By the time you read this, the travel recovery landscape will have shifted yet again. As we emerge from crisis containment and the last 15 months of switching back and forth between “pause, ready, set” phases to full-on recovery “go” mode, this shift also means there’s absolutely no time to wait for companies to restart their PR efforts.
While MMGY Global predicted that the pent-up demand for travel would be unleashed in a big way, we never anticipated the speed of the trajectory. As our 2021 Portrait of American Travelers survey Summer Edition found, U.S. travelers are ready to put COVID concerns behind them and forge ahead without looking in the rearview mirror. The “wait and see” mindset that many destinations and travel brands were forced into during the pandemic has been cast aside, and now is the time to shift gears, make strategic decisions, capitalize on the pent-up demand and capture the travel surge.
The surge is well underway
Based on numbers from our most recent Portrait of American Travelers report, intent to take a vacation in the coming months has increased significantly, with 72 percent of U.S. adults planning to do so—up from 62 percent recorded at the beginning of the year.
While Gen Z already showed a high intent to travel, we saw the biggest jump in Boomers—increasing from 54 percent to 70 percent. This was no surprise considering Boomers had first access to vaccines and are more likely to have disposable income and available time to travel.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's July '21 Travel & Tourism PR Magazine
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At the same time, with families separated for so long, there’s also strong interest in multigenerational travel, with 43 percent of travelers intending to take a vacation with parents, grandparents, and kids in tow.
With summer well underway, we’re already seeing a major spike in keyword searches for “beaches,” “parks,” “camping” and other terms usually associated with outdoor fun. As was the case even in the earlier days of the pandemic, there’s continued interest in road trips, with 57 percent of travelers indicating they took one in the last year and 76 percent intending to in the coming months. Also on the rise is travel spend on overnight leisure trips, with Boomers showing intent to take fewer trips but spend more than other generations, so it’s a key market to target right now.
It appears we finally hit a crucial turning point. The beginning of summer showed a strong rebound in air travel, crossing more than two million travelers in a single day for the first time since March 2020. We’re also seeing strong conversions to domestic hotel bookings, with U.S. hotel occupancy reaching its highest levels in June since November 2019, according to research from STR.
With borders reopening at a fast clip—beginning with destinations like Iceland, Mexico, parts of the Caribbean and now the EU—we’re anticipating a huge surge of international travel on the horizon. Cruise lines are already enjoying a strong performance with record bookings, despite strict safety standards. Even at the height of the pandemic, our research showed that traveler intentions to cruise only decreased slightly. In fact, extended voyages, including World Cruises, are in the highest demand amongst luxury cruisers, an audience whose loyalty is fierce.
Leisure travel and spending for the next 12 months.
We also predicted early that leisure travel would precede business travel, which would return at a slower pace, with the long-lead nature of meetings and events naturally feeding into an extended recovery time. In a recent survey of its members, the Global Business Travel Association found that 79 percent would be “very comfortable” or “comfortable” traveling for business after receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. GBTA itself will resume its annual conference this November in Orlando, marking the return of large-scale meetings and events.
Powering your PR strategy
We’re amidst a great travel reawakening. With the surge already upon us, and consumers ready and willing to splurge on great travel experiences, it’s time to harness that energy in a positive and directed way.
At MMGY NJF, we’ve been helping our clients navigate through the COVID crisis and have a clear-eyed view on how to capture prospective travelers in an enormously competitive landscape. Whether you’re a DMO, hotel or resort, airline, cruise line or travel supplier, it’s essential to have a firm strategy in place that allows you to be nimble and progressive in your execution.
Redirect the narrative. For the past year, road trips, outdoor exploration and regional travel were the main story angles for journalists, and we rallied around curating virtual experiences to meet these trends. While open spaces and domestic travel are still hot topics, now is also the time to court writers with story ideas and individual opportunities to get back to big cities and international destinations. But we must do it in a way that fits these times: taking cleanliness, crowds and general safety into account, and providing real-time support while on the road. Speaking of which: safety is essential, but no longer pivotal for our messaging. In the early days, we saw hotel brands partnering with cleaning brands, and destinations crafting roadmaps to safety in conjunction with leading health organizations. Those messages should remain a priority, but they no longer need to be front and center. Rather, this needs to be baked into your messaging as an essential, non-negotiable part of the experience—with an understanding that this topic will continue to evolve in the coming months and years.
Be authentic to differentiate your brand from the competition. Staying true to who you are and what your brand stands for is crucial to re-engaging with and capturing bookings from repeat visitors and to attracting new ones. One of our most recent PR campaigns for our client, Visit California, showcased once-in-a-lifetime experiences from across the state. “Dreaming On In California” reminded consumers that California stands for dreaming big and called upon locals and visitors to apply and share their stories of postponed dreams, skipped plans and canceled celebrations from 2020 for the opportunity to make those missed moments come true this year, California style. Unforgettable experiences highlighting key messaging pillars included a meal prepared by celebrity chef Curtis Stone, behind-the-scenes access at a San Diego Padres game, a magical Disneyland Resort vacation, a luxury road trip with stops at Marriott International properties across the state and a series of fairytale micro-weddings at the luxurious Carneros Resort and Spa. In addition to extensive media coverage, winners shared their experiences across social media, further inspiring followers to create their own only-in-California itineraries.
Community engagement plus inclusivity is critical to a go-forward PR strategy. Part of tourism recovery involves messaging, empowering and engaging locals like never before as ambassadors for their own brand. By doing so, brands can highlight those stories that truly make a destination or product unique. Bringing more invested stakeholders to the table means improved coordination, partnerships, story development, and overall enthusiasm which helps to drive PR strategies. In addition, travel brands can attract a more diverse audience by understanding the motivations and behaviors of underrepresented travelers. MMGY Global’s recent release of the “Black Traveler: Insights, Opportunities & Priorities” report discovered the enormous spending power of Black travelers in the U.S.: spending more than $129 billion on domestic and international travel before the pandemic. Forthcoming this summer is a study on the needs and priorities of Latinx U.S. Travelers.
Develop creative packages leveraging brand standouts and new travel habits such as reverse compression. We have always maintained that offering deep discounts isn’t a sustainable strategy, even if it garners headlines in the short term. The demand for travel has already led to weekends and peak travel times filling up, so we’re seeing what MMGY Global has coined “reverse compression.” Because deals are hard to come by, travelers are relying on flexibility to improve their experience and find greater value. Work-from-home and hybrid work models mean that mid-week travel is now a possibility, and travelers are continuing to expect the generous cancellation and rebooking policies we saw mid-pandemic. It’s up to us to design creative packages that grab media attention while meeting the needs of travelers.
Let’s go places now
As we forge ahead, our strategic planning and crisis-management expertise have empowered us to find what works best for each client. We know that the travel cycle is rapidly changing, and people will continue to expect this flexibility as they approach their trip planning. We understand innately that travelers are seeking out memorable experiences, are drawn to sustainable choices and are prepared to splurge on meaningful travel. As you embark on your PR recovery efforts, remain authentic and continue to mold your approach against an ever-shifting environment. One thing’s for certain: the competition is fierce, but we’re here to help and go places together.
Julie Freeman is EVP and Managing Director of MMGY NJF.