It’s no secret that Covid-19 has altered the global travel and tourism industry irrevocably. In November 2020, STR’s tourism research team set out to understand how those changes were affecting consumer behaviour. Focus groups were conducted among UK, European and US members of STR’s Traveller Panel community. Most had stayed in hotels while the rest had used other forms of accommodation such as holiday rentals and guest houses. A few had ventured to international destinations.

While booking methods have remained largely unchanged, the criteria used for decision-making has evolved. The research travellers are conducting prior to booking has different objectives in mind. Checking government legislation and guidance is now critical. Nearby artractions and events used to be key drivers influencing accommodation choice, but decisions are now more likely to be based on proximity to friends and family, as well as Covid-19-related safety measures. New options provided by online travel agencies, such as Booking’s ‘properties with additional health and safety measures’ and Expedia’s ‘cleaning and safety practice’ filters, were strongly welcomed by travellers.

Most travellers are booking relatively last minute. For example, while Europe eased restrictions during the latter part of the summer, booking windows for destinations across the continent shortened as average pickup levels more than 14 days into the future were generally flat. If the uncertainty around Covid-19 rules and restrictions persists, travellers will be less likely to plan in advance. Even those who – pre-Covid-19 – routinely planned their travels extensively will resort to last-minute bookings. This is partly because they have no choice due to frequent changes in guidelines and concerns regarding lost deposits.

This brings us to the all-important subject of price. While shopping around for the best deal has become the norm, increased consideration is now given to the cancellation policy. There was strong consensus among travellers that it is worth paying more for the option to cancel and receive a full – or at least partial – refund up until the last minute.

Key qualities in these uncertain times

Travellers generally enjoyed their experiences at hotels in recent months. However, there were some interesting lessons that shed light on what more the industry can do.

High standards of cleanliness are, unsurprisingly, critically important for consumers in the current environment. However, increased focus on cleaning and cleanliness can trigger a knock-on effect that results in properties feeling clinical, sterile and less welcoming. It is therefore important to balance the need for hygiene with the desire for comfort and personalised interaction.

Personal space and the avoidance of contact with others is next on the list when it comes to new priorities among travellers. Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of new technology in many areas of our lives and hospitality is no exception.

Contactless guest experience solutions are desirable as consumers seek to minimise physical interactions. Furthermore, technologies that allow consumers to use their devices to enhance the guest experience – for example, enabling keyless access or online check in – are likely to benefit and expand during this period.

Finally, while consumers feel hotels can generally be relied upon to take precautions, they are less confident in their fellow travellers. Therefore, there is potential for accommodation providers to deliver information that acts as a reassurance that if others don’t comply there are procedures in place to rectify that.

The new normal

Encouragingly – and understandably for separated relatives – the desire to travel is as strong as ever. Domestic travel is likely to remain dominant and will help to drive recovery, but there is an appetite to venture further afield as soon as possible.

The potential for the vaccine to help combat the virus and allow tourism to resume was cheered, albeit with a little hesitation. Covid-19 has shifted consumer expectations irrevocably, and the implementation and communication of Covid-19-safe measures – such as enhanced cleaning – should continue. Travellers expect that these new higher standards will become the norm, even with the advent of the vaccine.

If properties can continue to deliver on these points and immunisation programmes – such as those starting to take place in the UK – are successful, travel could be in line for a significant bounce back in 2021.