Accommodation Experiences in a New COVID-19 World
July to September of 2020, defined by some as the summer of the staycation, was a period of relative freedom during which travelers around the world were able to resume leisure trips dependent on local restrictions and personal choices.
The UNWTO’s tourism and COVID-19 briefing note in September reported that travelers in the current environment are considering shorter trips and destinations closer to home, at least in part, due to restrictions which have hampered international travel.
In November 2020, STR’s tourism research team set out to understand current accommodation experiences by speaking with those who had recently undertaken overnight trips. Online focus groups were conducted among U.K., European and U.S. members of STR’s Traveler Panel community who met the aforementioned criteria since July 2020. Most had stayed in hotels while the rest had used other forms of accommodation such as holiday rentals and guest houses. In keeping with UNWTO findings, only a few had ventured to international destinations.
So, what does the booking process look like now and what did these travelers think of their accommodation in a new COVID-19 world in which the hospitality industry has had to innovate and adapt fast in order to be safe?
How are travelers deciding where to book now?
While booking methods are similar to the pre-pandemic time, the criteria used for decision making has evolved. The research travelers are conducting prior to booking has different objectives in mind. Checking government legislation and guidance now forms a critical first stage of travel planning. While attractions and events in the vicinity would normally be key drivers influencing accommodation choice, decisions are now more likely to be based on proximity to friends and family as well as COVID-safe measures implemented by properties. New options provided by online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Booking’s filter by “Properties with Additional Health and Safety Measures” and Expedia’s “Cleaning and Safety Practices” filter were strongly welcomed by travelers. This finding highlights the importance of COVID-safe communications and reinforces that hotels must proactively promote these measures:
Moreover, it is important to remember that, ultimately, for today’s traveler it is all about feeling safe, so they are naturally sensitive and hyperaware of cleanliness and personal space. In such a context, it is imperative that accommodation providers deliver on their promises when it comes to social distancing, cleaning and other COVID-19 expectations. As we discovered in our recent whitepaper, Tourism in a COVID-19 World, getting it right now when consumers are feeling vulnerable will help to build loyalty in the long term.
Price is still important, but now too are refund policies
Most travelers are booking relatively last minute, and this is reflected in STR’s occupancy-on-the-books analysis. For example, while Europe eased restrictions during the latter part of the summer, booking windows for many destinations across the continent shortened as average pickup levels more than 14 days into the future were generally flat.
If the uncertainty around COVID-19 restrictions and rules persists, travelers are less likely to plan in advance, and even “planners”—those who pre-COVID 19 routinely planned their travels extensively in advance—will resort to last-minute bookings. This is partly because they have no choice due to frequent changes in guidelines and concerns regarding lost deposits.
These factors combined bring us to the all-important subject of price. Shopping around for the best deal has become the norm across many leisure sectors fuelled by discount and deal websites such as Groupon—and the hotel industry is no different. However, today, increased consideration is given to the cancelation policy. There was strong consensus among travelers that it is worth paying more for the option to cancel and receive a full or, at least, partial refund, right up until the last minute. There are a few more adventurous travelers who still like a bargain and are willing to take the risk on cheaper non-refundable reservations, so there is a need for hotel operators to ensure different options are available to cater for all.
How do consumers feel hotels are performing?
Our travelers had generally enjoyed their experiences at hotels in recent months. However, there were some interesting learnings that will help shed light on understanding what’s working, what’s not and what more the industry can do.
Especially high standards of cleanliness are, unsurprisingly, critically important for consumers in the current environment. However, increased focus on cleaning and cleanliness can trigger a knock-on effect that results in properties feeling “clinical”, “sterile” and less welcoming. It is, therefore, important to balance the need for hygiene with the desire for comfort. Leisure experiences should still feel like a treat; guests want to feel relaxed and enjoy a break or, as some said, “escape” from home, so making sure staff can deliver warmth, friendliness and high standards of customer service is crucial.
The need for personal space and the avoidance of contact with others is next on the list when it comes to new priorities among travelers. Therefore, solutions that can deliver on this combination will be welcomed. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of new technology in many areas of our lives and hospitality is no exception. Contactless guest experience solutions such as those provided by Criton and AeroGuest, among others, are desirable at this time as consumers seek to minimize physical interactions. Furthermore, technologies which allow consumers to use their devices to enhance the guest experience, for example, enabling keyless access or online check in, are likely to benefit and expand during this period as consumers embrace new approaches to minimize their interactions.
Finally, while consumers feel hotels can generally be relied upon to take the necessary steps, they are less confident about the behavior of their fellow travelers. Therefore, there is potential for accommodation providers to focus more on explaining to guests what is expected of them and to provide information which acts as reassurance that if others don’t comply there are procedures in place to rectify.
Desire for travel remains as strong as ever, and there is hope that science will triumph
Travelers are missing their vacations and, sadly, for many they are missing their friends and families even more. Encouragingly and understandably for separated relatives, the desire to travel is as strong as ever. Domestic travel is likely to remain dominant and will help to drive recovery. However, for many, and especially those keen to connect with friends and family, there is an appetite and willingness to venture further as soon as possible. The potential for the vaccine to help combat the virus and allow tourism to resume was recognized and cheered, albeit with a little hesitation as there was a sense of wonder that change might be imminent. COVID-19 has shifted consumer expectations irrevocably, and the implementation and communication of COVID-safe measures such as enhanced cleaning should continue. Travelers expect that these new higher standards will become the norm, even with the advent of the vaccine.
If properties can continue to deliver on these measures and immunization programs such as those about to be undertaken in the U.K. are successful, it is fair to say travel could be in line for a significant bounce back later in 2021.
For more information on what you can do to make your guests feel safe and adapt to their evolving needs, we are delighted to share more in-depth findings in the full report. In this report, we share a wider range of insights on consumer behavior shifts and suggest how you can adapt accordingly to ensure your offering meets the demands of todays’ travelers.