After 19 months, the US reopened its borders to international travel on November 8, with those arriving from abroad required to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test. The reopening is expected to boost international travel, which is mainly driven by leisure travelers, but group and business travel also stand to benefit from the easing of restrictions.
Bookings are on the rise
Border reopenings like this may elicit a sigh of relief from partners who have been patiently awaiting an uptick in business.
“We’re closely monitoring US inbound demand and we’re getting much closer to 2019 pre-COVID booking levels,” says Jeff Varhol, Director of Commercial Excellence at Booking.com. “When the announcement was initially made in September, we immediately saw an increase in international bookings.”
In its Q3 2021 earnings report, Booking.com noted a significant improvement in room nights booked by European travelers to the US—and vice versa—immediately after the reopening announcement, as well as more bookings in the US during the Christmas and New Year holiday period compared to the same time in 2019.
“The average booking window is also trending toward pre-COVID times,” continues Varhol. “And we're seeing longer lengths of stay in general across the board.” He recommends partners capture as much demand as possible by offering two base rates—Fully Flexible and Non-Refundable—to target both long and short booking windows.
Search trends mirror booking trends
There’s also been a boost in searches. “Since the middle of September, we’ve seen increased interest from the EU and UK, with a lot of that interest going to city markets,” says Ian Ackland, Regional Director at Booking.com. “We’re seeing international demand in searches, as well as in bookings.”
This includes flight searches by European travelers looking to visit the US, which were up 55% from October 15 to November 8 compared to the previous 25 days.
“Our partners have been deeply affected by the pandemic and associated travel restrictions,” continues Ackland. “This news is a breath of fresh air, and we’re optimistic that the easing of travel restrictions from some of our pre-pandemic top inbound markets into the US will support our partners.”
To take advantage of the surge in demand, Ackland encourages US partners to head to the Extranet to analyze their demand data, which can help optimize their availability, rates, and policies. He offers a two-pronged approach for partners – a “near-country” strategy to target Canada and Mexico, and a “far-country” strategy focused on longer-haul international travelers.
One straightforward way to do this is by offering Country Rates. “We display Country Rate opportunities in the Promotions tab of the Extranet,” he says. “It’s shown in the order we recommend prioritizing each country or region based on what we know about your property and its previous bookings.” The Extranet can also offer suggestions of countries where Country Rates can help based on your competitors’ performance.
“For example, if you're looking at New York,” he explains, “your Extranet analytics dashboard may encourage you to target the UK. But if your property is in Chicago, it may signal demand coming from Canada – just to choose two examples.”
Leisure driving demand, with some bright spots in business travel
First announced in September by the Biden administration, the planned reopening led to much speculation and preparation by accommodation providers.
When it comes to leisure travel, “Miami has led the way in terms of recovery because their beach destination of Florida has remained open for the bulk of the year,” says STR President Amanda Hite, “but we think there's an opportunity for markets like New York to attract international travelers during the holiday season.”
There are some signs that business travel is beginning to recover. According to STR, during the six weeks from mid-September to mid-October, the US saw revenue per available room (RevPAR) levels reach 89% compared to 2019. This period, unofficially known as conference season, is historically when the majority of group meetings happen. “We're slowly climbing each week with corporate group demand, and the last six weeks have remained positive,” says Hite.
One additional data point that may signal the possible beginning of the return of business travelers is increased occupancy outside of weekends. “When we look at weekday occupancy, our highest occupancy days continue to be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” says Hite, “but what we’ve seen over the last eight weeks is that weekday occupancy is starting to pick up, with Tuesday and Wednesday opportunities getting stronger.”
While the border reopening offers optimism for US accommodation providers, many still have ground to make up. Hite notes that while hotels in the US may have seen a recent bump in their average daily rate (ADR), they may still be trailing in the long run. This is partly due to inflation, but also because of the setbacks of ongoing wage pressure and supply chain shortages, which can prevent hotels from offering their full range of available rooms. “Even though the rates may be the same as what they were in 2019, their costs are higher.”
Future indicators to watch for
Hite points out that market signals around this recovery may be different from previous downturns: “This recovery has been very different compared to the great recession in 2008.” During that crisis, the recovery of cities which relied on conference business was seen as a leading indicator for the industry. But this time around, cities like San Francisco, which rely heavily on conference business, aren’t recovering as quickly.
“As the recovery progresses, these cities could be lagging indicators for the full return of group and business travel,” Hite says. “As we move into the holiday season and the new year, those are the cities that we’ll be looking at for significant demand bumps.”
“Looking forward, the easing of restrictions in many of our largest inbound markets coupled with travelers eager to get back out there are promising indicators for the return of international travel demand to pre-pandemic levels,” concludes Booking.com’s Ackland, with a message to partners. “We remain committed to helping you meet this returning demand as we move towards the new year and beyond.”
- Partners may want to set up a strong rate foundation to capture both long and short booking windows and pursue a “near-country” and “far-country” strategy using Country Rates
- Weekday occupancy is beginning to pick up, with Tuesday and Wednesday opportunities getting stronger, and length of stay is increasing
- According to STR, in the six weeks after the border reopening announcement, the US saw RevPAR levels reach 89% compared to 2019
- Cities that rely heavily on conference travel may be a lagging indicator for the full return of business travel