With the country absorbed in another presidential campaign season, the debate over whether elections tend to disrupt travel bookings turns out to be as polarizing a topic as the candidates themselves.

Industry leaders voiced a broad lack of consensus on the topic in interviews this month. Depending on whom you ask, the notion of a travel slump in presidential election years is either a challenging reality or a long-standing industry myth.   

“I’m at a shortage of real data on this one,” admitted Steve Born, senior vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands. He said that when he looked back at past election year bookings, he could find no real pattern suggesting that election years have an impact on travel.

“I’ve heard the rationale is that people tend to be more conservative with bigger purchases in election years, waiting to find out what direction the new administration takes,” Born said. “I’ve also heard theories that the noise of the campaigns in advertising and in the news tends to be a distraction. While both of these theories seem logical, I can’t quantify them with numbers.”

In fact, he said, Globus has seen an increase in overall passengers for the first quarter compared with 2015.

Collette, too, said it might typically expect slower bookings in an election year, but the company is actually “experiencing a huge surge in bookings right now, especially to destinations in the United States,” according to Dan Sullivan IV, the vice president of sales.

Dan Sullivan IV
Dan Sullivan IV

Sullivan said that following a slight delay in booking decisions in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks in November, consumers were feeling more comfortable about traveling this summer.

Others see the election cycle as creating hurdles for the travel industry, both in terms of getting their marketing messages through all the noise and in terms of an actual lull in bookings that tends to correspond to election years.

Asked if its agents have noticed a pattern, Valerie Wilson Travel co-president Kimberly Wilson Wetty said, “Absolutely. I have been watching election years for 20 years, and presidential election years are definitely unstable and bumpy.”

Change can be scary for travelers, Wilson Wetty said. “Most presidential election years create uncertainly because we wonder who will be in charge and what will change or stay the same, not just in the White House but with Congress. Years when it is not a re-election year are even more unstable, and travelers are often skittish.”

Roger Block, the president of the Travel Leaders Franchise Group, said he has noticed that election years typically have an impact on people’s willingness to book travel, “especially when candidates call the economy into question.”

“Often during an election year, one side of the political spectrum is saying that the economy is worse than it had been before the sitting president took office or that it will be better with a newly elected government,” Block said. “This gives the voting public the impression that they should curb discretionary spending, which includes travel, whether or not the economy is actually failing or in great shape.”

The other problem posed by political rhetoric, according to Trafalgar President Paul Wiseman and others in the industry, is that it’s simply harder during election years for the travel industry to get a word in edgewise.

Travelers are “not going through their normal dream-research-travel pattern because they’re distracted,” Wiseman said. “Then there’s a potential second marketing problem, which is around the election itself. It creates an unusual anomaly ... in terms of what we have to compete with in terms of marketing.”

Wiseman said that when campaigning goes full bore in September and October is when his company kicks off its 2017 sales season. “We will have to adjust where we would normally be launching our product,” he said. “We would choose not to launch it right in the middle of a media blitz.”

However, navigating through and around media noise is not unique to presidential elections. It’s something the travel industry has to do regularly, observed Scott Koepf, the senior vice president of sales at Avoya Travel.

“You want your message to be the loudest at any given point,” Koepf said, adding that the challenge of well-timed marketing is applicable to any major media event, and a presidential election is just one example.

“Is it a great idea to send out an email blast on the day of the Super Bowl?” he asked. As with other media coverage, agents need to be strategic with the elections, he said.

According to Koepf, the only identifiable pattern is that every four years the industry calls into question whether there is an election-year slump.

The result is that it has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said. The industry has come to believe that “there must be some truth to it, but I don’t know that there’s any empirical data that shows exactly every four years there is some kind of downturn.”

Koepf’s takeaway was, “From being in the industry for 30 years and watching it, anything that is a major media event that involves in some way a projection of the future slows people down in their decision-making process.”

John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Travel Leaders Leisure Group and Vacation.com, agreed.

“At times I think the election cycle gets a little too much press about affecting booking patterns, and this year is no exception,” Lovell said. “Business to date has been steady and robust across most leisure travel segments. However, where we see some softness is not due to the election cycle but rather to the world economic and terror-related issues.”

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