According to the Ypartnership/Harrison Group Portrait of American Travelers and travelhorizons national surveys, Americans remain cautious about spending on travel services in the year ahead. More specifically, their planning and purchasing behavior reflects a “New Frugal” attitude that is likely to prevail throughout the entire year, if not well into 2012.
From a social science perspective, the travel planning and purchasing habits of the 2011 traveler will continue to be characterized by a “new resourcefulness.” Although the trading down phenomenon we have observed over the past 18 months will begin to abate, travelers will continue to demand more in exchange for their travel dollar: more leg room, an upgraded guest room, a more bountiful breakfast included with their hotel room rate, and, yes, free Internet. Value remains in vogue, and this is particularly true for leisure travelers.
The horizon line for demand from leisure travelers is encouraging. Specifically, as of October of this year, fully 55 percent of all U.S. adults were planning at least one overnight trip primarily for leisure purposes during the first two calendar quarters of 2011, up slightly from the 53 percent who expressed this sentiment at the same point in time in 2009. Furthermore, among the most affluent households in the U.S. (those with an annual income greater than $125,000, or roughly 10 percent of all U.S. households), the net positive difference between those planning “more” or “fewer” trips for leisure purposes in the year ahead is over 10 percent, thereby signaling that the leading edge of incremental demand for leisure travel services will be populated primarily by more upscale clientele.
Much has been written and spoken about the return of demand from business travelers, fueled by anticipated economic growth in the year ahead. Our survey data corroborate this projection, with the majority of the lift coming from business meetings (primarily corporate) more so than individual business travelers. In fact, according to a national survey of (U.S.) corporate and association meeting planners authored by Ypartnership on behalf of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) and American Express earlier this year, 41 percent of corporate meeting planners expect to book more off-site meetings in 2011 versus 2009 (an average of 23 more meetings); 21 percent of association meeting planners expect to book more off-site meetings in 2011 versus 2009 (an average of 8 more meetings).
The outlook for demand from individual business travelers is more modest, however. Specifically, as of October of this year, only 17 percent of U.S. adults were planning a trip primarily for business purposes through the second quarter of 2011, essentially unchanged from the 18% who expressed the same intention precisely one year prior. Hence, we do not expect the incidence of business travel to grow any meaningful degree in the months ahead. What may grow, however, is the average number of trips taken by adults who travel for business (both individual and group). This, in turn, is likely to drive a modest increase in mid-week demand from individual business travelers for air travel, lodging accommodations and car rentals.
The year ahead
According to the insights revealed in the Portrait of American Travelers(SM) and travelhorizons(TM) surveys, you should expect the following in the year ahead:
- The New Frugal will continue to direct the majority of travelers’ planning and shopping behavior and the implication is clear: most travel suppliers (except airlines that do not replenish their already reduced seat capacity) will meet resistance when trying to achieve greater pricing power. This is likely to translate into a higher incidence of comparison shopping and further challenge the fragility of brand loyalty;
- More travelers will discover the appeal of comparison shopping sites (meta search engines) as they pursue what they consider to be rightfully theirs in the current economic environment: a good deal. This is inevitable given the fact that only one out of every five travelers has ever visited a meta search engine;
- The “collective buying” craze (thanks to Groupon™) will begin to re-shape demand for travel services, particularly for those travel service suppliers who are long on inventory on selected dates and disinclined to spend scarce marketing dollars to drum up demand the old fashioned way. So keep a close eye on how consumers discover, embrace and share the spoils of collective buying on innovative websites such as http://www.tripalertz.com;
- Although travel with one’s spouse or another adult will continue to represent the highest incidence of leisure travel (eight out of ten leisure travelers will take at least one such trip in the year ahead), family travel (adults who travel with children) will continue to grow because of the burgeoning popularity of multi-generational leisure travel: one third of all leisure travelers are now grandparents, and three out of ten took at least one vacation with their grandchildren last year. This incidence will continue to grow as the population continues to age;
- Air fares for both business and leisure travel will continue to escalate as demand improves from the return of business travelers and carriers adjust their capacity to maximize yield;
- Hotel rates will rise modestly in the majority of U.S. markets, and aggressively in a few such as New York and Miami, driven by the combined impact of growing demand from business travelers and the hiatus in new hotel construction observed during the past two years;
- Cruises will continue to gain popularity (almost six out of ten leisure travelers are now interested in taking a cruise during the next two years, more than the proportion who express interest in visiting even the most popular states in the U.S.!), because of the inherent appeal of the experience (great value, grander ships, fabulous entertainment, attentive service, etc.) and very alluring pricing due to the lingering oversupply of new cruise product (and the thousands of new cabins that must be filled before the bon voyage party gets underway);
- Interest in vacation ownership (timesharing, fractional resort real estate ownership, residence clubs, etc.) will grow gradually throughout the year as leisure travelers feel more confident about discretionary expenditures on vacation time and conclude that some type of fractional ownership interest in resort real estate makes more sense than whole ownership because the latter is unlikely to appreciate in value for many years to come;
- Interest in condominium and vacation home rentals will demonstrate robust growth (almost half of all leisure travelers are now interested in a vacation home rental as an alternative to conventional lodging when on vacation), particularly among family travelers seeking more space and better value;
- Mobile applications that facilitate the planning and purchasing of travel services will continue to proliferate as more consumers migrate to smart phones (an estimated four out of ten now have one, and roughly 20% of those who do have downloaded a travel app). And their usage of these devices will extend well beyond GPS functionality to include searching for schedule delays, comparison shopping fares and rates, and downloading mobile coupons;
- Interest in and usage of social media will continue to display explosive growth in terms of theoretical reach (the ability to connect and engage sheer numbers of active travelers): almost half of all travelers now have a page posted on a social site, 91 percent of which are posted on facebook. The extent to which the content of information on social sites truly influences the selection of travel service suppliers remains elusive, however. Watch for greater clarity on this conundrum from us in the year ahead;
- Flash sales (the use of unsolicited emails to liquidate what would otherwise be distressed inventory) will assume their rightful place in the arsenal of tactics embraced by travel service marketers because of their demonstrated effectiveness (and modest cost to implement);
- American’s sustained sense of wanderlust will translate into an increase in U.S. citizen departures to international destinations, with the Caribbean and Western Europe (Italy) topping the list of “dream destinations;”
- California and Florida will, once again, top the list of domestic “dream destinations;”
- The Disney parks (Orlando being the favorite) will continue to dominate the list of “dream destinations” for family travelers (including multi-generational family travelers);
- And, finally, the bed bug problem will continue to pose challenges for hoteliers in selected urban destinations as it is now clearly on the minds of all travelers: a remarkable 31 percent of U.S. travelers are “very/extremely” concerned about an encounter with bed bugs on a future hotel stay; another 29 percent are “somewhat” concerned.
- The Ypartnership/Harrison Group 2010 Portrait of American Travelers(SM) is a national survey of 2,524 U.S. households that was conducted in February 2010. The results provide an in-depth examination of the impact of the current economic environment, social values and media habits on the travel habits of Americans with an annual household income of $50,000 or more.