US consumers show optimistic viewpoint on travel; more than half will vacation in 2021 but levels are still markedly down on the pre-Covid world

9 February, 2021

A new survey conducted by Morning Consult and commissioned by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) shows consumers are optimistic about travelling again in 2021, with 56% reporting they are likely to travel for vacation this year.

This is a positive outlook, but still a significant decline from pre-pandemic levels, when approximately 70% of Americans took a vacation in any given year, according to OmniTrak (TNS) data. Since the onset of the pandemic, just 21% of survey respondents reported travelling for vacation or leisure, and only 28% reported staying in hotel. Prior to the pandemic, 58% of survey respondents said they stayed in a hotel at least one night per year for leisure, and 21% stayed at least one night per year for work.

The survey also found that while consumers remain optimistic about travel, consumer confidence about staying in hotels is tied to widespread distribution of the vaccine: one in ten (11%) say they will feel comfortable staying in a hotel when vaccines are available to the general public; double that amount (20%) when a majority of Americans have been vaccinated; and slightly less (17%) when they are personally vaccinated.

The findings of the survey of 2,200 adults conducted in early Jan-2021 supports the initial phase of recovery: leisure travel is expected to lead the return of small and medium events, before group and business travel follows. While the first steps along the path of recovery will begin in 2021, it is not expected until 2024 or 2025 that full recovery will be achieved.

In addition to the almost half of Americans whose hotel stay is linked in some manner to vaccine distribution, more than a third (34%) are already comfortable staying in a hotel.

The Morning Consult research for AHLA provide some further insights. Compared to last year, 36% of Americans expect to travel more for leisure in 2021, while 23% expect to travel less and 42% about the same. One in five Americans (19%) expect their next hotel stay to be between now and Apr-2021, with another quarter (24%) expecting it sometime between May-2021 and Aug-2021.

The findings illustrate that while business travel itself will remain below 2019 levels for some time, business travellers express greater comfort in travelling for any reason compared to adults overall, and they are more likely to say they will travel more in 2021.

On the leisure travel side demand is projected to begin increasing in 2Q and 3Q of 2021 as vaccine distribution increases. In the year ahead, Americans say they are most likely to travel for a family event such as a wedding or family reunion (51% likely to travel), while many are likely to travel over summer holidays, led by the Fourth of July (33%) and Labor Day (28%) celebrations.

While cleanliness has always ranked among the top factors when choosing a hotel, it has risen to the top in the wake of COVID-19. In a separate survey of travellers conducted by Ecolab in Dec-2020, almost two thirds (62%) of consumers placed overall cleanliness in their top three factors when choosing a hotel - up a quarter(+24% increase) over pre-COVID preferences. Further, more than half (53%) of consumers say that enhanced cleaning regimens will make them feel more comfortable staying at a hotel.

AHLA's recently published State of the Hotel Industry 2021 paper outlines the forecasted state of the hotel industry in 2021 and into the immediate future. It warned business travel, which comprises the largest source of hotel revenue, "remains nearly non-existent, but it is expected to begin a slow return in the second half of 2021".

It highlighted that among frequent business travellers who are currently employed, 29% expect to attend their first business conference in the first half of 2021, 36% in the second half of the year and 20% more than a year from now, but warned business travel is not expected to return to 2019 levels until at least 2023 or 2024.

"COVID-19 has wiped out 10 years of hotel job growth," says Chip Rogers, president and CEO of AHLA and its 2021 outlook suggests half of all US hotel rooms could remain empty during this calendar year.

The resurgence of COVID-19, the emergence of new strains, and a slow vaccine rollout have added to the challenges the hotel industry faces this year. With travel demand continuing to lag normal levels, national and state projections for 2021 show a slow rebound for the industry and then accelerating in 2022.

The hotel industry experienced the most devastating year on record in 2020, resulting in historically low occupancy, massive job loss, and hotel closures across the country, but "the hallmark of hospitality is endless optimism," says Mr Rogers, "and I am confident in the future of our industry," he adds.