Outdoor excursions, road trips, and private tours will rise, while hotel amenities may become a thing of the past.

By Amy Marturana Winderl
June 01, 2020
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Travel essentially came to a screeching halt in March when stay-at-home orders were enacted and international borders—and even some state borders—were shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that restrictions are starting to ease up across the country, many Americans have a lot of questions about the future of travel. After a couple of months cooped up at home and summer weather beginning to tempt us, we're all wondering a few things. First, when can we actually start traveling again? And second, how can we prepare for this "new normal" when we book our next vacation?

To help you get an idea of how this pandemic will change the way we travel moving forward, we asked experts in a variety of areas of the travel industry to give us their best predictions on what will happen in the foreseeable future.

People will prioritize privacy.

Even as stay-at-home restrictions ease, the isolated lifestyle of quarantine may not let up right away: "In mid-April, Vrbo started to see signs of improvement in demand for vacation homes, particularly for longer trips toward the end of summer," says Melanie Fish, travel expert with Vrbo. "This tells me that people are not only ready to plan trips again, but that they want the privacy of a whole home where they don't need to worry about a crowded hotel elevator or sharing space with a stranger." Other experts agree: "I specialize in luxury leisure travel and I'm already seeing major shifts in the way my clients are looking at travel," says Diane Sherer, owner and founder of luxury travel agency Travel Beyond. "Most of the interest my clients are showing right now is in wide open spaces like beach destinations and ranch experiences. I'm also getting requests for private villa rentals, and buyouts of properties, as well as private yacht and private plane rentals."

This extends to our time in the air as well. "We anticipate people that previously relied on first-class and business-class travel will revisit the value of chartering an aircraft and consider private aviation for critical travel due to availability and safety," says David McCown, U.S. president of Air Partner. "We are already seeing an uptick in private jet demand heading into this summer."

We'll tap travel agents more often.

While Airbnb and do-it-yourself bookings have gained popularity in recent years, these options simply don't compare to the insider knowledge of a travel agent. "We believe that the last few months have taught the general public about the value of the travel advisor," says Michael Johnson, executive vice president of Travel Edge Travel Agency. "The internet makes a travel transaction easy but travelers are beginning to appreciate this insider knowledge and support that travel advisors have on how to experience destinations in an intimate way to avoid crowds, decide where to go off the beaten path, know what the local guidelines are, and more."

We'll travel with more intention.

For many of us, the pandemic has prompted a moment to pause and reflect, and this is also true of our travel. "I'm hopeful that after reflecting during the pandemic, we will all consider our roles in the future of travel," says Matthew LaPolice, partner and co-owner of boutique travel planning firm MAYAMAYA. "Over the last few years, we've become more conscious of the effects that tourism can have on the environment and the issues that can arise with over-tourism, as well as how travel can directly benefit local communities. Going forward, I think travelers will prioritize leaving a positive impact on the destinations they visit more than ever."

"Travel will become more focused on value," says Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Best Western Hotels & Resorts. "People will focus on the value of reconnecting with friends and family and enjoying much-needed time together. They will also focus on value from a budget perspective: So many families have been financially impacted by the devastating effects of the pandemic and will be moving away from highly commercial travel experiences to vacations that focus on culture, history, and discovery."

Travelers will opt for companies that care.

Part of this intentional travel includes the companies we choose to support. "In an April survey we conducted of U.S.-based consumers, nearly 60 percent agreed with the statement that how companies treat their customers during the pandemic will impact whether they do business with that company in the future," says Barry Kirk, vice president of consulting and strategic services at behavioral insights company Maritz Motivation. "Consumers are taking note now of which airlines and hotels relax punitive policies like cancellation fees and points expiration, and it's quite possible that many consumers will abandon companies they've previously been loyal to and begin to explore their options."

Smaller cities will see a surge.

Travelers will be trading in sweeping skyscraper views for a more quaint view of Main Street. "I believe that post COVID-19, travelers will further embrace 'under-tourism' and look to visit more under-the-radar destinations, as opposed to large cities," says Kim Franz, marketing director for Discover Dunwoody. "For example, Dunwoody, Georgia, is located just above Atlanta and offers the best of both worlds. Visitors have the option of traveling like a local and discovering the community's hidden gems or hopping on the MARTA train towards the heart of Atlanta and its major tourist attractions."

We'll plan more nature-focused trips.

What destination could be more fitting for social distancing than the great outdoors? "People are clearly looking to escape their homes, but feel most at ease doing so in their own vehicle," says Roberta Byron-Lockwood, president and CEO of Sullivan Catskills Visitors Association. "They also want to be sure that when they reach their destination they will have activities and things to do. As people look to get out and explore while still maintaining a safe distance, we think we'll see a real surge in activities like hiking, fishing, camping, and rafting."

Vanessa Vitale, senior vice president of hospitality at Collective Retreats, agrees. "By design, the luxury outdoor travel industry allows guests to distance themselves from others and enjoy nature," she says. "Guests are able to experience luxury accommodations, amenities, and beautiful locations without being confined to enclosed spaces."

Road trips will make a comeback.

Route 66 and other less-traveled roads may become popular destinations again. "Many leaders across the industry have been predicting a rise in domestic travel, and especially a re-focus on the great American road trip," says John Russell, interim CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corporation. "This resurgence in car travel, plus the pandemic-related job cuts and pay reductions, will boost demand for hotels in the economy sector."

"Americans are finding that they can have a wonderful vacation near where they live—the majority of travelers plan to drive to their summer vacation this year," says Jon Gray, CEO of RVshare. "RV travel has skyrocketed in popularity, with bookings up 1,000 percent since early April on RVshare.com. Going forward, I would expect other segments of travel that enable a local experience while avoiding large crowds to do well."

Local attractions will move outdoors.

Restaurants won't be the only venues that offer dining en plein air. "What you'll see from breweries is a greater emphasis on outdoor seating," says Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. "Whether they are breweries in the open regions in Upstate New York like Central New York, Catskills, and the Adirondack mountains, or amidst the hustle and bustle of cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York City, breweries will utilize fields, patios, and sidewalks to ensure visitors feel safe and comfortable. Most major events have pretty much been canceled, but I think you will still see local musicians playing in outdoor spaces as long as the required distancing can take place."

People will stay in hotels—they'll just be more discerning.

Will hotels make a comeback? The answer may be yes, but not in the way they once operated. "Hotels are exploring new markets to try and bring in business, but any strategies must reflect a commitment to the guest experience as there are far fewer travelers, and that will continue for all of 2020," says Robert Rauch, founder and CEO of RAR Hospitality. "Guests will have to make decisions about which hotels will provide them with the most safety and the most value given the current economy."

Hotel amenities will change significantly.

One of the ways in which hotels are adapting to the pandemic is reassessing how they interact with you, the guest. "Daily housekeeping included in the room rate will be a thing of the past," says Sloan Dean, CEO and president of Remington Hotels. "Many hotels are already only providing a deep COVID-19 clean prior to arrival and post checkout. Mobile and contactless check-in will be the new norm. Mobile key adoption has been on the rise exponentially over the last few months."

That includes other services, too. "In the short term, services like valet parking, luggage handling, and bar/restaurant service will either cease to exist, or will exist in a more DIY fashion (yes, even at 5-star hotels)," says Rob DelliBovi, hospitality consultant and celebrity travel agent. "While attending hotel re-openings around the country, I've seen a handful of other notable changes, including only one guest or family per elevator ride, hotel TV remotes in plastic bags that are changed between each guest, and housekeeping joining you at check-in to wipe down surfaces in front of you."

Smaller will be better.

"If consumers are constantly concerned about things like distancing when they travel, it will be impossible for them to enjoy themselves," says Alison Hickey, president at Kensington Tours. "Big group tours on a bus with strangers will feel daunting. But there are options out there to explore the world in a safer, more individual way with private-guided tours and private transfers instead of shared or public transportation."

Cruise ships may be reimagined on a smaller scale, too. "Once travel restrictions are lifted, I anticipate a boom in small ship cruising," says Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of river cruise line AmaWaterways. "Our river cruise ships carry between 102 and 196 guests—they're much like floating luxury boutique hotels. Our daily tours are also operating with very small groups of usually only 10 to 15 people per guide."

Travelers will expect better cancellation policies.

If you had to cancel a trip this year, not to worry. Experts say that this has been a learning moment for the industry overall. "I believe companies that have the most traveler-friendly terms will have a strong competitive edge," says Torunn Tronsvang, CEO and founder of Up Norway." Travel specialists and service providers will have to make it easier for travelers to understand their terms and have terms that appear fair and non-risky. This will put a demand on travel specialists to renegotiate terms with their service-providing partners."

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