If someone had told you in, say, 2018 that you would be on total lockdown with your family for months on end, stuck at your residence during working hours and only allowed to leave for exercise and essential shopping, what would be the first thing you would expect to do when that lockdown ended?
Exactly. You would get the heck out of Dodge. Time for a beach or a mountain or a campground – anywhere but here. However, as states are lifting their lockdowns across the country in the wake of our initial “flatten the curve” campaign, most of us aren’t budging. COVID-19 times just aren’t that simple.
The travel industry was perhaps one of the first industries to feel the economic devastation of the global pandemic as travelers rushed to cancel or postpone vacations and negotiate refunds until the germs had settled down. That might have been fine if anyone knew when they could book later on down the line, but that date is still an unknown. The CDC is still advising against travel altogether and noting that any of our usual travel routines – airplanes, hotels, theme parks, crowded beaches – are hotspots for exposure risk. Moreover, many attractions are closed, events are cancelled and even many eateries are either shut down or at low capacity operations.
As a result, travel in 2020 compared to this time last year is down 84%, and 31% of Americans claim they will not travel until a vaccine is developed. This all adds up to a very long recovery period: perhaps as many as five years before travel is back to where it was at the beginning of 2020.
In the meantime, however, Americans have still been on lockdown. They remain under enormous amounts of stress. And of course, that means they want to take vacations if the industry can show them how to do it safely. Moreover, everyone is motivated to restart the economy in a sector that employs 10% of the global population directly. There is an opportunity, then, to lay the groundwork for a travel renaissance in the midst of this “travel depression.”
In the coming weeks we will take a more in-depth look at the following trends and strategies that we think the travel industry should focus on this summer and in the year(s) to come to Make America Wander Again:
- Luxury Over Quantity. Airline travel used to be romantic. A special occasion in and of itself. Passengers dressed up and ate multi-course, chef-prepared meals. In the last few decades, it has devolved into a quest for more butts in more tiny seats and as little quality as possible (unless you pay handsomely for it). Much of the industry, from hotels to attractions, has similarly moved away from quality and luxury in a market that favors low costs to tourists.
But now, when travelers are valuing space and there is nowhere to go but up, sectors that can afford to might recover more quickly by reemphasizing the quality of amenities, the space, and of course the top-notch cleanliness of their destinations. This is a time when tourists might splurge on a villa or a first-class seat if it meant the trip was safer.
- Take It Personally. Airbnb has been struggling with several issues in the face of the pandemic, but it could ultimately be a major contributor to the recovery of the industry. Hotels have more common areas, are more crowded, have more variables in how they are run than an Airbnb, especially if the host can come across as personal and form a “bed-and-breakfast” type relationship with travelers.
In fact, anywhere people get that “Cheers” familiarity – small towns, sleepy beachside establishments, family-owned restaurants, local shops – will feel safer. If brands can establish a personal connection with them, allow them to feel seen and cared for, travelers will gravitate their way.
- A Case for Creativity. The San Antonio Zoo realized that a good portion of their space could be navigated by tourists from the safety of their cars. They quickly put a route in place, devised a set of safety rules, trained their employees to keep things moving and opened the doors again after barely missing a beat. Parents desperate for ways to entertain their kids flocked to the attraction at a steady pace, forming long lines almost every day of the week.
Vacationers and staycationers alike are starved for things to do and places to see. Destinations have an opportunity to get creative and find new ways to deliver experiences to their guests, or they could even invest in new experiences altogether.
- Back on the Road Again. This is a prime time to load up in an RV, pile into the family station wagon, or throw a tent in the back of the truck and take off. The destination could be outdoorsy, quaint, nearby or on down the line, but we have the chance to rediscover our love for an open road and “whatever we find” as we go.
Businesses and brands that can engage road trippers will focus on the removed, the wide open, the romance and the freedom but be the stop along the way. They aren’t a part of this big, ugly pandemic. They are apart from it. A breath of fresh air.
The travel industry still has many hurdles to overcome and may never again experience business as the “old usual.” Many states are still requiring quarantines for travelers, budgets are tight and the risk is high unless the industry can find ways to bring it down. But as with any time when there is “nowhere to go but up,” travel brands have a chance to rethink how they reach audiences and perhaps open the door to new adventures and markets that will stick for the long haul.