Travel’s recovery is at various stages globally, but the trend towards more authentic, off-the-beaten-path destinations, experiences and activities is universal. Or is it?
Earlier we shared how travelers are gravitating towards more remote (and particularly outdoors) destinations, activities and beaches. Much of the news around travel trends and some big travel startup funding reports focus on outdoor experiences. We hear about it on webinars, in posts and conversations from industry colleagues – to the point where it’s an accepted truism.
But I’m a bit of a contrarian, so just for kicks we checked to see if the remote outdoors zeitgeist was truly universal. And it is. Kinda.
Your Social Distance May Vary
We looked at the demand for urban vs. remote destinations across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels. Breaking down the desire for more remote destinations by the top four US metropolitan areas, we can clearly see that not everyone shares the same mojo to roll solo.
The teal dots show COVID-era preferences, with white dots indicating 2019 preferences. Chicagoans had the strongest post-COVID desire to go remote (note the delta between the blue vs white dot above), while Houston’s change was less than half of that – likely because they were already more apt to do so (their white dot). New York and LA also saw significant increases of 28% and 32%, respectively.
We also looked at the demand for popular vs. hidden gem activities across the TripTuner platform, and compared it to pre-COVID levels. There was a clear overall trend towards less popular activities, but it varied across the four major US metros.
Here’s how it played out: – LA travelers are now 26% more desirous of hidden gem activities – New Yorkers were next at 23% – Houston came in at 18% and Chicago just 12%
Interestingly, Chicagoans are an outlier here. While they clearly prefer more remote destinations, they are less inclined to go off-the-beaten path when it comes to activities. The other markets are more or less aligned with remote destination and activity preference levels.
Which Way To The (Uncrowded) Beach?
Beach preferences jibed with the crowd-avoidance vibe. The change in pre- vs post-COVID preferences varied as with destinations and activities.
Here again however, Chicagoans stood out in having a much higher preference for secluded beaches than hidden gem activities. Perhaps the novelty of Oak Street Beach has worn off for locals?
Your Audience May Vary
What else does this data tell us? That despite a glut of views on what the “new normal” (sorry not sorry to use that worn phrase, it’s relevant) looks like for travel, we still need to dig into the numbers and see if it makes sense for our audience and what they want.
Ideally, you can do this on an individual 1:1 level (we can help with that) by leveraging your own first-party data (more on its importance here). But as much this pandemic has changed us, it’s more critical as ever to do the math – to question your assumptions and check that they are backed by real, relevant data.
Enough with the numbers. Now let me go dream about my next remote getaway destination.
At first glance, this infographic may not be surprising. The general consensus among travel experts these days is that people are opting for less crowded experiences as a result of the pandemic. But when you start to look for data to back this up, it’s largely based on surveys or anecdotal evidence and quotes. We wanted to see what actual travelers were doing vs. saying
So we dug into the TripTuner Taste Lab. The Taste Lab is comprised of unique preference data pulled from the precise actions of users on preference slider inputs across the TripTuner platform. It’s the output of a patented process, in which the twin attributes of each slider measure the relative preference between two criteria (you can play around with it here).
In this case, we looked at the relative preference for social distancing among U.S. travelers across three categories: destinations (remote vs. urban), beaches (secluded vs. lively) and activities (hidden gems vs. popular). The base timeframe starts with the designation of a pandemic in February 2020 and runs until the first reports of a successful vaccine in November. For a pre-pandemic comparison, we took the same timeframe from 2019.
Where’s the Remote (Destination)?
As expected, Taste Lab data shows travelers prefer less crowded destinations, beaches and activities across the board. But it wasn’t the same for each type of travel experience. For destinations, in 2020 travelers were on average 22% more inclined to choose a remote destination.
This may not seem significant, however if you look at the position of the average slider preferences it shows a flip from a pre-pandemic bias towards urban locations to more remote. Of course, individual tastes will vary (and we can capture that on an individual level) but the overall sentiment shifted significantly. Remote destinations are on average, the new default.
Beach Towel Territory Battles
You know those pesky travelers who claim their territory with a beach towel sometime before you go to sleep and finish breakfast? Those battles are primed to continue, but along a different front. Instead of staking claim to a spot closest to the action, beachgoers are choosing secluded spots by 33% more than they did pre-pandemic. Despite being outdoors, distance still matters for travelers looking for their next beach vacation.
Authentic Activities at-a-Distance
When looking for activities, the general thinking is that most travelers will flock to the “must-see” experiences in a given location (looking at you, Times Square). But post-pandemic, travelers are 24% more likely to select a “hidden gem” (let’s run it back, Oiji). We’ve seen how many trends have been accelerated by COVID-19, so this too may not be surprising given the general shift toward more authentic, local experiences. Still, like the growing taste for remote destinations and secluded beaches, these changes represent a major shift in traveler activity preferences.
Given the pandemic’s relative lack of booking and historical preference data, it’s imperative for travel marketers to stay closely attuned to how travelers are feeling right now, in the moment. A major shift may only be a headline away. Implementing a way to gather first-party preference data now is the best way to future-proof against the next major disruption to travel – before it becomes cliché like social distancing. To find out how, give us a holler.
Making the most of a difficult situation – a.k.a. making lemonade – has been a mantra of mine since founding my own company during the last recession and weathering a barrage of critical challenges, the current pandemic being just the latest.
But what if nobody’s buying lemonade? COVID-19 brought travel to a halt. So why commit resources now that don’t drive immediate revenue?
It’s an excellent question. It makes total sense to cut non-revenue driving initiatives in a crisis. But only – as I’ve previously said – if it doesn’t affect the long-term viability of your business.
Pushing offers when travel is risky could come off as tone-deaf. At the same time, businesses need to stay relevant with customers. One way is to go through this difficult period together, by showing customer empathy: “We know you can’t or don’t want to travel right now, but here’s a way to satisfy that wanderlust.”
Virtual travel could very well be today’s lemonade. But does it make sense to invest in such initiatives when they may not lead to immediate bookings? We explored these questions and more in a recent AI Events webinar on virtual travel (you can view the recording here).
Surveys of the 300+ registered attendees showed it’s no longer just a niche – 52% of respondents included virtual travel experiences as a part of marketing strategy even before COVID-19.
A Polarizing Paradox
Like many issues today, marketing travel presents a polarizing paradox. We want bookings to return, but can’t do that until people travel again. We’d like to stimulate demand, but don’t have the resources or desire to do that until things pick up. Initiatives must deliver revenue.
After recently claiming that virtual travel’s time has come, I heard from more than a few skeptics. It’s not surprising. A survey from our webinar showed only 42% of respondents planned to employ virtual travel techniques – and 44% were not sure.
As a former Online Travel Agency (OTA) executive, I get it. I have a natural bias against anything that gets in the way of a booking. Removing friction and making it easier to buy is a key objective of any e-commerce company.
When 360-degree virtual tours of hotel rooms first hit the scene over a decade ago, product managers bristled at how it may slow down page load speeds. Merchandisers complained it would distract and cause would-be buyers to exit the purchase funnel. Anything making the user experience visually richer was deemed unnecessary fluff. At the time, I agreed.
But consumer buying patterns have changed. The customer purchase journey as envisaged as the marketing funnel has morphed into a sphere, where the inspiration to purchase can happen anywhere and the “distance” to completing a booking is relatively consistent and short, regardless of the starting point.
The surface of the sphere is constantly changing, like the earth’s atmosphere. Trigger points – what I like to call Moments of Inspiration – can happen if the right conditions are present. Like many trends, the pandemic has accelerated the morphing of the funnel into a sphere.
Inspire Now, For Bookings Later
Travelers have become more opportunistic in today’s rapidly changing environment of shifting regulations, patchwork responses and varying rates of COVID-19’s spread. During a period of relative calm, where the origin and destination are both deemed to be ahead of the curve or recovering, a family who’s been in lockdown for months may pack up the car and escape to the great outdoors. The more intrepid may even fly, motivated by low fares after careful weighing of the pros and cons.
In an environment where nobody’s buying, demand generation takes precedence. When even that becomes difficult, it’s a battle for survival, to stay present in the minds of consumers who are quite literally looking to survive, too. It’s an acid test for a brand’s reputation.
Disappearing from the conversation only ensures failure, yet overt pre-pandemic style offers are tone-deaf. Virtual travel techniques – which I define as conveying the experience without a physical presence – offer a way to tap into the pent-up escapism of quarantined travelers in a guilt-free, low-risk manner, while generating valuable first-party preference data and leads that can convert now and later.
A Call To Action
The main criticism of virtual travel is that it does not lead to bookings. Engagement stats have always been there, but they are usually included with the caveat that the consumer is not in the buying mindset, they’re still “just browsing.” Historically, the main virtual travel tools – 360 video and virtual tours – didn’t even have a “book now” or similar call to action.
By comparison, even the oldest travel TV ad included the prompt to “call your agent.” Virtual travel techniques missed the boat early on, but are now catching up.
Simply adding a book now button to a virtual tour isn’t enough, though. The notoriously fickle booking habits of the online traveler cause him or her to bounce around a number of sites before booking. Delivery mechanisms need to look at user behavior more holistically and be able to adapt to a travelers’ mood and mindset. At TripTuner, we were able to overcome that challenge with the Florida Beach Finder project by allowing travelers to fine-tune their preferences.
Another example is the Bahamas Island Finder. Originally intended as an inspiration tool to help travelers explore and discover their ideal island, it has a persistent BOOK NOW button for each island that generates direct, measurable leads for nearly half of its users. Travelers can immerse themselves in a virtual experience, yet still have the option to book at their discretion.
Re-Calibrate Your Metrics
Even with a call to action, it’s important to make sure that booking clicks – and any other actions within your virtual travel tools – are trackable. As we saw during the webinar, 56% of respondents said they have no data to support how it translates to future revenue.
This is understandable. Even the most sophisticated e-commerce marketers still rely upon direct, or last-click attribution: tracking bookings that come directly from a specific action or link. As mentioned earlier, the haphazard nature of online travel bookings can make it difficult to track the customer journey. One solution is to simply track bookings that have also included your virtual travel experience in a given session (setting a cookie to the duration of your booking window) or by a particular user.
If the current pandemic has proved one thing though, it’s that “all bets are off.” An incredibly unpredictable business environment means we need to be prepared for any and all eventualities. This means that traditional KPIs and success metrics may need to be suspended.
Instead of search quantity, a focus on more qualitative user data such as the types of activities, content and destinations can lay the groundwork for more effective campaigns.
In lieu of bookings (which may not recover fully for months), a brand’s connection with customers could be measured by email acquisition, social media followers or earned media.
VISIT FLORIDA’s Beach Finder recently garnered significant earned media attention from Travel + Leisure and others for allowing home-bound travelers to virtually tour their entire coastline – even though it was initially deployed years ago. Making virtual travel investments now can yield long-term benefits beyond the current crisis.
Recipe for Recovery
With the right tracking, virtual travel techniques can reveal rich behavioral and preference data that can further refine your approach and offers, to generate leads and bookings. Apart from this actual lemonade recipe, here’s your key ingredients:
Help travelers escape, virtually (for now) – check out this article for a few ideas and remember – merely amassing a ton of virtual tours or imagery is not enough. Travelers can get overwhelmed, so curation and personalization of that content becomes even more important.
Include a Call To Action – not a flashing price offer, more like “roam, if you want to…for just $X.” Adventurous, risk-taking souls will self-select and by doing it subtly you won’t put off more cautious travelers.
Right-size Your ROI – bookings are important to all travel companies, but when there are none, it’s time to re-think what success looks like in the near and long term – beyond the generic “back to normal pre-COVID levels.”
Chances are when you put “romance”, “Russia” and “travel” in the same sentence, it’s likely to conjure visions of cold war intrigue and clandestine encounters. In today’s politically charged environment these words can evoke stronger reactions, even flat-out controversy. But as much as we’d like to craft a clever click-baity title, amplify a viral meme or shill for a few predictable yucks, we’re not going there. We keep it real at TripTuner, so let’s let the data tell it.
Our Taste Lab provides unique first-party data on nuanced traveler preferences collected across millions of inputs across our platform. Last year, we shocked some by showing how South Koreans are the most relaxation-seeking travelers (not exactly what we’d associate with Gangnam style, but hey). Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day we’re curious about which country is the most amorous when it comes to travel. Care to guess?
Well, surprise! Our data shows that of the 10 largest outbound tourism markets, Russians are searching for more romance than family travel options. Wait…Russia?
OK I may have violated the previous pledge about the yucks.
Rounding out the top 10 in second place is…
#2 South Korea: we’ve seen how they’re relaxation-seeking. If you’re going to chill, might as well be with your bae, right?
#3 is France, naturellement.
#4 Germany and
#5 Italy. That’s amore, no surprise there.
China, the UK and Canada come in #6, #7 and #8 respectively. And then you have the US and Australia picking up the rear, focusing more on family trips.
Overall, it’s an interesting set of results and just another taste of what our partners get with TripTuner. What type of traveler preference data would you like to see? Leave us a comment and we’ll consider it for our next report.
Until next time, stay tuned – and as much as like data, we don’t recommend mixing metrics with romance. It’s like a martini without a good Russian vodka. Do svidaniya, darling!