Today’s Traveler: Your Guide to Current Expectations and Preferences

8.22.2023
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Between 2020-2022, traveler adoptions fluctuated drastically due to the lockdowns, the impact of the variants, and the vaccination schedule. As the pandemic is behind us and people start to travel in 2023, one question is on every practitioner’s mind: What are the traveler’s current expectations and preferences in the post-pandemic world?

A team of researchers from the Hospitality Innovation and Technology (HIT) Lab at West Virginia University (WVU) surveyed 1,222 travelers to learn more about how they traveled before and during the pandemic and what they expect their future travel to look like. The results were shocking and provided a deeper insight into how different generations of travelers were approaching new, tech-forward travel. Recently, at the largest hospitality technology show, HITEC, a few top hospitality and tourism leaders shared their insights on today’s travelers; here are a few insights from this WVU HIT Lab research study and educational session at HITEC Toronto 2023.

There is no question that COVID-19 forced travel and lodging companies to prioritize digital initiatives. Business travel was replaced with online virtual platforms. Families started focusing on staycations and were more willing to explore new nearby destinations. The consumer adoption of digital applications increased among businesses, and consumers adopted these applications for the online shopping of food and retail stores and embraced options for pickup and home delivery, mobile check-ins and outs in lodging, and using QR codes. While domestic leisure travel is driving the current tourism industry, Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible, says that “human skills are more important in the tourism and hospitality industry when it comes to service, eye contact with the guest and smile during the customer service, make much difference for travelers.  

Before the pandemic, over one-third of travelers went on five or more leisure trips yearly. Since 2020, fewer than half of these households have kept their annual excursions. Only 15% of households have traveled more than five times annually since 2020. One of the primary reasons for not traveling recently during the pandemic is the increased costs and budget concerns caused by the US inflation. These rates are expected to rebound, as travelers overwhelmingly report that they are ready to travel again- but not in the same way. During the pandemic, 86% reported traveling for leisure and only 14% on business, showing a significant decrease in corporate travel and an increase in domestic tourism. According to Ted Horner, one of Australia’s leading hospitality technology consultants, “While leisure travel is rebounding and it is getting expensive to travel and stay at hotels, there is a need to upgrade technology applications to avoid queues in hotels and airports to check-in and simplify the process of verifying the customer identification and credit cards.” By improving the hi-tec platforms, tourism and lodging businesses can focus more on hi-touch customer services to personalize and customize their travels and stays in the post-pandemic world.

Future travelers are flocking to rating sites before making reservations and booking travel and lodging with flexible cancellation policies. One of the most cited concerns is the uncertainty of COVID-19 destination requirements, especially when traveling internationally. International leisure tourism will rebound as 52% want to plan and are willing to travel but not to the pre-pandemic levels, as 21% of the travelers are still avoiding an international trip and 27% are not confident yet. High-income households are still traveling by plane, but low- and middle-income households are experiencing a resurgence of the ever-popular road trip, with over half of respondents putting personal cars as their top choice for future travel. Regarding international travel, Frank Wolfe, CEO of Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP), suggests that “the travel visa, immigration, and customs process need an advancement globally so travelers can travel internationally without months and weeks of processing to get a visa, lack of human touch at the immigration and customs counters at airports, and long queues and waiting at the international terminals.”

Once travelers reach their destination, a few travelers will avoid the full-service hotel experience. A growing number of travelers are leaning towards apartment or condo-style layouts with basic cooking amenities, privacy, and reduced or limited housekeeping. While high-income households and older generations want chain hotels and resorts, budget-conscious travelers opt for short-term vacation rentals and independent hotels with remote check-ins and technology features. In post-pandemic leisure travel, most travelers are price cautious and seek value-added services and packages that offer safety and flexibility. While the short-term vacation rental platforms have been using the mobile app as a platform between the guest and the host, the traditional hotel business and operations have not been transformed at the same pace, according to Shannon McCallum, VP of Hotel Operations at the Resort World Las Vegas, the concept of overbooking when there is more demand in hotels, country or city policies and procedures when it comes to authenticating customer identification and verifying the credit card when used in the lodging eco-system limits the hotel check-in process and payments. Both Anthony and Ted agree that “there is a need for lodging companies to work with their vendors and technology partners to make sure their systems and applications can simplify the guest journey and change the way we use our data to offer more value-added services and personalization.”

A surprising trend is where travelers are going post-pandemic. After two years of canceled and delayed plans, people are ditching the recurring, predictable annual family vacation to the same theme park or ski lodge and instead looking for excitement in brand-new destinations. Gen Z and Baby Boomers search for thrilling, packed events like concerts and tournaments, while Millennials and Gen X focus on adding new smaller, private, outdoor events to their travel schedules. A cruise trip will have to wait for a more than 64% of the travelers as they are still not confident about attending large events of 500 people or more. Regarding concerts and large events, Rich Siegel, President and Publisher of Hotel Upgrade, moderator of the panel session at the 2023 HITEC, said that “recently… if there is one person that is positively impacting the U.S. hotel industry, that would be Taylor Swift and her “The Eras Tour,” that driving high occupancy and increased room rates and revenue.” Likewise, STR, a global leader in lodging industry performance tracking and benchmarking, reported that when compared to pre-pandemic numbers for the U.S. lodging data for the month of June 2019 vs. June 2023, there is an 11% to 13% increase in RevPAR percent change which is driven by 17% to 19% increase in ADR.

In addition to new locations, post-pandemic travelers focus on brand trust rather than brand loyalty. 65% of respondents are willing to try a new hotel brand, and 39% are willing to try a new, trustworthy airline. Sustainability also is a growing factor in how some travelers view the brand’s trustworthiness, with college-aged travelers seeking sustainable and eco-friendly lodging choices at double the rate of older generations. While all ages cited technology integration as a low priority for things such as mobile check-ins, they overwhelmingly discussed the importance of technology in viewing property ratings, making reservations, and comparing prices. The results of this research study concur with the insights provided by the hospitality leaders that the high-touch customer service and use of data to offer value and personalized services are more important to gain brand trust as the differences between the hotel brands in terms of scale and class are blurring in the lodging industry. While technology as a platform to communicate and share insights with guests is vital, tourism and lodging businesses should focus on creative ideas in integrating sustainability and eco-friendly lodging choices for future generations.

While generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) space is emerging in various fields, the tourism and hospitality industries must revisit how they can use them to rebuild relationships with travelers and guests and recognize their personal expectations and preferences. Capturing this new market will require travel destinations and hotels to rethink their market strategy and how they use their data and services, especially if they want to attract budget-conscious and younger customers. Ratings, flexibility, and establishing trust are more important to customers than ever before. Providing travelers with a personalized and flexible experience using tech platforms where they can assess brand trustworthiness may attract this new customer base seeking excitement in their post-pandemic travel. The future of the tourism and hospitality industry is so promising, and it is an ideal time for younger generations to learn and be part of this dynamic industry as more businesses are improving employee wages, focusing on work flexibility, health, and well-being.

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