It’s no surprise that travel bore the biggest pandemic-related losses. Not only were there immediate cancellations of events, but 2020 left Americans uncertain about travel altogether.
“In June 2020, only 29 percent of Americans said they expected to travel in 2020,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
What a big difference 2021 has brought, as COVID-19 case counts have dropped, and vaccinations have increased. Data from the Let’s Go There coalition, of which USTA is one of 75 partner entities, shows “Americans are ready to travel,” Dow says. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”
Travel industry bounces back
That closely aligns with research from NRF’s May survey, which highlighted an increase in planning vacation travel since the start of the year, says Katherine Cullen, NRF’s senior director of industry and consumer insights.
“Vaccinated consumers in particular are interested in travel,” Cullen says. “As of early May, over one-quarter of those who are vaccinated say they plan to make a major purchase related to vacation travel in the next six months.”
"As of early May, over one-quarter of those who are vaccinated say they plan to make a major purchase related to vacation travel in the next six months."
Katherine Cullen, NRF's senior director of industry and consumer insights
Interestingly enough, those who say they are most likely to travel are older Americans, NRF research shows. Some 60 percent of those 65-plus, 48 percent of those 55-64 and 41 percent of those 45-54 ranked vacationing as the activity they were most looking forward to. Not surprisingly, these groups also said they were most comfortable engaging in vacations.
“Younger consumers (aged 18-25) are a little more cautious,” Cullen says. “This group is also showing a lot of hesitancy when it comes to the vaccine.”
Ready, set, go
As consumers return to travel, those in the hospitality industry are ready to make them comfortable, even if the experience might look a little different than before.
With more Americans ready to hit the roads and skies this summer, the Let’s Go There coalition has shifted its messaging a bit. Last September the coalition focused on urging Americans to dream of travel again, with an initial tagline of, “When it’s time for you, we’ll be ready.” This year, the tagline switched: “Ready? So are we.”
Dow sees the travel industry ready for a rebound.
“It’s time to stop dreaming and start exploring. The moment has finally arrived when most of us can scratch the travel itch that’s been building in us for over a year,” he says. “Americans who are vaccinated need not have any lingering hesitation about booking that trip to get out and see the country this summer.”
They’ll see changes in the hotel experience at places like Hilton and the 18 brands under its umbrella. Guests will notice modifications immediately upon stepping into a hotel, said Larry Traxler, senior vice president of global design, in a blog post on Hilton’s newsroom.
“Everyone traveling today has a heightened sense of awareness of their own personal space and the cleanliness of their environments, and they will require additional assurances of their safety while staying with us. How do we deliver on these expectations while ensuring the welcome experience remains welcoming? That’s the challenge.”
Hotel lobbies, once intended as a gathering space, need to embrace social distancing. “Now, more than ever, spaces will be designed to give people the choice to socialize or not, to curate the landscape of their own experience, and to feel safe as they venture back outside of their isolated home cocoons,” Traxler wrote.
“While the pandemic has fueled a dramatic evolution in how we approach design for our hotel lobbies, the changes are still consistent with our previous goals of creating warm and comfortable spaces that people will enjoy occupying and reconnecting with travel.”
In some ways, Hilton had prepared for these pandemic-related changes a few years back, removing items like extra throw pillows and launching Digital Key, which allows customers to check in and access their room using the Hilton app. That feature, launched in 2015, is now available in more than 80 percent of Hilton’s hotels.
Another technology tool that is getting a fresh look: the 2018 innovation that allowed guests to access technology from their mobile device. No longer needing to access high-touch areas like light switches, thermostats and TV remotes is providing extra peace of mind. Guests also can choose how often they’d like cleaning services or room materials replenished.
Hilton is far from alone in these decisions. The Let’s Go There coalition recommends six initiatives: promoting health screening measures for employees; creating transmission barriers; implementing touchless solutions; establishing procedures that align with CDC guidance; adopting enhanced sanitation procedures; and following best practices in food and beverage.
On the road
Of course, those who did travel in 2020 often chose to take a road trip. Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, with 560 locations in 41 states, was a prime stop for refueling, whether for vehicles or the humans inside.
“We were built for today’s climate,” says Jenny Love Meyer, executive vice president, chief culture officer for Love’s. Case in point: In March 2020, the company added extra safety and cleaning measures throughout its stores and plexiglass barriers between the customer and the cashier.
"One of our core customers is the professional truck driver. They haven’t stopped working for the American people, either."
Jenny Love Meyer, Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores
Love Meyer expects a strong 2021 travel season for Love’s. “Research shows people want to get out of their homes, but they still want to do it safely,” she says. “One of our core customers is the professional truck driver — they continued to drive last year to deliver important goods like food and medicine. They haven’t stopped working for the American people, either.”
Contactless offerings have made their way into the stores as well, though that has as much to do with time as it does cleanliness, Love Meyer says.
“Time is valuable to our customers, especially professional truck drivers,” she says. “Love’s has continued to expand its contactless payment options, including tap-and-go cards, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay. These options help foster Love’s mission of getting customers back on the road quickly. We’ve also continued to expand our food, drink and restaurant options and Mobile to Go Zone products with the latest electronics for customers who want to come into our stores.”
Those in the hospitality industry are ready to welcome travelers back, and it is becoming increasingly clear that travelers are ready to see them as well.