A deep dive into traveler sentiment

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Guy Cierzan
Guy Cierzan

Examining how frequent traveler sentiment has been shaped by Covid-19 provides a glimpse at how the industry's future might unfold. We have been closely following the impact that the virus has had on Americans, from their finances to their mental health, and we've collected data on how public attitudes and behaviors around the pandemic are shifting over time across the U.S. In late May, we took a deep dive into sentiment among frequent travelers to better understand how their perceptions and habits have been affected.

It's been a devastating year for the global travel industry. And as countries around the world begin to gradually lift restrictions and welcome visitors again, it's clear the pandemic has left a lasting and perhaps permanent mark on the way people travel.

Frequent travelers in the U.S. have been hard hit financially.

While it is generally an affluent group, it's important to note that the virus has taken a toll on frequent travelers' pocketbooks. Nearly half (48%) have had their own, or someone in their household's, employment hours reduced. Further, one in four have lost their job or had someone in their household lose a job. 

As a result, individuals who traveled frequently prior to the spread of Covid-19 may not have the same means to travel as often in the months ahead, even if they desire to. 

Understanding this and hoping to mitigate the loss of loyalty during a period when frequent customers may not be in a position to travel, several hospitality and airline companies with tiered loyalty programs have introduced "soft landings" for the first year post-Covid so that loyalty program members can hold onto their status even if they are uncomfortable or unable to travel during that time.

Additionally, some have succeeded in driving immediate revenue from loyal customers unwilling or unable to travel by offering discounts or bonuses on point or partner purchases as well as including these purchases in tier-qualifying points for the foreseeable future.

Frequent travelers strongly support public health measures to slow the spread of the virus. 

Thomas Brassell
Thomas Brassell

Our survey results suggest that frequent travelers take the public health advice they are being given seriously. A majority (69%) are likely to try to get a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as one is available, which is significantly higher than the general population (49%), according to a recent Associated Press poll. 

In addition, most frequent travelers believe that wearing a mask (86%), physical distancing (88%) and avoiding public transportation (84%) are important measures for stopping the spread of the virus. Almost all (94%) believe that it's important to self-quarantine for 14 days if exposed to someone with Covid-19 and that it's important to wash their hands when leaving a public place.

Travel brands across the board are taking steps to recognize this with clear and frequent messages explaining what they are doing and prominently featuring the measures they are taking on their website home page, often with links to more detailed content.

Younger generations will likely be the first to begin traveling again.

Our findings revealed that age strongly predicts attitudes toward future travel, with younger travelers expressing a more immediate willingness to travel and older travelers planning to delay travel for quite some time.

Individuals ages 18 to 24 showed more interest in domestic air travel in the summer and fall of 2020 compared to the general population. Further, both the 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 age cohorts showed more interest in traveling internationally in the summer of 2020 than the general population.
Those 50 to 64 and over age 65 showed a stronger inclination than the general population to avoid domestic and international travel until after the summer of 2021.

As the economy opens back up and willingness to travel restarts, travel brands should consider how they will market to these segments differently. Older travelers in particular will have heightened sensitivity to what they might consider irresponsible corporate behavior in messaging about resuming travel.

The industry's recovery will be slow,  especially for international air travel and cruises.

Overall, our findings illustrate that certain sectors will recover sooner than others.

When asked whether they'd be willing to engage in various types of travel even if there is no vaccine or widespread testing for Covid-19, frequent travelers expressed far more openness to planning domestic air travel in 2020 than international air travel. In fact, 42% of respondents expect to resume traveling by air domestically this year, versus 24% to travel by air internationally.

Further, 22% of frequent travelers do not expect to travel domestically by air until later than summer 2021, versus 41% of respondents who do not expect to resume traveling by air internationally until later than summer 2021.

Respondents' willingness to travel by bus and train reflected a similar pattern to domestic air travel. However, travelers across the board are slightly less willing to use even these modes of transport until later than summer 2021. 

Finally, cruise travel appears to be in a particularly precarious position. Over half (51%) of frequent travelers said they would not be willing to cruise until after summer 2021.

Many third party surveys show a significantly higher interest in road trips, suggesting travel brands may want to focus on location-specific or regional promotions targeted to individuals near relevant properties they can reach via auto.

Looking ahead

Travel companies simply can't expect their customers to behave as they did before the Covid-19 crisis. It's not too early to survey your own customers to uncover changes in their travel preferences and plans in the months and years ahead and then adapt marketing initiatives and customer engagement strategies accordingly. Regardless of how individual programs are shaped, every brand will need to reorient around upholding customer health and safety as the foremost priority.

The travel sector will one day bounce back from the havoc wreaked by Covid-19 -- but even when it does, data suggests that customer behavior will remain fundamentally changed, perhaps permanently.

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Guy Cierzan is a managing partner, loyalty and customer marketing, at ICF Next, a global consulting firm focused on marketing, communications and associated technologies. Thomas Brassell is a project director, survey research, at ICF, a global consultancy. 

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