Interview: How traveler habits will change in 2021

YouGov global sector head of travel & tourism Eva Stewart tells Routes how traveler sentiment is evolving amid the pandemic.

With COVID-19 severely impacting passenger demand, Routes speaks to YouGov global sector head of travel & tourism Eva Stewart to understand more about how traveler sentiment is evolving.

With all the current tourism market uncertainty, what trends are you seeing into 2021?

We have surveyed nearly 45,000 people in 25 countries, and the trends seem to be similar across all regions.

The interest in travel continues to hold steady. And despite the reductions in the amount of actual traveling, and its restrictions and recommendations against travel to control the virus, we're seeing a continuous interest in domestic travel.

It has slowed down a little bit since October, from 49% to 46%, but when it comes to planning trips, most say that they will be holidaying closer to home. I guess we could say that staycations will certainly lead the travel recovery.

But when we look at international travel, that sentiment has increased a little bit since mid-October. In around mid-October, we were looking at around 24%, whereas it has slowly increased to 25/26%, and has held steadily around 26% in November and December. So it's nice to see that there is appetite for it.

Unfortunately, business travel continues to lag behind quite considerably. At the moment, domestic business trips hover around 7%. And then people who consider international business trips reduced further to around 5% of those surveyed.

There is an exception across Asia Pacific where we see a little bit more interest in domestic business travel.

How does this break down with traveler types?

Those travelers who are affluent indicate a little bit higher will to travel, pretty much on all of the trips, but importantly on international trips and also international business trips.

Out of all of the different groupings that we've got, international leisure travel is still on the cards for around 26%, but luxury travelers are the keenest for international holidays with currently 42% planning their trips abroad in 2021.

They mostly longed for beach holidays, combining relaxation and sightseeing as well as visiting friends and family.

They rank about 53% for domestic travel, but that actually bounces quite a bit, depending on what news reaches us that week.

When we look at analysis by country, we see that those in the Middle East, which as a region has dealt with the pandemic really well, are opening their borders.

The United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rank really highly in terms of their interest to travel internationally.

I think that is probably driven by a renewed positivity in the market about vaccines being available, and us turning a new page in the new year and hoping that some of the borders opening will actually present opportunities for them to travel within the next 12 months.

Where do these luxury travelers want to travel?

I can give an example of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where the Maldives ranked the highest in terms of international travel at the moment. And that is particularly influenced by the climate, the natural beauty, as well as the connectivity.

When we ask people what influences their decision to travel, as well as their desire to select particular destinations, they tell us that these three criteria are the most important to them at the moment.

So if connectivity is a big factor, do you see new routes still being able to stimulate demand?

Yeah, absolutely. I think in countries like the UK, which is incredibly well connected, what we're seeing is that Brits are saying that it's actually the travel restrictions that are the key obstacle for them to go anywhere, followed by health risks.

In other markets it could be a slightly different situation where connectivity starts playing a much bigger role. 

And when it comes to expectations for the industry, we found that cleanliness is also travelers’ top priority when booking trips, particularly looking at airports and airlines.

People want to be reassured overall that not just one airport or one airline in particular is safe or safer than others. It's really key for them to be reassured that all airports and all airlines follow the same cleanliness standards, and therefore it's safe to travel.

Anecdotally I know that a lot of people are not aware of the latest research that's been published by IATA or Harvard Medical School that there’s a very low risk of being infected by COVID on a plane.

It's very rare that those messages reach enough consumers, unfortunately. And therefore health risks continue to be a major concern when it comes to booking air travel, and that certainly translates into their preferences for different type of travel.

So what types of transportation are people most keen to use?

When we look at consumer transportation preferences for their next trip, it is led by ‘own vehicle’; 45% of consumers across 25 markets are saying that they expect to drive themselves to their next destination

That also correlates with the fact that they are more interested in domestic travel than international.

But when we compare with the other types of transit transportation, we see that low-cost is still considered highly: around one in three people are considering that to be their preferred choice of transportation for the next holiday, and around 27% would choose a train.

So there's currently a lesser demand for scheduled, full-service carriers at around 14%.

That could be attributed to several factors, such as a more interest to travel domestically, less appetite for business travel, or less appetite for long-haul flights.

More COVID-19 news

When we look from a generational point of view, 45-plus-year-olds prefer using their own vehicle. They also would opt for charter tour operators and scheduled full-service carriers, whereas train travel is actually more popular amongst the younger generation, especially Gen Zed and millennials.

When you look at low cost, the most interesting thing is that there's not really any strong affiliation with any age group and it is equally popular amongst most generations.

But if we are to see significant increase in both selection of low-cost carriers as well as full-service carriers, we need to communicate to consumers that it is really safe, not just to get on the airplane, but to actually go through the airport and the whole journey from start to finish.

All these international organizations really need to think about how to get that message across to as many consumers as possible.

Does your data show that more tourists will seek remote, or different, destinations? 

I'm sure that during the pandemic, those remote destinations have attracted new visitors who normally would opt for an alternative type of holiday.

But our travel preferences might be more ingrained than some may anticipate. The majority of our global respondents, around 38%, mostly longed to visit family and friends.

And then it is followed by relaxations holidays with 37% of respondents saying this is their favorite type and the type of holiday they'd like to go on next.

Holidays combining relaxing and sightseeing activity have consistently been high on people's priority list, and 35% of respondents indicated this is amongst their top favorite types of holidays.

Now, really good news for aviation, as well as city hotels and cities themselves, is that almost one in three respondents are keen on city breaks at 29%.

In the UK, city breaks were top of the list with 49% of Brits naming this as their typical type of holiday. And they are planning to take three or more trips in 2021.

So I think what's really important to consider is that there has always been enthusiasts who wanted to go on mountain or countryside types of holiday, and there's still that market segment, with around 24% saying that this is their preferred type of holiday.

But over a period of time, we have not necessarily seen that there's been a significant increase in people's choices to specifically select that type of holiday.

Personal preferences will come into play here; they are deeply ingrained in us. I don't anticipate that there's going to be a really big shift in people's preferences in terms of what types of holidays they choose

For example, even though the cruise industry has been completely on pause this entire year, we’ve heard from cruise operators that some of the trips towards the end of this year and 2022 are sold out.

What would be your advice to airlines right now?

I think you cannot escape the conversation about sustainability. And creating safer travel experiences is going to be paramount.

Many leading organizations such as UNWTO, WTTC, IATA and others have been leading those discussions about not just rebuilding travel, but doing so in a sustainable way to make it bigger and better than ever before.

So I believe that the industry needs to consider how to tap into the pent-up demand, but also do it in a sustainable way.

As part of our global travel survey, we ask respondents to identify themselves as a specific type of traveler and one of those types is a responsible traveler.

The size of the segments ranges between 7% to 20%, depending on the country. However, what unites them is their desire to travel in 2021, with 52% intending to take a domestic holiday, and 28% eager to travel internationally.

Around 30% hope to take at least two trips, and 17% are saying three trips or more. These responsible travelers are less keen on beach holidays, and prefer to combine relaxation and sightseeing culture, as well as city breaks.

So I think this market segment presents a brilliant opportunity for airlines to tap into their desire to explore those cultural centers and heritage sites, especially across Europe, and create unforgettable experiences whether domestically or abroad.

And the way they craft messages and sell to these types of travelers is going to be really important. And if it resonates and they feel safe travel, then this certainly will be a significant catalyst in the recovery.

Photo credit: YouGov

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