Pent-up demand and a loosening of COVID restrictions could be creating the perfect storm for travel to return in a major way this summer and for a full lodging recovery to occur in the U.S.
That was one of the key conclusions at last month’s 15th annual BWH Hotel Group Travel Summit on Phoenix, which included executives from Best Western Hotel & Resorts, AAA, Google and the U.S. Travel Association. The panel discussion centered around current and future booking trends and the evolution of guest sentiment through the course of the pandemic.
Greg Staley, SVP, communications of the U.S. Travel Association, pointed out that the total travel spend in the U.S. is projected to grow by about 23 percent from last year’s numbers.
“We’re at the beginnings of what our forecasts are for the summer and it very well could just take off because there are remarkable advancements taking place with the success of the rollout of the vaccine. The summer travel leisure season looks very promising,” he said, acknowledging that it will be a multi-year and multi-segmented lodging industry recovery.
Staley later added, “I’d just generalize it really and say that travel has been an activity that’s been on hold for millions of people for 12 months or more and you absolutely can not underestimate the power of pent-up demand.”
Furthermore, AAA’s findings predicted that 37 million Americans were forecast to travel on Memorial Day Weekend, a 60 percent year-over-year increase from the 23 million that traveled over the same weekend in 2020. A recent Harris Poll indicated that some 77 percent of Americans are planning on traveling this summer compared to 29 percent in 2020. In addition, two-thirds either have a summer trip already planned (36%), or booked (30%).
Paula Twidale, SVP, travel at AAA, noted the company has seen an increase in travel inquires. Commenting just prior to the Memorial Day weekend, Twidale offered an optimistic outlook.
“These numbers are still I feel somewhat conservative. Anything can happen over the next couple of weeks. If we continue on this trajectory we can probably exceed these numbers. We had low expectations last year and we still had quite a few people travel in a bad year during a pandemic,” she said.
Dorothy Dowling, SVP and CMO, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, detailed some of the positive indicators that the company has been tracking.
“I would tell you that spring break for us was a harbinger. We saw outstanding results and we anticipate similar outcomes for the summer. Also, in terms of our booking pace we’re getting best-ever days in consecutive days on our digital channels. We already know the level of interest and booking is growing at a [rapid] pace. Some say this might be the best summer that any of us have seen in our lifetime in terms of the kind of travel behavior that we might see,” she said.
Meanwhile, Nelson Boyce, managing director of travel, Google, emphasized the importance of leveraging insights and data in creating effective marketing strategies.
“Brands that are doing well are ones who have navigated both the current climate and are also ready for what’s yet to come and they have leaned in in three key areas. The first being insights led; really understanding consumer behavior and they’ve found ways to activate it. They’ve been agile; they’ve taken those insights and they’ve turned those into action and drove results and increased ROI [return on investment]. Lastly, they were data driven, they built trust with their consumers while respecting their choices,” he said.
Dowling offered the brand perspective on using that data science effectively as she explained how the company is well positioned for some of the changes that have taken place.
“I believe some of the shift that has happened in terms of the consumer mindset. We saw secondary and tertiary markets take off in the pandemic. I think there is a permanent component to that because I think people rediscovered places that they may have visited at some point in their life. They wanted to be in areas that were more natural and taking advantage of the outdoors. These are some of the things that we expect will continue this year,” she said.
Dowling continued, “There are many permanent changes. We don’t know all of them yet, but the only way we can be good at marketing to customers is we have to continue to learn, grow and pivot. That is why we’ve really built on a modular campaign so we can move as the insights lead us and that’s why programmatic media really helps us because we can pivot as we start to see some of that consumer mindsight evolving,” she said.
In terms of future bookings, the panelists pointed out that they really now encompasses all types of travelers.
“The dynamics of who’s booking and what the age group or demographic looks like really has changed from the beginning. As people started to travel it was kind of predicated on risk tolerance and vulnerability. An older demographic, which we cater to, was pretty much staying home. Then as vaccines became more readily available and vaccinations took place those people were also booking the travel credits for the end of the year later in 2021 and certainly a plethora of bookings in 2022 and 2023,” said Twidale.
“I think that there is one characteristic that cuts across all demographics and that is the joy and positivity that results from getting a trip on books. That is a characteristic that follows travelers regardless of age demographics, specifically that having travel planned and something to look forward to creates joy and positivity,” concluded Nelson.