What does tourism look like this summer?
Brought to you by the Vail Daily and the Insights Collective
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace. http://www.TheInsightsCollective.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Collective’s Resource Center is comprised of its founding members, each a specialist in their own right
Jane Babilon, Lodging Research Consultant
Dave Belin, RRC Associates
Chris Cares, RRC Associates
Barb Taylor Carpender, Taylored Alliances.
Tom Foley, Inntopia/DestiMetrics
Ralf Garrison, Advisory Group of Denver
Brian London. London Tourism Publications
Carl Ribaudo, SMG Consulting
Susan Rubin Stewart, Contact Center Consultant
Jesse True, True Consulting
As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to feel like it is subsiding, given the decreases in infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths, combined with the rapid increase in vaccinations, thoughts in the tourism industry focus on returning to a pre-pandemic normal. Many tourism destinations, attractions, lodging, restaurant providers, recreation providers and retail stores – as well as residents and local governments – are asking (or at least thinking), what will tourism look like this summer?
Yes, the conventional wisdom view is that there is significant pent-up consumer demand for travel. And as the COVID-19 vaccination numbers continue to climb, that in turn will unleash increased visitation on tourism destinations across the country. But as I have learned, conventional wisdom is often not conventional or wise. Let us consider the following.
Across the country, there is evidence that the lodging industry is picking up. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Smith Travel Research reported hotel occupancy for the week ending March 6 was 49% nationally, the highest it has been since October.” Additionally, the same article reported the Transportation Security Administration saw 1.36 million people pass through airport security checkpoints on Friday, March 12 alone, the most in an entire year. Leisure travel has now become the driver in the industry as many analysts concur that the more financially impactful business travel will be slow to recover, perhaps waiting until COVID-19 herd immunity is achieved. It remains to be seen when major corporate customers will be back to pre-pandemic levels.
From a mountain tourism destination perspective, the past year has given us several insights. First, despite the pandemic, demand for outdoor recreation-based destinations was substantial. These destinations, be they located in the mountains, on the coast or in the desert, did very well in terms of visitation. Consumers looked to escape the claustrophobia of city locations and find relief from the limits of COVID-19 on the hiking or biking trail, the ski run or just by being outside. The consensus view of the Insights Collective:
“That mountain destinations will see a continued level of visitation because of the interest in outdoor recreation. This level of visitation would be similar to last summer. In some cases, even greater demand as more people become vaccinated, mask mandates expire and people feel confident traveling again. The Insights Collective also expects fall visitation to be strong at mountain destinations for the same reasons.”
This view is supported by some recent data from Inntopia that may give some insight into consumer behavior. In the short term, that might lead to more mountain destination travel demand over the summer and fall. According to Tom Foley, Senior Vice President with Inntopia and an Insight Collective member, “There have been two lead indicators through this pandemic. The first is infection rates, with bookings arriving within 90 days going up when infection rates go down, and vice-versa, as seen on the chart. The second – and more exciting – is a direct correlation between first-time vaccinations and bookings, with bookings arriving within 90 days almost directly mirroring the patterns of vaccine doses administered across the country.” Foley also added, “While this doesn’t mean that only vaccinated people are booking, what it strongly infers is that society is responding to vaccinations, both with vaccinated persons planning immediate travel, and with non-vaccinated persons feeling more confident (for better or worse) that much of the threat is behind us and following suit.” As the vaccination trend takes hold, it appears consumers are trading the long-term planned trip for a more spontaneous one within the next several months – a clear sign of confidence and interest in booking travel.
Despite these positive indicators both nationally and in mountain tourism destinations, there could be some hiccups. There are several trends to keep an eye on that may impact travel to mountain tourism destinations. First could be the slow resumption of youth activities, including everything from summer camps to swimming lessons, which could curtail family travel and keep some parents and families closer to home. Second and more troubling would be issues related to a national failure to reach herd immunity. One could imagine a scenario as the initial surge in vaccinations gives way to holdouts and deniers, both of which are already showing up in the media. Could this enable COVID-19 variants an opportunity to flourish and force further restrictions? A final trend to keep an eye on could be economic challenges that hold back consumer confidence. Some 9.4 million jobs have been lost since the pandemic began. There’s also the possibility of inflation impacting the $1.3 trillion consumers have in savings, as well as the additional $1.9 trillion in stimulus making its way into the economy. And there’s increased interest rates – all factors which suppress travel.
Our view: Be optimistic, but be cautious.
At the Vail Valley Jet Center, this season has been a good one, or at least better than expected. The Jet Center is the landing spot for the many private jets that fly into and out of the Eagle County Regional Airport. In fact, on March 12 and 14, the airport set, then repeated a record for flight operations in a day.
Jet Center General Manager Paul Gordon said he believes the airport could be a “leading indicator” in the Vail Valley’s economic recovery.
“I think it’s going to be really good,” Gordon said. The week before Easter — March 29 to April 4 — is traditionally a strong one, and Gordon expects that to continue this year.
“I anticipate a really strong end of the ski season,” Gordon said.
While there’s much discussion of “pent-up demand” in the traveling public, Vail Town Councilmember Brian Stockmar recently warned that the pandemic is still with us.
Speaking at the March 16 Vail Town Council meeting, Stockmar said the “medical community is concerned about another surge,” adding that the recent decline in Eagle County’s new cases of the COVID-19 now has the county even with the peak case numbers from the summer of 2020.