And why vacation rentals will bounce back first
Have you made eye contact with a stranger lately? I found myself at the local grocery store yesterday milling around other humans without any eye contact — a careful 6-ft radius surrounding each of us. And with masks, it’s difficult to read body language too. We’re really disconnected from other humans we don’t know right now, and it’s sad.
Indeed, the world today is a strange and scary place. In public, we need to be on high alert all the time. Despite our rational thoughts about science, it’s fear that keeps us vigilant and ultimately, safe.
Humans are naturally curious and love to explore. If you’re like me, you’re excited to plan your next trip. It’s in our blood. Travel is a force that cannot be stopped by a pandemic. It’s our human nature to explore. But how will we manage through this current state of uncertainty?
I’m a CEO in the travel industry. My company, Hostfully, makes software that helps thousands of vacation rental managers across 80 countries. We believe the best travel experiences are when people get closer to locals and local experiences. Our mission is to help every manager and traveler make the most of every stay.
Chart: Travel is a Megatrend (Skift)
This past week someone asked me: “What will be the most difficult thing for travel providers to overcome after COVID-19?” I sighed and answered: “Fear”.
What does fear have to do with travel?
Most people know travel as aspirational and adventurous. It’s exciting. But few realize that travel is also about managing fear.
New experiences, places, and people pique curiosity and broaden our minds, and they simultaneously cause anxiety. Our travel choices depend on our appetite and tolerance for fear. That’s what makes it thrilling.
Now let’s talk about change.
We know that adult humans resist change. An instinct, designed to protect us, can also overwhelm us and cloud our judgement. It’s why we stay in bad relationships and jobs for too long. It’s why we helicopter-parent and why we propagate stereotypes. We’re afraid of change. And this includes adjusting to new people, places, and experiences that look, smell, sound, and feel different from what we’re used to.
Identifying sticking points
When we start traveling again, it will be the specific fears — what I call “sticking points” — that will drive travel decisions.
There are key questions we’ll ask ourselves during the planning process of any trip.
Travel sticking points
- Is it worth it for me to go on this trip, putting myself and my family at risk?
- Do I have the money/energy/time to afford to travel?
- Will I feel comfortable anywhere? Am I forcing myself to go on a trip to “have fun”?
- Do I want to be on an airplane with random people for several hours?
- Do I want to expose my family to a new place during this trip?
- Do I believe that the place I’m staying at is clean? Will it stay clean?
- What about food? Will I feel comfortable in restaurants? Buying coffee? Groceries? Gas?
- Can I safely reach and enter my accommodation?
- Will I feel safe in this new place?
- Will I feel safe with these new people? What if I don’t speak the language?
- Will I have everything I need?
- What if things get worse while I’m there?
What this looks like for different phases of the travel experience
- Travelers will be even more focused on planning than before, as a method of assuaging anxiety and uncertainty
- Within groups of travelers, we will see different preferences arise. The group will most likely go with the least risk-tolerant perspective.
- Bucket List Planning: Travelers ask themselves the question “Where have I always wanted to go but never made the leap?” Added uncertainty around future waves of epidemics will expand the trend to do ‘bucket list’ travel.
- There will be different waves of socially accepted travel:
Wave 1: Road trips to nearby destinations
This is already happening, even during the height of the pandemic. Families are escaping cities to rural areas and staying in vacation rentals for longer periods of time. This type of travel will be the first to bounce back because travelers can interact with very few people on the way to and at roadtrip destinations. It feels the least risky.
Wave 2: Travel to visit family
The need to stay connected with family will overcome people’s fear of flying. In the U.S., Thanksgiving will be the first major holiday that will occur when Americans traditionally see family. This will be a turning point in how Americans think about their own preferences for airline travel.
Wave 3: Travel for work + leisure travel
Work travel will be much slower to return compared to travel to visit family. Companies will be cautious with exposing employees to increased risk.
Leisure travel will increase around the same timeframe. Because the leisure category includes more predictable accommodations and experiences, it will not be considered as risky as adventure travel.
Wave 4: Adventure travel
This will slowly emerge with Wave 3, but fewer people will embark on adventure travel than before. Travel in this category will be slow to return, and it will happen gradually over 2-3 years.
Special note: International / Overseas travel
Because travelers will be reluctant to travel on airplanes (and of course cruise ships!) overseas travel will take time to return to normal. There will be an additional reluctance to visit new countries where it is difficult for travelers to assess risk and/or feel secure if another global emergency arises.
Booking travel / Making payments
- Travelers will be less likely to pay in advance because they believe that the trip may change
- Travelers will be less likely to pay for optional services
Reaching the destination
- Travelers will choose forms of transportation that give them the most control and optionality
- First choice in reaching destinations will be by car, then public transportation (bus, train, rideshare), then flight
- Travelers will feel less comfortable interacting with people and experiences that feel different from them
- Travelers will prefer experiences that keep them away from crowds (e.g. theme parks and casinos)
- Travelers will avoid “off the beaten path” experiences because of risk of the unknown
- Trust symbols and references will become even more important
- New standards will emerge around cleanliness and hygiene in accommodations (hotels and vacation rentals)
- Travel experiences will be more homogeneous
- Travelers will fall into two camps in their mindset of mitigating risk: 1) Be more planful and less spontaneous about activities and restaurant choices at the destination or 2) Go with gut feel: wait to evaluate what seems safe once they are at the destination
- There will be more advance reservations and fewer last-minute bookings
Reminiscing / Sharing
- Travel will continue to be a topic of interest and social sharing
- There will be a heightened sense of accomplishment around travel
- Social sharing about travel will expand and be an even bigger area of focus compared to before
- New products to help “re-experience” travel will emerge: tools to create travel videos, share content about personal trips, highlight destinations, print out and display travel photos, etc.
How vacation rental providers are preparing
Vacation rental providers were hit suddenly, and hard, by COVID-19. Our clients manage more than 17,000 vacation rentals around the world. Starting mid-March, many saw their business go from 85% occupancy to 0% overnight. In a study comparing cancellations in 2019 to 2020 across all bookings platforms (Airbnb, Vrbo, Booking.com, etc) they were up 500% year over year from February to March.
Instead of licking their wounds, many companies are looking ahead. They’re investing in giving travelers more flexible ways to book and also guaranteeing a hygienic and trusted travel experience. Leading examples include:
Investing in tools that provide more flexibility for travelers to book.
- Different payment plans and discounting
- Accommodating different lengths of stay including switching to mid-term and long-term rentals
- Broadening distribution across more bookings channels to reach a bigger audience and protect against platform dependence
Cleaning and hygiene
- Having the cleaner wait 48 hours before cleaning the rental to protect cleaning staff
- Guaranteeing that rentals haven’t been touched in 48 hours after being cleaned
- Stocking the home with more hand sanitizer
- Publishing cleaning practices and processes
- Updating marketing photos to showcase cleanliness
More personalized attention and assurances
- Investing in software tools to deliver in-stay travel information via mobile
- Preparing for increased level of traveler anxiety, more questions, and more hand-holding to help travelers reach their destination
- Enable self-check in with new operational software and home automation
Chart: Length of stay >14 days is increasing starting in March 2020 (Price Labs)
Why vacation rentals have an advantage over hotels
The biggest challenge in vacation rentals is managing the operations of a myriad set of properties in different locations. But this is also what gives vacation rentals the advantage in bouncing back from COVID-19.
- Typically, vacation rentals have no lobby or common area. Travelers don’t want to be pushing the same elevator buttons everyone else has been pushing. This reduces exposure to other guests
- Hands off hospitality is expected and done well by many vacation rental operators. Guests won’t mind a fully automated entry experience.
- Smaller operators can pivot more quickly to new cleaning standards and operationalize them with staff.
- Vacation rentals can supply accommodations for Wave 1 of road trippers; will also benefit from Wave 2 of family travel
- Rural markets will be the first to bounce back and vacation rentals dominate there
- Vacation rentals usually include a kitchen for in-unit food prep, further reducing exposure. This is compared to restaurant dining which is required for a hotel stay.
Lego diorama made by Ari, Ben, and Margot Schmorak
The ultimate resiliency of travel
Travel will come back, and it will be stronger than before. But it will look different for awhile. Travelers will demand more assurance about safety and cleanliness. Accommodations and service providers will differentiate on these.
We will recover from the trauma of this global event. It will take time. People will be on edge for awhile. It will take patience to collectively manage our anxiety. Travel will be forever changed. But perhaps the innovation on cleanliness and hygiene was a natural evolution that accelerated, not an unnatural change catering to a global pandemic.
My biggest focus is helping us quickly get back to a world in which we can look a stranger in the eye without fear. Not just in the grocery store, but also when we’re in a new place that smells, sounds, and feels different. When the language is one we don’t understand, and when the face we’re looking at looks different from ours. Then we’ll know travel has truly moved on.