What’s the Consumer Climate for Travel This Summer?

Travel experts expect slow summer for many travel destinations in Ohio and beyond

By Terry Troy

Last Friday marked the unofficial opening of the summer travel season. It also marked the first time in more than 20 years that AAA did not issue its annual Memorial Day travel forecast.

The annual forecast—which estimates the number of people traveling over the holiday weekend—was undermined by inaccurate economic data caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. The AAA expects the forecast to return next year.

According to the AAA, anecdotal reports suggest that fewer people hit the road over the Memorial Day weekend, even though final numbers have yet to be tabulated.

“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend—the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” says Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel, before the weekend opened. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”

Travel is an often overlooked, but vital part, of Ohio’s economy. Last year, travelers generated $48 billion for Ohio businesses, and these businesses employed 431,000, according to the Ohio Travel Association (OTA).

“It is difficult to say how the pandemic will impact Ohio businesses this summer, as most of our attraction businesses remain closed due to the governor’s orders,” says Melinda Huntley, executive director of the OTA. “These businesses have worked for weeks to create safety plans and are ready to welcome visitors, and their employees need to return to work.

“Numbers released this week by the U.S. Travel Association show that the unemployment rate for travel related jobs in the US is 51%. That’s more than half of all jobs. Every week our businesses remain closed, more and more jobs are at risk. Year-over-year weekly travel spending in Ohio is down 84% as of May 9, a loss of $509 million and a loss of $15 million in state tax revenues.”

Memorial Day 2009 currently holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers, according to AAA. That holiday weekend, which came toward the end of the Great Recession, 26.4 million Americans traveled by car, 2.1 million by plane and nearly 2 million by other forms of transportation. This year’s numbers will likely be impacted negatively by the pandemic or, perhaps more accurately, by consumers’ attitudes.

According to a recent international tracking study of American travelers by Longwood International supported by Miles Partnership, an organization that tracks information for the tourism industry, many consumers are still travel shy.

Even as cities and states begin to ease restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, only 31% of Americans are now comfortable dining in local restaurants and shopping

in local stores, while 49% are not comfortable dining and shopping locally. When asked how they felt about travel outside their home community, 35% said they would be comfortable doing so, while 40% would not. And, as far as opening their communities to visitors, 31% said they are supportive of those efforts, while 45% are not.

The percentage of American travelers who say that coronavirus will greatly impact their travel decisions in the next six months ticked up slightly for the first time in six weeks to 60%, a percentage that has ranged from 58% to 67% since March 19. Americans continue to view positive advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal health officials as the most important sign it’s safe to travel (54%), followed by advice from federal and state elected officials (33%) and the fact that states are easing restrictions (33%).

“Public support for traveling and welcoming visitors to local communities is tepid at this point,” says Amir Eylon, President and CEO of Longwoods International. “Americans remain cautious even about dining and shopping locally, perhaps reflecting a wait-and-see attitude towards the reopening of local businesses.”

“The current pandemic is having a significant impact on the hospitality industry,” adds John Hess, director of sales and marketing for the Omni Homestead, a family resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. “This is unfolding in multiple ways. First, it is impacting the way in which individuals and families travel and the places they choose to go and stay. We anticipate cleanliness and safety will be major factors in travel decisions where they may have just been minor considerations in prior years. Finally, it is impacting the way we operate our hotels in order to help guests feel safe while away from home and in our care. We anticipate the level of demand to be subdued this summer with fewer total travelers around the country.”

Two factors may positively affect travel and tourism. As weather warms above an average of 77 degrees, coronavirus cases are expected to decline. With positive reporting of coronavirus numbers, more Americans will be confident in making travel plans. However, it’s likely that fewer Americans will be confident in traveling by air, which could increase the number of driving vacations and road trips to more local and regional destinations, which would have a positive impact on regional tourism.

“We do expect that our remote location will be attractive to the drive market,” says Hess from Omni Homestead. “We are implementing completely new procedures for cleaning our hotel and interacting with our guests in order to provide a safe and welcoming environment for our guests.

“We expect most of our guests to come from our drive markets. Additionally, we believe that the typical drive market may expand further as more people consider driving to destinations instead of flying. We expect to see many guests from Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.”

AAA expects to make travel projections for the late summer and fall, assuming states ease travel restrictions and businesses reopen. Already, there are indications that Americans’ wanderlust is inspiring them to plan future vacations.

AAA.com/travel online bookings have been rising, though modestly, since mid-April, suggesting travelers’ confidence is slowly improving. When it is safe to travel, AAA predicts vacationers will

have a preference for U.S destinations, mostly local and regional locations, and the great American road trip.

“The saying goes that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Americans are taking that first step toward their next journey from the comfort of their home by researching vacation opportunities and talking with travel agents,” says Twidale. “We are seeing that Americans are showing a preference and inspiration to explore all that our country has to offer as soon as it is safe to travel.”

The CDC continues to recommend that Americans stay home and avoid nonessential travel. Americans should heed all official warnings and refer to the latest updates from the CDC and U.S. Department of State to help decrease the spread of COVID-19.