There’s no telling how many of the projected 50 million Americans traveling for Thanksgiving will ditch their plans as the CDC and states sound the alarm. In the travel industry, the messages go from “stay home, buy local” to “book now for 2021” or “if you’re visiting, be safe,” as destinations and companies continue to balance their need for revenue against public health.
The data is clear. More than half of America chooses to travel for Thanksgiving, by car or by plane, in spite of a second Covid wave raging coast-to-coast, with a record near 80,000 thousand people hospitalized. That is according to Tripadvisor’s 2020 Thanksgiving Travel Index.
Airlines are also anticipating their first significant surge in performance since March, though a 39 percent decrease from last year. AAA said it expects fewer Americans to travel for Thanksgiving, but “fewer” is a relative term when it means 50 million instead of the 55 million who traveled in November 2019.
Then came the “strong recommendation” from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) on Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, telling Americans to stay home and causing airlines to see an increase in cancellations that had begun days prior as a result of mounting state restrictions. The U.S. Travel Association released an update to its health and safety guidance a couple of hours after the CDC.
“We’re sure that many people will heed the CDC’s latest advisory, but we’re equally sure that many of us still choose to travel and why this guidance is so critical,” Roger Dow, the association’s CEO, said at a press conference announcing the association’s updated guidance. “It’s abundantly clear that health and safety is a shared responsibility.”
With Covid’s biggest spike since April coinciding with America’s most anticipated annual holiday gathering, how are destinations and travel companies handling their share of that responsibility? How hard do you promote travel and exploit pent-up demand when the travel sector needs the business so desperately, versus pulling back for the sake of public health?
Airports SAY avoid travel, Airlines Promise You’re Safe: Which Is It?
“The decision to travel is a personal one,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel said in a recent press release. AAA also advised travelers to be aware of the risks involved in traveling, while providing tips on how to vacation safely. Although more Americans are expected to drive next week than fly, the Transportation Security Administration projects screening six million air travelers over Thanksgiving weekend.
And the airlines? They’re readying for increased demand. United had announced it was adding over 1,400 domestic flights for Thanksgiving week and that it would monitor bookings in real time to accommodate demand. Earlier this month, JetBlue added 25 additional routes, including to California, Florida and the Caribbean, noting “signs of strong demand in certain markets” and a desire to capture holiday revenue; then, amid a rising Covid wave this week, the airline added more flights from JFK to the Dominican Republic for Thanksgiving. Delta said it expected a two percent increase in customers or just over 100,0000 from last year’s holiday total, to the tune of 5.2 million travelers. Thanksgiving Sunday is expected to be particularly busy for Delta, with an expected “more than 690,000 customers taking to the skies to journey home across 6,130 Delta flights.”
When asked on Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation” whether plane or crowds at airports were more problematic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert, said bluntly “crowds.” He encouraged people to curb travel plans, and to step back and take a risk assessments of who would be vulnerable among their visiting families and friends.
“What you don’t want to see is a spike in cases as the weather gets colder and colder and we head into the Christmas season,” Fauci said.
Airlines have begun seeing flight cancellations, including United and American Airlines, both of which confirmed a downturn this week as a result of recent headlines. “We’ve seen a dampening of demand,” Robert Isom, president of American Airlines, said at the Skift Aviation Forum held online on Thursday. “It’s too soon to tell how deep or how long there may be a depressed environment, but we’ve seen a weakening of bookings, yes.”
Airports around the country have been discouraging any non-necessary travel, while preparing to receive crowds that have decided to venture out. “We’re not encouraging people to travel,” Stephanie Kitts, spokesperson for Albuquerque International Sunport, said in a local news interview.
“We’re not advertising travel, we’re not talking about our destinations and those things, but at the same time, we are here to support folks who have to travel for whatever reason. And we’re doing the best that we can to make that safe and easy for folks, but in no way are we trying to promote travel at this time.”
Brian Sumers, a. Skift editor-at-large, happened to tweet days ago about the disjointed messaging between airports and airlines.
I’m confused. My home airport is recommending I not travel for the holidays, unless I have to. But one of its largest tenants is telling me to “fly home to [my] loved ones” and promising I can “travel with confidence.” Which is it? https://t.co/rNX26ViWlp pic.twitter.com/1IPYJEy9LO
— Brian Sumers (@BrianSumers) November 18, 2020
It’s likely millions of Americans are asking themselves the same question.
For Some, “It’s Not About Promoting, Promoting, Promoting”
A destination that’s fared better in tourism revenue since reopening, compared to the rest of the US, is Coastal Mississippi. “While the nation based on the US Travel Association numbers, the overall revenue is down between 40 to 42 percent, in Coastal Mississippi we just finished our fiscal year back on September 30, only 20 percent behind last year’s revenue — that is remarkable,” Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi, told Skift.
A tourism industry veteran who also serves as Director-at-Large on the USTA Board of Directors, Segarra credited the destination’s success in part to delaying receiving visitors during the first Covid wave back in March. “We went against our DNA of inviting people; immediately after Covid 19 we said, ‘please don’t come, stay home.’” Segarra also recognizes the destination’s effective partnerships with elected officials and stakeholders, and integrating local residents as part of the conversation.
“You need to make sure you’re transparent and you need to make sure that you bring [everybody] to the conversation,” Segarra said. ”It’s not about promoting, promoting, promoting. It’s about communicating and being transparent. If people at this time feel that they are safe or they will be safe, they will visit you. That’s the key.”
Like Coastal Mississippi, Visit Central Oregon feels its role at this time isn’t necessarily actively encouraging travel, if not focusing on visitors observing restrictions. “Last week our Governor put a two week freeze on the state, which includes avoiding non-essential travel, and encouragement for people to stay local and within their region,” Katie Johnson, communications manager at Visit Central Oregon told Skift. “While we are not promoting or encouraging travel for the next two weeks, which includes Thanksgiving, we hope that those who choose to visit Central Oregon abide by all protocols and restrictions put in place.”
Discover Long Island is taking a proactive approach to keep its local economy going during the holiday week. “During this time of need, [our] role as a Destination Leadership Organization has pushed us to think outside the box and come up with fresh ways to leverage our partnerships with local chambers, businesses and attractions to drive foot traffic to our downtowns that are fighting for their survival,” Kristen Jarnagin, CEO of Discover Long Island, told Skift. “Our new ‘Shop Small Long Island’ campaign in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday and Shop Small Saturday is designed to raise awareness and support of the region’s struggling downtowns with the help of our new technology-driven Downtown Deals Travel Pass that allows shoppers to redeem exclusive savings at their favorite shops.” A new Long Island TV series and a podcast are among the destination’s virtual entertainment strategies.
Farther south, Discover Durham is also thinking along the same lines of making the best out of a difficult situation. “[Y]ou can sit home and binge watch episodes or you can consider how you might go out and how you might support local businesses in your community,” Susan Amey, president and CEO of Discover Durham, told Skift. “The mission for us is to help give people ideas and to help them think creatively about the situation, and while also reminding them of what the health and safety guidelines are. [W]e’re very careful not to promote something that is not within what’s considered to be safe.”
One of those ideas is to support Durham’s struggling restaurants. “We just did a blog post this week called ‘Turkey Talk’ and in it we’ve got a list of probably 15 or so, 20 restaurants offering inventive kinds of take out opportunities,” Amey said. “This year, because people have to change their plans, I’m hopeful that people take it as an opportunity — ‘well, let’s just do everything differently and maybe order take out or take and bake options.’”
A number of hotels around the country are choosing to promote Black Friday travel deals that are good for next year rather than pushing travel for right now. Deals apply for dates stretching as far as December 2021, with varying terms including weekday stays. Similarly, global lifestyle hospitality company she is encouraging using November discounts for future travel. The group’s new “Look Beyond 2020 and plan your fresh start” initiative offers member hotel specials that are available for purchase throughout November but are valid for future stays into November 2021, with generous cancellation policies.
“The need for flexibility and a ‘book now, travel later’ mindset is more pertinent now than it’s ever been in the hospitality industry,” Michele Caniato, chief brand officer for sbe, told Skift. “[W]e feel confident it will continue to boost our brand’s bookings through 2021 and beyond as we continue to navigate a new normal for hotels.”
Last Minute travel Decisions mean a potential uptick
A trend that could shift holiday numbers unexpectedly is the increase of a personal “wait and see” approach to travel. Covid has made it more difficult to project how many domestic travelers will actually end up venturing away from home for the upcoming holiday. Because of this last minute decision making tendency, over three fourths of Americans will travel by car than by air, according to TripAdvisor. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s outlook for the holiday season also confirms that there could be an uptick because of Thanksgiving trips being increasingly booked at the last minute; stays are projected to last longer than four days this year, as people have more flexibility to extend and work remotely.
“Normally we are a destination which people plan to visit within 21 to 30 days,” Segarra said. “But after Covid 19 started, we have seen changes within five days or so. So people are deciding at the last minute to visit a destination. [W]e should see people from North Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Georgia, coming to visit over those dates.”
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“The data is clear that there is definitely in the US a lot of pent up demand for travel,” Dow said at the U.S. Travel Association’s press conference last Thursday. “Americans in our research are telling us they are tired of being at home, they don’t want to give up taking trips, and they also want to see their friends and families. This is presenting a new challenge for us.”
Covid fatigue shows not just in travel decision making, but also in the choice not to observe safety protocols. A national survey from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center said that almost two in five Americans plan to attend Thanksgiving gatherings of more than 10 people, while a third indicated they wouldn’t ask their guests to wear masks. Another Axios/Generation Lab survey shows that college students could create a whole new surge as 59 percent plan on returning to campus after Thanksgiving travel and 49 percent don’t plan on observing a quarantine. Now couple all of this with consumer confidence in leisure travel that has been gradually rising over recent months, per consulting firm Deloitte’s latest State of the Consumer Tracker, with a third of US respondents saying they feel safe to fly again, up from 23 percent from April 2020, while 45 percent feel safe to stay in a hotel right now.
“So there’s a continuum here of what is risky and what you as an individual’s willingness to take a risk is,” Dr. Henry Raymond, associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, told Skift. “This is what’s so complicated about communicating this to people, is we’re really asking them to think in ways they don’t usually think. We’re asking them to think like epidemiologists, and most people are not.”
While the travel industry has embraced safety protocols, public mask wearing continues to be an individual traveler approach eight months into the pandemic, pointing to a nation that remains divided on the most important economic and life-threatening crisis of our time.
“There’s always concerns, that’s something you will not be able to eliminate,” Segarra said. “We feel very confident that with the precautions we have put in place in conjunction with our stakeholders, we will be able to really help anyone that comes that is not following any specific rules, we’re going to encourage them to follow what we have established.”
Ultimately, that’s all destinations and travel companies can do: not actively encourage travel for Thanksgiving, but continue to remind visitors to respect state mandated safety protocols. “We see projected Thanksgiving travel down, but probably not down enough,” Steve Kaufer, CEO of TripAdvisor, said on a live CNN interview last Friday. “I mean, I’m a travel CEO, I want people to get out and explore the world but now’s actually not the right time to do it. So I’m all for planning that trip in the late spring, in the summer, that would be wonderful. But now, keep in mind your loved ones, your friends, your family and the fact that we really all want to get this under control and that’s the best for travel today.”
Perhaps this week, as cases potentially reach the two million infection mark, a good chunk of those 55 million traveling Americans will cancel their plans and stay home. Perhaps they’ll realize that Zoomsgiving is a much better proposition than starting yet another year with Covid.
UPDATED: This story was updated to include comment from Tripadvisor CEO Steve Kaufer.
Photo credit: Coastal Mississippi, a primarily drive market, anticipates a solid Thanksgiving visitor turnout next week. Coastal Mississippi