With the summer travel season well underway, more and more people are opting to drive to their destinations this year, as the world continues to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel Market Report's COVID-19 Sentiment Barometer, which TMR released with MMGY last month, found that advisors report that outdoor vacations are of most interest to clients, specifically to North American beach and mountain destinations.
This crisis has provided advisors with a real opportunity to organize the perfect custom road trip itineraries for their clients, however, with the threat of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the possibility of another round of closures and travel restrictions, and a range of new health and safety concerns, what factors should advisors consider when arranging a road trip for their clients?
More people are willing to travel
Following the long period of lockdown and travel restrictions, people are now ready to get back out and see the world, though many are choosing to take closer-to-home vacations by car.
"When it comes to travel, two things are true: Folks want to get out and stretch their legs after months of "stay-at-home" orders, but they're more cautious about travel than they've ever been," said Skyler McKinley, director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. "For now, they're setting aside extended vacations in favor of long weekend getaways – and they're packing up the car to get there."
AAA forecasts Americans will take 700 million trips between July and September in its latest analysis of economic indicators and survey data. While that signifies a nearly 15% decrease from last year, it does show that a significant amount of Americans are ready to begin traveling again.
“Like everyone else in the travel world enquiries dropped off a cliff in mid-March but by the end of May we'd seen a strong pick up in interest and June has been a very busy month. Regional spikes in the virus are certainly impacting desire to travel and this is changing on a weekly basis,” said Sam Highley, founder and CEO of All Roads North, a California-based, road trip-focused luxury travel agency.
“Most recent bookings have been short notice with clients looking to getaway this summer, although we are now seeing signs of people looking to 2021 and wanting to plan a great trip to look forward to.”
“We’re starting to see an uptick in traffic and trips departing, and it’s really exciting to be back in the swing of things,” said Lillian Rafson, founder and CEO of Pack Up + Go, a travel company that provides surprise travel itineraries for user based on their personal preferences.
“One interesting insight that we’re keeping a close eye on has been the ratio of types of trips. In a pre-COVID world, about 85% of our business [dealt] with flying to a destination, and only about 15% were road trips. We’re now seeing those [numbers] flipped on their head. Now about 75% of our new orders and trips are road trips.”
Rafson said that while business has picked up significantly since March, the potential for a resurgence in COVID-19 cases means that her and her team can’t let their guard down in terms of keeping up with closures and travel restrictions. “Things are changing at a moment’s notice. Cities might be mandating new restrictions, so we’re doing everything we can to stay on top of it.”
The company began timestamping their itineraries to let travelers know the conditions are subject to change and that their advisors are monitoring the situation for updates.
“If we have plans to send travelers to a destination, and between the time when we finish an itinerary and the traveler’s departure, if we see a significant spike in cases at the destination we are reaching out to the client immediately to let them know. We might also consider postponing their trip or changing the plans. We want to focus on being as open and communicative as possible.”
Addressing safety concerns
As destinations nationwide prepare to welcome visitors, there will be a much greater focus on hygiene and sanitation than ever before. Travelers will want to know what steps are being taken to ensure they are safe, and it’s up to advisors to keep track of the myriad of new measures and policies these places are implementing, and to relay best recommended practices to their clients.
“We are going to do our absolute best to ensure you have a great experience, and we do still recommend practicing social distancing, using hand sanitizer and washing hands often. We really try to do our part to make sure we are in step with national and local recommendations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is naturally on the minds of travelers, and it’s up to travel advisors to not only ensure their clients are staying safe while abroad, but also to manage their expectations.
“I think those who are opting to travel are aware that bit might be a different travel experience then before, and the best thing our team can really do is manage expectations,” said Rafson.
She also said that due to reports of a rise in active COVID cases, “we are seeing some hesitation form travelers now. We’re just trying to be as flexible as possible and allow our travelers to change their dates or postpone their plans to a point where they feel really comfortable traveling, and can have the most positive experience possible.”
What are travelers looking for in a road trip
Road trips have been a mainstay for Americans seeking to travel to exciting places and have adventures on their own terms. “It's the quintessential American journey and that comes with a sense of adventure and romance. After life lockdown being on the open road has never been more appealing,” said Highley.
“With international travel so restricted at the moment, people are turning to the U.S. for their summer travels. Remote, non-urban destinations have been the most popular with a focus on properties that make it easier to social distance.”
The abrupt shift in clients’ preferred travel method has given travel companies a new opportunity to curate unique and one-of-a-kind travel experiences.
“It’s been exciting for us and our travel planners, because it allows us to send our travelers to more off-the-beaten-path destinations, and places that are a little more accessible by car,” said Rafson. “It’s not like this is a new type of trip offering for us, and with our road trip packages we arrange custom directions from your starting point, and we like to include pit stops and attractions to break up the ride.”
She also said that after the long period of lockdown, people were eager to begin traveling again, even if they stay relatively close by just to be in a new environment.
“It’s been a challenge but the nice thing about road trips because so many of them are in-state, there are fewer restrictions in terms of mandatory quarantine, as opposed to out-of-state visitors to that destination.”
How advisors can take the lead
If all a prospective traveler needs for a road trip is luggage, a car and a plan, why bother hiring a travel agent? With so many options available and service modifications being implemented on the fly, keeping up with everything and deciding on the best course of actions can seem like a daunting task.
“It’s definitely required more research in terms of where the closures are,” said Rafson. “Are these places open for business? Are these restaurants only doing outdoor dining or take out? Our travel planners have spent a lot of time researching attractions and restaurants to make sure things are still open and available to our travelers. So we’ve definitely been taking a lot of extra care and time into our trips.”
Advisors can provide detailed itineraries for clients, which include not only hotel accommodations and guided experiences, but also directions, scenic routes, points of interest along the way, places to hike, where they might want to stop for meals, and even taking care of dinner reservations for them.
“Planning a [traditional] holiday is relatively simple … [but when] planning a road trip, there’s a lot more to consider. You can do as much online research as you like, which is very time-consuming, but ultimately you still don’t know whether you’ll enjoy an area, or an experience more than another. So, I think that side of things is challenging, there’s a huge amount of crawling through information to planning a road trip, Highley said.
“There are clearly some changes we've had to make during COVID-19 but the essence of what we do hasn't changed - really understanding the client - their motivations, passions and interests - and crafting an incredible experience to match.”