In the five months since the COVID pandemic started, the industry has seen a wave of research taking the pulse of leisure travelers and their desire to venture out again.
Some reports show a large percentage of travelers being extremely fearful, while a substantial minority aren’t even interested in venturing out locally. Still other surveys show a large swath of Americans eager to travel, viewing the Coronavirus as more of an impediment to traveling, but not a wall that prevents them from taking their next vacation.
One of the most consistent polling firms following the shifting mindset of the American traveler has been The Harris Poll, conducted by the globally famous company which has built its credibility on years of surveying Americans on a variety of issues.
According to the Harris Poll’s latest group of respondents, surveyed July 2-4, one out of four Americans would stay in a hotel immediately after the government says the virus has been flattened, while one out of five Americans would take a flight. Sixteen percent would take a cruise fairly immediately.
Another poll, commissioned by the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), shows that 57% of Americans expect to take an overnight vacation via car, in the next three months, versus only 17% on a plane. Nearly one out of five (18%) Americans say they are planning an overnight vacation of some kind in a camper or RV in the next three months, while only 7% said they were planning to take a cruise in that time-frame.
Steve Cohen, founder and managing partner at Stelico Consulting Group, LLC, an Orlando-based data intelligence company, is concerned that too many travel industry entities are producing polls more for obtaining media impressions than for providing intelligence to the travel industry.
“When I look at these results, I wonder, what are you really telling me here?” said Cohen, who was especially critical of one-time surveys that have no reference points for previous years. “If you’d asked the question last year, where’s the comparison before anyone heard about Coronavirus?”
The Harris Poll is into its 19th Wave of surveying American adults, shows that for certain travel categories, the initial consumer confidence in traveling has waned somewhat. For example, back in early March, approximately 40% of adults were comfortable taking a flight within a three-month window of the U.S. government declaring the COVID “curve” was flattened.
Today, that share of American adults has dropped to 30%. At the same time, the 20% of adults who were saying that they would wait a year or longer to take a flight has grown to 31%
“When this first started, most of us believed we would shut down the economy, and we’d flatten the curve,” Cohen said. “But that hasn’t happened, so it’s no surprise that the people who were taking the virus more seriously then, are taking the virus even more seriously now. And the people who were always willing to travel, still want to travel like they wanted to at the beginning.”
Still, Cohen cautions travel advisors about taking too much away from any company’s surveys, because travel booking behaviors likely will change if there is a change in the nature of the virus.
“If we see another large jump in new people getting the virus, or a large jump in deaths, that could change everyone’s opinion,” he said.
“As the number of new COVID cases increases, there is a corresponding decrease in bookings to major destinations,” said Bruce Rosenberg, President, Hotel Planner & Meetings.com.
Where do consumers feel safe?
Digging deeper into the AHLA survey, there is some indication that consumers trust traditional hotels more than they trust home shares [e.g. Airbnb, VRBO] in this current environment. Some 71% of respondents said they would be interested in staying in a hotel for their next trip, versus only 46% interested in a “short-term rental.” In fact, the accommodations most consumers are comfortable with are “staying overnight with family or friends” (79%).
Cohen advises advisors to try to understand what their clients are thinking, because assumptions might not be accurate.
“There’s two sides to the decision of where to stay,” said Cohen. Some people might be more comfortable staying in a home share because it means limited interaction with other guests. There might even be some remoteness if you’re booking a home away from even a mountain resort destination. But if I go to Hyatt, I understand what they tell me the safety and cleaning protocols are.”
Cohen believes the AHLA results might also reflect the respondent’s travel history. “Do I know enough about vacation rentals to speak knowledgeably about them if I have never stayed in one? More people have stayed in hotels, so they have the experience to make them feel more comfortable with their assessment.”
If an advisor is interested in trying to book road trips for their clients, how far might travelers be willing to drive? According to the AHLA survey, some 20% want to drive less than two hours, 35% will drive 2-4 hours, but 40% would be okay with driving four hours or longer.
Also, most of the AHLA respondents said they are looking for two-night stays (33%), while 19% are interested in 3-night stays, and 14% are looking for four nights away. Interestingly, 16% would be interested in a stay of 5-7 nights, and 7% are interested in 8 or more nights.
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Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.