Nothing Will Change…And That’s A Bad Thing

People are desperate for a feeling of normalcy, whatever that may be for them. Not just now while we’re all on lockdown with nothing but bad news 24/7 but constantly.  When this is all over, and we switch to other news in the late Fall, I think most people will be desperate to forget this ever happened.  If we do talk about it, it will be only to discuss the lingering economic effects.

In 2009, I contracted the H1N1(swine flu). It put me flat on my back for over a week and I didn’t feel completely healthy again for over two weeks. Looking back, not only did I not alter my behavior, but less than a year later I quit a job with 50% work-from-home in favor of a job that involved 60% travel. While considering my career switch, I didn’t even consider how much more exposure that travel would cause me. It was a pretty bad risk assessment on my part.   Most people believe they are much better at assessing risk than they actually are.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The H2N2 pandemic, in 1957, killed over 100,000 Americans. The US population at the time, according to the 1955 census, was 171 million.  That means the death rate in the US was approximately .05%.  With a projected death rate of over >100k for COVID-19 as of this writing and the current US population of 328 million the death rate is .02%.  While I’m not a professional researcher by any stretch, what I could find in the papers from 1957 were many articles about the flu outbreak while it was in full effect.  However, it seemed like it was being reported on like the weather. The weather was terrible for a while, but once it passed, not many mentions at all. I couldn’t find anything encouraging people to change their behavior.  After 1957 almost no mentions of this major pandemic in media of any kind.

Today’s world is much more interconnected and media-saturated than in 1957. However, I think the same thing is about to occur this fall that occurred after the 1957 H2N2 pandemic. We here in America, for example, will happily change our focus to the upcoming presidential election and do our best to forget all about COVID-19.  

I believe this so strongly I made a fairly significant(for me) investment in Carnival cruise lines. If it goes back to half of it’s pre-CORONA-19 price then I’ll be taking all of my friends and family on a cruise with the profits.   

Photo by jonathan leonardo on Unsplash

The major cruise lines have reopened their reservation systems and are taking reservations for as early as the fall of 2020. While most reservations are for discounted cruises in 2021. Let that sink in a bit. People who by in large are at home sheltering in place due to COVID-19 are booking cruises for as early as this fall!

Many people I respect are claiming that things will change forever but what they point to are trends like the death of movie theaters, malls, and more working from home.  These trends were already in full effect before the pandemic.  When was the last time you had a good experience in a movie theater not named “Alamo Draft House?”   Office space is often one of the largest expenses a business will have so, of course, companies are extending their work from home policies in an attempt to bring these expenses under control.

People are desperate to get back to “normal,” whatever that is for them. I fear this will lead to us being completely unprepared for the next pandemic which is sure to follow.

Caveat: If COVID-19 reinfection turns out to be possible and we are on lockdown for 3 years and not 3 months, throw this article in the nearest waste bin.

How Travel Will Be Forever Changed

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?

Photo by Krivec Ales from Pexels

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 will be the most difficult thing for travel providers to overcome? 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.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

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.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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

Big questions:
  • 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”?
Practical questions:
  • 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?
Safety questions:
  • 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

Planning
  • 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
Travel experience
  • 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.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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.

Here’s how:
  • 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.
Other advantages:
  • 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.