The following is a transcript from our podcast episode, “Planning Your Destination for Summer Travel”
The fun of traveling begins long before you pack your bags or hit the road. It starts with the planning – the time where you’re dreaming up where you want to go, who you’re going to see, and the shops and food await you on your trip.
That stage of planning is what millions of Americans are doing right now, and making the most of this time of the year is the subject of this episode of the Imagine Nation Podcast.
I read a quote last week that I’d really like to share. It’s subtle, but it’s one that I’m glad I saw. It was by a scientist named Sarah Jones at the Imperial College London. She said,
“For the first time since the pandemic began, I can sense that optimism is spreading faster than the virus.”
Considering the dire holiday season they saw in the UK, this is particularly good to see.
Destination Analysts reported this week that from their research, more than 80% of Americans have plans for one or more upcoming trips this year. For the first time since the pandemic began, less than half of respondents are considering local travel as unsafe. That’s not all travel, of course; most people traveling by plane are still doing so for business and the recovery of international travel is still a long way out, but the planning of local trips has increased significantly while vaccines have become more widely distributed, and daily new cases are steadily dropping.
We’re at the highest level of optimism for COVID recovery since this all began. The biggest boost so far was in early May of last year where optimism was around 35% of survey respondents, but now even that has been surpassed and sits around 40% today.
For international or long-distance travel, the numbers are improving but we shouldn’t expect the rebound to begin until much later in the year. The first destinations to rebound look to be smaller towns that are more of an escape – the ones that provide plenty of space between people and don’t require an airplane to reach.
The research I’ll talk about in this episode wasn’t taken from just one source; Google, TripAdvisor, independent research firms, and more are confirming the same trends and they all point to one thing for destinations, restaurants, hotels, tour operators, etc.: start planning now because consumers have already started. Each day you wait to market is a day that travel plans are being made.
Another reason why this is a critical time to plan is that most consumers aren’t brand-committed just yet. For an example provided by Google search data, 78% of leisure travelers haven’t decided what airline they will travel with, and 82% haven’t chosen the accommodation provider they will book with when they first start thinking about a trip.
A return to pre-COVID travel volume isn’t the only thing to consider when marketing, either. A lot of how people will choose to travel has been impacted in other ways. For example, more and more research is showing that of the trips people plan to take, they’re expecting for those trips to be considerably longer. And that makes sense when you think about it. So much of our workforce shifted to work from home last year. If they can manage a career from their living room, it stands to reason that they may be able to do the same from a hotel, coffee shop, or even poolside.
In many cases, three-day weekends may be less of a thing in the future, just like pants were less of a thing in 2020. This is great news for destinations – the weekends… not the lack of pants.
This is an opportunity to offer different, longer, and more authentic experiences to customers.
Another change – and one where I really see some significant growth – is in outdoor and adventure travel. RV sales in 2020 were up 5% from 2019. Yellowstone National Park alone saw a 21% increase in visitation in September 2020 versus the same period in 2019. Forms of travel and destinations that give people distance from one another – like parks, beaches, and rivers, are going to be big this year.
From all of that data, there’s a lot to unpack and even more action that destinations need to take now. First, expect to attract travelers that can reach you within a three-hour drive. Target your digital ad campaigns for a tight radius around your destination. Take into account that more travelers may pick a destination where friends or family live and, as a result, may dine, shop or sightsee in slightly larger groups.
I won’t harp on how your customers’ needs and priorities have changed and the importance of resetting your audience personas. I’ve done that ad infinitum in previous episodes and webinars. I will say that new research is showing that the inability of a destination to understand a customer’s needs (in other words, knowing their customer) is almost twice as likely to cause a visitor not to book than price.
Second, expect them to stick around longer. Partner with local businesses and develop longer trips with museums, trails, and multi-night dining experiences. Provide itineraries that marry different facets of your culture – maybe a day focused on your history, followed by your present then followed by your destination’s future. Opportunities for longer-term, deeper experiences will keep travelers engaged and provide them a greater appreciation for your area’s history and culture.
Third, expect them to spread out. Look at common areas in town as a greater opportunity. Turn vacant lots into hubs for small gatherings. Develop promotions that bring park visitors to shops or restaurants. If you’re like our area here in Northern Virginia, take hiking trails into account and invite hikers to a relaxed dinner after a long walk. Find ways to bridge the gap between nature and merchants.
Next, re-evaluate your marketing strategy. In many cases, you need to start from the ground up in developing campaigns that resonate with customers. We’ve all changed as a result of the past 11 months, and some of those major changes should be present in your marketing.
For instance, searches for fitness apps have doubled year-over-year, and searches for online learning resources have quadrupled. Self-improvement is of far greater importance now.
Google searches for products that include the phrase “and in stock” show that people don’t take as much for granted anymore – whether it’s toilet paper, if a restaurant is accepting dine-in customers, or if a business is even open anymore.
Both searches and purchases of home improvement supplies and services jumped in 2020, probably because looking at the same walls, every day can urge you to coat them in a new coat of paint. Now that people are increasingly comfortable with shopping in-person, their desire to bring home mementos to decorate their homes may also see a surge.
It’s important to acknowledge things like these. They may seem subtle, but it’s making sure that these subtleties are addressed that will help you to create an experience that’s in line with your visitors’ needs.
Finally, expect them to promote your destination, even if they don’t plan to. The social media activity we saw from travelers pre-COVID will be nothing compared to the number of meals, selfies, sunsets, and other photos and posts we’ll see in our feeds this summer. The excitement to explore once again and to see the post-pandemic world will be absolutely epic.
Make your social channels and apps – if you have them – easy to find, make your hashtags short and easy to find, and pay close attention to the sights that people share. Keep those places sacred and find ways to encourage visitors to share their own experiences at those spots. Maybe it’s a historic building, or an overlook at sunset, or even that vacant lot-turned-dog park. Large gatherings won’t be popular for while from now, so promote more intimate places.
Whatever it is, create some fun campaigns around those places because another trend we’ve picked up in 2020 is heightened technology adoption. For many, their phones were the hearth of their social lives and they’ve grown closer to their devices as a way to connect. I expect that they’ll continue to connect through them, even after it’s safe to do otherwise.
I think we’re fortunate to see the signs of normal travel – and life, in general – coming in the future. There’s no doubt that it’s going to help those that depend on travelers. However, what’s uncertain are those destinations, shops, parks, restaurants, and other businesses that will benefit the most and more quickly. My wish to every destination is that they make the most of the time they have now to provide the greatest return in that future.