencing. A number of hotel companies have embraced the trend and are offering “work from hotel” packages that offer a variety of amenities such as meeting rooms, dedicated workspaces, printing services, lunch and free coffee and tea. Some hotels are even offering free rounds of golf or fitness classes to tempt fatigued workers out of the house.

Vacation Revival

The events of the past year also have revived the traditional “staycation” and road trip because guests are more interested in the simplicity and convenience of traveling to “drive-to” locations. According to recent research, 70 percent of hotel clickers on TripAdvisor were booking future domestic trips, mainly for May through August 2021, and according to the American Express “2021 Global Travel Trends Report,” 69 percent of those booking travel for 2021 were “interested in visiting lesser-known destinations.”

Creating Relationships

With OTA commissions taking up to 30 percent of a reservation’s value, combined with the difficulties with communication and refunds through OTAs last year, hotels are rediscovering the immense value of returning and loyal guests. Convincing them to book directly greatly reduces a hotel’s cost of sales while creating a direct relationship.

Both independent and branded hotels are encouraging direct booking through increasing engagement on social media, email campaigns and newsletters to foster those relationships. Branded hotels are using the power of their apps for notifications about special offers for loyal guests while independent hotels are utilizing social media and email newsletters to keep previous guests informed and engaged.

The effort is paying off, with hotel channel manager SiteMinder reporting “sustained growth of direct bookings for hotels … in all destinations over the full 2020 year.”

At Burel Mountain Hotels, Leite concurs. “Our monthly newsletter targets previous guests highlighting both discounts and special events as well as the unique features of our property and local area and are generating lots of enquiries with a 20 percent increase in direct bookings,” he said.