In the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the North American market is seeing strong short-term demand for domestic travel. But a sharp increase in the spread of the virus makes predicting the future especially tricky.
“One thing that has surprised us in North America is how resilient the industry has been here,” says Stephen Thresh, Regional Director at Booking.com. “We saw a big fall-off in bookings, as everyone did. But we see that people want to travel as soon as they are able.”
Thresh believes the key to understanding demand right now is that it is very hyperlocal, with travellers focusing on out-of-the-way areas within a two-to-three-hour drive. “The first trend we saw was to beach destinations - not big beach destinations, but secondary beach locations where people felt they could be more isolated.”
Short booking windows, driver-friendly destinations
Raul Moronta, Senior Vice President Revenue Management at Crescent Hotels & Resorts, echoes this focus on beach destinations. “Resorts have bounced back a lot faster than hotels,” he says. “Urban locations are seeing a slower recovery, but interstate corridors and small towns have bounced back faster.” Moronta paints a picture of the ideal hotelier at this particular point in time: “If you are a resort destination in the south - not in an urban location - with a lot of family-driven business, you are going to do much better, at least in the short term.”
Since reopening, Crescent has seen an uptick in business based on relatively clear recovery trends. “The number one trend is the short-term booking window,” notes Moronta. “Over 60% of our bookings are coming in inside of three days.” Weekends, in particular Saturdays, have consistently had the highest occupancy.
But there are still threats to success in the form of second-wave closings that could be looming on the horizon. “One of our resorts in Arizona was on the road to being fully open, and within a matter of hours, we received a note that all bars needed to be closed,” says Moronta. Since then, the company has had to re-close hotels in Florida and Texas.
Social distancing rules in the US
One particularly difficult challenge has been dealing with social distancing rules around masks, which aren’t mandated at the federal level but might be depending on the particular state where you are located. “In the United States, unlike in Canada or Europe, I think we’ve seen a far more uncoordinated effort,” says Moronta. The decision whether or not to wear a mask is extremely localised, making it hard for hoteliers to enforce social distancing rules when reopening.Beach vacations within a few hours drive have been popular in North America. Image credit: Nathan Dumlao
“It is very difficult for us to enforce policies and procedures when you have a guest coming from outside of a state who may be assuming that every procedure will be executed in the same way across the US.”
When will business follow leisure?
Jan Freitag, Senior Vice President at STR, a global market data company, also sees strong trends that favour leisure over corporate travel. He’s been digging into both conventional and unconventional streams of data to measure the region’s domestic leisure demand. “So far, we’ve been able to see healthy weekend occupancies and also an uptick in TSA (Transportation Security Administration) checkpoint numbers.”
Corporate and group business, however, has been lagging behind. “We expect the hotel industry recovery will follow a pattern of leisure transient guests, followed by corporate transient guests, followed by corporate group guests,” says Freitag.
Crescent’s Montoya also reports a stagnation outside of leisure travel. “We haven't seen corporate business return, particularly group business, and we don't expect it to return for another few months,” he says. “I think they're going to be the most timid to return.”
When corporate business and events do finally recover for hoteliers, it’s still unclear how such events should be run. Freitag notes, “How large group meetings will be conducted in a ‘6-foot world’ is still being debated and tested.”
Advice for partners: focus on short-term, mobile
Booking.com’s Thresh advises partners to focus on capturing the short booking windows that are popular right now. “Look at your cancellation policy and be as flexible as you're willing to be.” He also recommends putting a special emphasis on mobile bookers. With 80% of bookers using a mobile app to research their trip and 50% of searches and bookings made on the platform using a mobile device, it’s a good way to target on-the-fly bookers. “In line with that, we have a mobile rate set up that partners can join.”
In many ways, compared to other regions, he thinks NORAM partners may be able to make the most of existing opportunities during the recovery, particularly in the US, provided individual states can stay ahead of viral outbreaks. “There's pent-up demand in the US,” says Thresh. “People want to travel, people want to get out.”
- North American partners are seeing strong short-term demand for domestic travel
- Demand has been strongest in US states with the fewest lockdown rules, in particular at beachside resorts
- With leisure providing the bulk of domestic demand, corporate and group travel may lag throughout the year
- To capture short-term bookers, partners may want to focus on two aspects of marketing their rooms: flexibility and mobile rates