MMGY Travel Intelligence, MMGY Global’s research and insights division, has released findings from the 2021 “Spring Edition” of its Portrait of American Travelers survey, marking the study’s 31st year of publication. Following a year of uncertainty, along with constantly changing attitudes and policies toward travel, the results indicated unprecedented optimism from leisure travelers in advance of the summer travel season. The Traveler Sentiment Index (TSI) rose to 119 (pre-pandemic levels), affirming that U.S. adults are thinking much more positively about travel than they were throughout this past year.
While there is much optimism, concerns for safety continue to affect demand, although not slowing what is a considerable increase in travel intent. Along with positive signs such as increased vaccinations and decreasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, safety remains below its pre-pandemic levels. At the time of the survey, it lingered 12 points lower on the TSI than it did in February 2020.
“It has been a devastating year for the travel industry, but companies have remained incredibly resilient and steadfast in their commitment to meeting travelers’ needs and concerns,” said Chris Davidson, EVP, MMGY Travel Intelligence. “The results from the study show that we are already in the midst of an impressive rebound, and travel companies should leverage these insights and use them to guide their strategies in the months ahead.”
Where and how will they go?
The top states of interest among U.S. travelers over the next two years are Hawaii (64%), Florida (62%), California (53%), Colorado (50%), Alaska (49%) and New York (49%). It is also important to note that some destinations—Portland,OR; Seattle; and Washington, DC—have experienced large decreases in interest, which is likely the result of extensive political and social unrest that occurred in these destinations throughout the past year. There is some interest in international destinations. However, it remains relatively low with only 19% of leisure travelers indicating that they are likely to take an international trip in the next six months—down from 24% in January 2020.
Road trips continue to be the most likely form of near-term vacation travel. Three in five U.S. adults (62%) expect to take at least one leisure vacation during the next six months with the preferred mode of transportation being personal car, while two in five (38%) say they will take a domestic flight. Looking further out to the next 12 months, four in five (81%) U.S. adults expect to take at least one trip.
Travel intentions and spending expectations
The intent to take a vacation during the next six months decreases with age and increases with household income. Active leisure travelers—those who intend to travel within the next 12 months—expect to take 3.7 overnight leisure trips this year and spend an average of $2,415 on those trips. Gen Xers and Boomers intend to take fewer trips than Gen Zs and Millennials, but these seasoned travelers intend to spend more overall. This difference in spending expectations is likely because Boomers tend to have more available time for travel and more discretionary income, and are in the generation that’s first in line for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Though travelers are ready to spend on vacations, they are also anticipating travel deals. Perceptions around the affordability of travel have far surpassed pre-pandemic levels (up 29 points), and this metric was the only TSI component that did not take a significant dip throughout the pandemic as travelers expected travel companies to slash prices given reduced demand.
Corporate business travel demand has historically driven fare and rate strength. However, MMGY Global CEO Clayton Reid foresees a unique and historic shift in this dynamic ahead. “MMGY Global believes the next six months will see a unique environment whereby weekend leisure travel demand is so significant that it pushes leisure demand to weekdays, thereby displacing traditional corporate travel,” he said. “We are calling this ‘reverse compression.’ We think trip volume will not only be led by leisure demand but that fare and rate strength will also come first from consumers and second from business, even in market environments and periods where that just doesn’t happen.”
Sustainability and travel
The pandemic has had a profound impact on travel behaviors. Travelers are doing more driving than flying, showing preference to outdoor destinations rather than cities and, perhaps unexpectedly, expressing an increasing focus on the impact of their travel. A total of 15% of active leisure travelers indicate a travel service provider’s focus on sustainability and environmental considerations greatly impacts their travel decision-making. This sentiment is more evident among younger travelers who showed greater willingness to pay more for travel brands that demonstrate environmental responsibility than their older counterparts.
Though the intent to spend more with travel companies that demonstrate environmental responsibility declines the older the traveler segment, 83% of active leisure travelers overall indicate they are open to changing some aspect of their travel behavior to reduce their impact on the environment. For example, visiting destinations in the off-season to reduce overcrowding and using less single-use plastics while traveling appear to be changes most are willing to make.
The information in MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers study was obtained from interviews with 4,500 U.S. adults in February. The four generations of adults surveyed are Gen Zs (18-23), Millennials (24-39), Gen Xers (40-55), Boomers (56-74) and Silent/GIs (75+). This is the first of four quarterly reports to be released this year.