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Travel & Hospitality

Keeping Leisure Travelers at the Center of Hotels’ Recovery: Lessons Learned

David Taylor
David Taylor

 

For many business travelers, COVID-19 has shifted the business meeting from flights and hotels to Zoom calls. While the pandemic’s trajectory remains unclear, leisure travel will continue to be the lifeblood of many hotels in the near future. Short-distance vacations and visits to family and friends dominated the U.S. summer travel season, according to a Skift survey in September. As a result, many properties have started to reinvent themselves for leisure travelers, shifting to family vacations and offering new services such as roadtrip packages and drive-in movie nights.

As people become more comfortable with traveling during the pandemic, data shows they’re seeking nearby highway and rural destinations as a way to get away, while also staying close to home. According to data from the U.S. Travel Association, most travelers are seeking trips within a few hours’ drive of their homes. Many hotels were proactive in the early stages of the pandemic, offering flexible cancellation/rebooking without penalties and working to ensure cleanliness and safety. However, hotels have been limited in how they have used technology in this process. For example, many hotel websites still don’t include COVID-19 related reviews or don’t make it easy for travelers to read health and safety reviews.

Stay laser-focused on leisure

Leisure travel has led the slow rebound for the world’s largest hotel chains. Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company by number of rooms, said leisure travel and drive-to destinations led the recovery during the summer. Marriott saw leisure demand strongest at its resorts and in secondary, drive-to markets, and near-term leisure bookings are fueling recovery in North America and China. Both of these factors, coupled with their expansion into alternative accommodations with Homes and Villas by Marriott International, position them competitively against their peers.

But hotels still have a long way to go to win leisure guests. For example, leisure travelers are generally price sensitive and the pandemic’s economic impact has increased this behavior and the volume of travel discounts being offered to encourage travel. About 25 percent of potential travelers plan to “make use of promotions/discounts when booking vacations,” according to GlobalWebIndex data from April.

“Online travel agencies (OTAs) have an advantage in the leisure-first COVID-19 travel landscape,” said David Taylor, Travel and Hospitality Strategy Lead. “Many leisure customers already perceive OTAs as having the lowest price, the widest selection and are their go-to-option when it comes to last-minute travel. Hotels will need to be careful in their marketing and media spend as they become digital-first brands, doubling down in personalization, loyalty, offer management and hotel-specific content services.”

Hotels can Succeed

How hotels can succeed

Hospitality was changing well before the pandemic. Many hotels had started to reduce human interaction, offering mobile room keys and kiosks in lobbies that allow guests to bypass the front desk to check-in. Soon, guests will see contactless options as foundational, complementing existing health and safety standards as well as other digital services, such as making service requests through the brand’s app.

Here are six considerations for hotels to maximize their digital capabilities toward a contactless future:

1. Rebuild marketing and media to enable targeted leisure segments, attracting those who have a desire to travel but might need inspiration.

2. Rebuild rates and booking programs to give customers greater flexibility, such as free cancellations and modifications, ensuring seamless coordination across distribution, property management and call centers.

3. Enable personalized discounts, capturing last-minute stays and customers who might be searching OTAs.

4. Adopt a customer data platform (CDP) to power a 360-degree view of your customers, enabling new revenue streams and travel experiences beyond the stay.

5. Implement a localized content management system (CMS) to enable properties with the tools to manage their own communication, imagery and property information. Beyond enabling localized pandemic information, properties will also be able to find new revenue as they collaborate with local businesses and travel providers to offer localized travel packages.

6. Identify new mechanisms to attract leisure travelers to your loyalty programs. Hotel loyalty programs target business travelers, but hotels must now enhance their programs to entice travelers who may stay less frequently but expect greater leisure options.

 

Learning from Airbnb’s digital and leisure strength

Airbnb’s strength has always been with urban destinations where travelers were looking to connect with locals for insider tips on where to go and what to do. However,COVID-19 has made cities less attractive, and Airbnb made suburban and rural vacation rentals its marquee offering.

As the company realized the virus would cause a fundamental change in how people travel, it redesigned its website and app, using machine learning-based algorithms early in the pandemic to highlight exclusive vacation rentals complete with compelling photography and content to whet travelers’ appetites for a quick and safe, local getaway. By July, travelers were booking Airbnbs at the same rate they were just prior to the pandemic, and in August, more than half of the company’s bookings were for stays within 300 miles of travelers’ homes, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Airbnb’s agility has allowed it to weather the early days of the pandemic. Hotels can do more to promote their short-term rental and vacation rental inventory, as many travelers aren’t aware that hotels offer these products. Some hotels have made investments and acquisitions in this sector in recent years, such as Marriott International’s Homes and Villas platform and Accor’s Onefinestay acquisition. Airbnb’s brand recognition and loyalty continues to be an asset and other hotels should consider how loyalty members could use points at alternative accommodations and vacation properties. With Marriott’s Homes and Villas, for example, some 90 percent of bookings come from Marriott Bonvoy members, and bookings and revenue both increased significantly this summer, CNBC reported.

While Airbnb has the upper hand in terms of available listings, hotels can harness digital platforms and messaging to promote their health and safety commitments and policies to convey a key differentiator with Airbnb, which relies on individual hosts to practice good hygiene.

 

Leisure for the longterm

Road trips and localized travel will be travelers’ focus for now, and properties need to rethink how they serve this market. Red Roof Inn, for instance, is capitalizing on its budget-friendly accommodations that mostly have exterior corridors to target road trippers.

However, don’t assume business travel is dead or that business travelers won’t come back. “We often forget that there are only leisure travelers and then leisure travelers that sometimes travel for business,” said Taylor.

Travelers who book stays will be digitally savvy and tuned into a hotel’s digital tools and communications. It will be even more critical for properties to respond to online reviews and ensure they reflect the local situation. Many travelers will also be booking last minute as booking periods continue to shorten, with Expedia reporting a rise in last-minute getaways this summer and more bookings made zero to seven days before a trip.

Apart from targeting regional leisure travelers, hotels should also consider local residents. Some 20 percent of U.S. internet users plan to take a staycation in their area in the next 12 months, according to GlobalWebIndex, and hotels could offer access to pools and other amenities that will keep your brand top-of-mind when they decide it’s time to get away.

 

David Taylor
David Taylor
Travel and Hospitality Strategy Lead

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