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If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then it’s no surprise that people are craving travel after spending months at home. That pent-up demand is beginning to surface now, as an increase in autumn bookings has created new sales opportunities during what would normally be the off-season.
Helping to fuel the public’s wanderlust is newfound flexibility, thanks to the increase of remote working and schooling. Travelers are able to hit the road at times when they would normally stay home. According to MMGY Global’s recent Travel Intentions Pulse Survey, 54% of travelers say they are more likely to travel during the fall of 2020 than in previous years, as postponed summer vacations have shifted to later months. MMGY Global’s Domestic Travel Safety Barometer, meanwhile, reported a four-point jump in traveler confidence regarding the safety of domestic travel from July to August.
A recent survey of U.S. travelers by Longwoods International confirms the increased appeal of travel. Half of the respondents said they feel safe traveling during the fall season, and 58% are planning a domestic road trip. Outdoor pursuits ranked among the preferred activities.
It is not surprising that travel patterns have evolved to reflect new realities.
“Given the restrictions currently in place for international travel, we know that demand will be strongest for domestic destinations for the foreseeable future,” said Chris Davidson, executive vice president of insights and strategy for MMGY Global. “In our September Travel Advisors Sentiment study … advisors we surveyed in the U.S. and Canada indicated that 40% of their recent inquiries were about U.S. destinations, 27% were about cruises, and 25% were for international destinations. Prior to COVID-19, these same advisors reported that just 15% of inquiries were about travel to U.S. destinations, 38% were about cruises and 40% were about traveling to international destinations.”
Fall travel, in particular, is appealing for various reasons, according to Frank Passanante, senior vice president, Hilton Worldwide Sales.
“There is certainly pent-up demand from travel restrictions and canceled or postponed trips from a few months ago, but this extended leisure travel season could also be attributed to a focus on safety,” he said. “Traveling in the off-season to popular locations will generally be less crowded, so travelers can more easily social distance than in peak times. What’s interesting is that there are less frequent trips, but travelers are staying longer, which we attribute to more flexible schedules. And there are more families traveling this fall, taking advantage of off-season pricing and catching up on rescheduled vacations.”
Indeed, an increase in fall bookings is the result of several unique factors, according to Justin Yax, partner and public relations director at DVA Advertising & Public Relations, based in Bend, Ore. Since April, the company has been publishing “DMO Insights,” a weekly COVID-19 newsletter, which is distributed to destination management organizations throughout the Western U.S.
“In general, I believe fall travel is, and will continue to be, an extension of the summer travel season this year,” he said. “Labor Day did not signal a traditional end to peak travel season, and many people whose plans were altered or canceled during summer are now actively engaged in planning fall getaways. We are already seeing this in many of the destinations we work with, as fall bookings are stronger than anticipated and, in some cases, outpacing previous years.”
In general, I believe fall travel is, and will continue to be, an extension of the summer travel season this year.
Where They Are GoingPandemic-related travel restrictions have made domestic destinations the clear winners when it comes to attracting U.S. travelers, although some international destinations are attracting interest, as well.
“We are seeing a significant increase in last-minute bookings for fall travel compared to spring and summer, including drive vacations closer to home, which could bode well for the traditionally soft fall booking and travel season,” said Jack E. Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays. “We’ve taken several bookings in recent weeks for next-day travel in the U.S. and Mexico, and are anticipating Hawaii vacation sales will increase sharply with the implementation of its 72-hour pre-travel testing program effective for all travelers on and after Oct. 15. Las Vegas weekends are very popular from drive markets such as Southern California and Phoenix, with the resumption of wagering on college and professional football, plus the NBA playoffs.”
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ToursByLocals, a company that works with advisors to connect travelers with local guides, also reports evolving booking patterns.
“In the past six weeks, we’ve seen an increased interest in historic cities on the East Coast,” said Paul Melhus, CEO and founder of ToursByLocals. “We’re also seeing travelers booking international tours much further ahead than usual. Whereas our normal booking window is around four weeks in advance, we’re seeing the majority of tours booked for spring, summer and fall of 2021. Among recent international bookings, the stars so far have been Portugal, Croatia and Italy.”
Amtrak Vacations, meanwhile, is expanding its reach to more customers who had not booked domestic rail travel before. The company reports that in previous years, some 63% of its passengers were first-time train travelers, but this year, the number has jumped to 91%.
“With many consumers still concerned about flying, we are seeing a surge in travel advisor bookings,” said Frank Marini, CEO of Amtrak Vacations. “Clients can travel by train in a private sleeper where they can be socially distant and included meals can be delivered to their room.”
Among the U.S. tourism offices reporting increased bookings this fall are Visit Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and Texas Hill Country River Region near San Antonio.
“This year, we are seeing more family groups … those looking for outdoor adventures in nature, home-school pods and learning co-ops, to name a few,” said Annabell McNew, executive director of Texas Hill Country River Region. “These travelers can take advantage of group and off-season discounts on individual cabins for longer stays, as parents start to flee the density of urban areas and find ways to teach and entertain young children in more rural communities.”
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Among the international destinations attracting attention is East Africa — especially Tanzania and Rwanda — according to Godwin Temba, director of Amani Afrika, a tour operator based in Arusha, Tanzania.
“Usually, our lead time for booking safaris is six to 12 months,” he said. “Now, we’re receiving last-minute bookings for September and October from travelers who are planning to come in two to four weeks’ time.”
He added that rescheduled honeymoons and solo travel are among the segments showing the most promise for the fall season.
Attractive off-season pricing is an especially compelling draw for Tanzania, noted Denise Brown, co-founder of New York City-based Sababu Safaris.
“From now until the end of year, the majority of lodges and camps in the national parks offer considerably lower rates because they want to entice travelers to come back,” she said.
Stretch SeasonTo encourage further growth, more than 75 businesses and organizations have come together with the U.S. Travel Association to launch a new campaign called “Let’s Go There.” The goal of the initiative, which extends into 2021, is to send a unified message that the travel industry is ready to safely and responsibly welcome back travelers when they are ready to go.
In addition, MMGY Global has created a campaign called Stretch Season, which focuses on new sales opportunities between Labor Day and the end of the year.
Individual properties, meanwhile, have created new programs and packages to capitalize on the popularity of remote working and studying. Salishan Coastal Lodge, on the Oregon Coast, reports that fall bookings are up 85% from last fall, thanks in part to its Work From Learn From offer.
Wyndham Destinations, meanwhile, has introduced a Back to School, Back to Your Bucketlist program in partnership with Club Wyndham, the company’s vacation ownership brand. The new offering, which guarantees travel advisor commissions on canceled bookings due to COVID-19 through the end of the year, is featured at five drive-friendly destinations around the country.
Travel Advisor StrategiesSuppliers and travel advisors should work together to take advantage of renewed enthusiasm for travel, according to Edward Piegza, president and founder of tour operator Classic Journeys, which is seeing higher-than-expected interest in itineraries to destinations as varied as the Galapagos, Croatia, Montana and Alaska.
“Advisors are reaching out on behalf of their clients to ask for our help on what countries are open, where they can go now and how to do it memorably,” he said.
Short planning periods are typical this fall for Angelina M. Zeppieri, an advisor at Elli Travel Group in New Rochelle, N.Y.
“I have seen an increase in last-minute bookings,” she said. “Travelers are realizing they can travel locally and are scrambling to get in some last-minute trips before winter. With working and learning remotely, there is more flexibility, and I’ve seen requests for longer stays compared to just weekend getaways.”
Reconsidering business strategies and positioning can be especially important during times such as these, according to Kirsten Peterson, owner and senior travel consultant at Peterson Travel Group, a member of Ensemble Travel Group in Chicago.
“My business has changed dramatically,” Peterson said. “I typically focus on luxury international trips. Now, with that almost cut to zero, we have had to pivot, and we are mostly focusing on domestic tourism. Even that is happening at a very slow pace, but this fall we have seen more people looking to travel regionally — taking either a short flight or a short drive. We’re seeing things selling out more often than you would in the past, such as wineries in northern Michigan.”
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For some agencies, the increase in sales this fall is for travel next year. Such is the case for Andrew Williams, managing director of Houston-based Travel At Will, an affiliate of Ovation Travel Group.
“Typically, travelers would be planning for the holidays right now — Halloween, Thanksgiving through the Lunar New Year — but instead we’re receiving requests for spring break and next summer through September 2021,” he said. “A lot of travelers without kids are looking at March and April as an expected ‘safe’ time to travel, with the assumption that the pandemic will have subsided.”
Whatever the timeline for a return to some semblance of normalcy, this year’s surge in fall bookings may change the way we view future shoulder seasons, according to MMGY Global’s Davidson.
“We expect the pandemic to have lasting effects, including on traditional seasonal travel patterns,” he said. “It’s likely travelers will come to appreciate the benefits of traveling during shoulder seasons, when the crowds and pricing are reduced. Increasing reliance upon virtual workplaces and remote learning will allow for increased dispersion of travel demand in the coming years. And, for many destinations, it will require planners to rethink the visitor experience to take advantage of these new seasonal trends.”