Summer leisure travel forecast is a sunny one

NEW YORK—So where does a TripAdvisor executive take a vacation?

If you’re Boston-based Brian Payea, head of TripAdvisor’s industry relations, this year you’re looking to kick back by staying relatively close in, heading for Lake Champlain, the mountains and Montreal.

Payea’s vacation anecdote was just one aspect he shared as a panelist during the 11th Annual Leisure Travel Summit held here last month that considers how summer travel may play out.

Hosted by Best Western Hotels & Resorts, the global lodging chain’s SVP/Chief Marketing Officer Dorothy Dowling was joined at the event held at The Modern by Payea; Gary Oster, EVP/member services and managing director/Project Time Off, U. S. Travel Association; and Bill Sutherland, VP/travel services, Automobile Association of America (AAA). 

Bryson Forbes, a blogger for You Must Be Trippin’, moderated the event.

And while he may not be going to any of the exotic locations that pepper the digital pages of TripAdvisor, Payea will be joining millions of other leisure travelers driving, flying, training and cruising into relaxation mode this summer, helping fill the coffers of the hospitality industry and adjunct businesses.

Right before Memorial Day, considered the unofficial start of summer, Sutherland said the holiday weekend was forecast to have the second best set of travel numbers since 2005, projecting more than 38 million Americans would travel over the period, with 34 million on the road and some 2.6 million flying to their destinations.

“The forecast is always a very good indicator of what the summer travel season is going to look like,” said Sutherland, adding a plus this season is the price of gasoline has dropped approximately 45 cents compared to last year. “So, Americans are really able to save money in driving and use it toward hotel properties…dining and events while they’re on the road. That’s a really, really good thing.”

Complementing that, said Dowling, has been the hotel industry’s positive trajectory since the recession ended. “Our look-to-book ratio is continuing to climb, but most of our bookings occur about two weeks before arrival. So, for us, we’re seeing a lot of strong, inbound activity coming into the United States, but it’s too early in the year to really project what summer is, but we anticipate—given the kinds of things [Sutherland] shared and the general economic indicators in terms of a broader forecast—this is going to be another exceptional summer for the industry,” she said.

From the USTA perspective, Oster said it is seeing a “moderate growth uptick in domestic leisure travel… Business travel is still somewhat soft; it is actually indicating a slight downward, year-over-year trend. And even with a lot of pressure due to the strong dollar, we’re still seeing climbing numbers in the international inbound arrivals for thissummer, and quite honestly, through the balance of the year. When you add it all up, it looks pretty rosy.”

With what he said are 340 million looks a month, TripAdvisor’s Payea sees positive trends as well, noting there’s been 13% Y-O-Y growth in hotel shoppers.

“There are more people out there looking and when we do our TripBarometer research twice a year—a survey of about 40,000 travelers—about a third of those people said they plan to spend more this year for their vacations than in years past,” he said. “All the trends seem to be pointing North and when we ask them if there is a time when they can’t spend as much, they always say: ‘It’s a priority. We’ll cut back in other ways; we’re not cutting back on travel.’”

As to travelers, Dowling said Best Western “embraces all demographics,” from Baby Boomers to Millennials and feels the member organization, which turns 70 this year, is positioned well in terms of the authentic, experiential stays contemporary travelers are seeking. “We’ve always embraced the individual identity of our hotels around the world,” she said, adding there’s also consistency in terms of expectations around the brand.

Interestingly, leisure travel could be even more robust if more workers took their vacation time, which is the premise behind USTA’s Project Time Off that launched three years ago and which Oster heads.

“The American worker is not using their earned time off. From 1976 to the year 2000, the average American worker used 20.3 days; now they’re down to 16. It’s declining at a very, very fast rate. It’s declining at a rate of a half-a-day additional per year,” said Oster. “And if we stay on this trajectory, by 2025 we’ll be down to two weeks of vacation. We see this as a very important problem to identify and for the public to be aware of…and that time off is as important as time on.”

Oster noted currently the Millennial generation “is probably the worst” at using time off, “which seems to go counter to what a lot of people think.”

In contrast, Payea said Boomers have larger budgets and more time to travel as they retire; however, Oster observed, “When we spend our discretionary dollars, the days of buying ‘stuff’ is kind of over…experience is positively important.”

The panelists concurred so-called authentic experiences are the go-to for travelers and, added Payea, “Mobile is becoming a dominant channel for a lot of the experiences,” from planning the vacation or getaway to how to skip a line or find that buzzed-about unnamed restaurant.

Sutherland added multi-generational travel is increasingly popular and allows those traveling to explore the “how” of getting to an authentic experience. 

“For example, as the family is checking into a hotel…why not let the older teenager be the one who checks in for the family? Why not allow the child to order breakfast for the whole group?” he said. “There’re new ways of thinking about observing the trends that are taking place in multi-generational travel.”

And although technology has become an increasingly utilized facilitator for travel, Dowling noted one aspect that continues to make experiential travel and leisure time away a priority has been in place for generations.

“When [travelers]look back in their lives—and I don’t think this surprises any of us—it’s people centric, it’s not place centric. They’re most-cherished memories are around important people in their lives that they got to have quality time with.”