Travel Research Insights for Pandemic Recovery: Strategies for Attracting Visitors

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, data reflecting the travel and tourism sectors have often illustrated a discouraging picture for destinations and businesses. At the community level, this reality has been deeply felt by the owners, managers and staff that rely upon travelers for their own livelihoods. In many New Hampshire visitor destinations, lodging has remained under capacity, shops have struggled to reach monthly sales goals, and social spaces like amusement parks and event venues have faced debilitating uncertainties. Thankfully, as half of the challenging winter season is now behind us and vaccinations are within reach, the outlook for the tourism sector is beginning to improve. Recent research and analytics from U.S. Travel Association and Destination Analysts indicate a turning point. 

For destination communities, the impacts of the pandemic may have felt particularly severe because 2019 was a strong year in travel and tourism, carrying into a positive start for 2020. Domestic travel spending had increased 4.4% over 2018[1] and overseas visitation to the U.S. had reached new highs[2]. It may be a small consolation to know that New Hampshire has fared better in 2020 than other New England states in terms of standard indicators such as hotel Average Daily Rate (ADR), which was down just 9% year-to-date in New Hampshire, compared to a 16% decrease in Maine, 17% in Vermont, and 29% in Massachusetts[3]. This is likely a reflection of the state’s travel policies as well as its relative lack of densely-populated tourism, as the Northeast overall suffered greater losses in traveler spending than other U.S. regions due to its higher concentration of urban markets and more restrictive or longer-duration lockdown policies[4]. As travel becomes increasingly possible for Americans as well as international visitors, there is potential for New Hampshire destinations and tourism-related businesses to build on 2020’s early positive start. 

Traveler sentiments, an important metric, are appearing more positive in 2021: a recent study indicated that nearly 45% of American adult leisure travelers plan to travel more in the next 12-month period than they did last year[5] – a statistic that had dipped close to 15% last summer. New Hampshire is well positioned to appeal to the 2021 leisure traveler, as visitor interest in small towns, villages or rural destinations/attractions has increased, as well as interest in parks and recreation areas. Above all, travelers are currently expressing the most excitement for beach destinations[6]. 

Overall, leisure traveler research suggests that Americans will approach travel this year with both caution and enthusiasm. Tourism destinations and businesses can take a proactive stance during the transitional period to best meet the needs and desires of a range of visitors and customers. Below, insights and recommendations for three areas of consideration may assist destinations and tourism-related businesses to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of pandemic recovery. 

Think about visitor mentalities, post-pandemic 

Currently, in the heart of the 2020–21 winter season, 65% of leisure travelers report that they would not be able to fully enjoy travel at this moment[7]. While this figure is expected to gradually decline, the tourism industry will need to anticipate a wide range of traveler needs and comfort levels. Many will be excited to jump back into their old travel and leisure routines, while others may be more hesitant. When asked about sentiments toward travel as life returns to “normalcy” or “near normalcy,” about 22% of leisure traveler respondents reported that they plan to “travel more to make up for lost time,” but 14% still planned to travel less, and 13% were unsure. Of these same American adults, 21% did not travel at all for any reason in 2020[8], which may also be considered an indicator of “higher-caution” travelers going forward. 

What you can do: 

Aim to appeal to both confident and more cautious visitors. Highlight opportunities for socialization and liveliness as well as spaces that offer a sense of solitude or freedom. Heightened sanitation protocols and attention to social distancing may be appreciated by visitors and clientele even if these measures are no longer required by the state. At the same time, bar seating, shared picnic or biergarten-style tables and firepit areas may have more appeal to patrons who are ready to be more social. Make sure your marketing campaigns include images of both options. 

Capture the interest of future trip planners now 

More than half of current leisure travelers report using online videos to plan trips, and nearly a quarter of trip planners refer to print destination guides and/or travel magazines[9]. For many aspirational travelers, trip planning provides means to temporarily quench the thirst for travel. 

What you can do: 

Appeal to trip planners by highlighting both what’s happening now as well as what’s in store for the summer and fall seasons. Would-be-travelers cautious about summer may respond more favorably to reminders of fall pleasures such as scenic drives through colorful foliage, visits to pumpkin patches, and pick-your-own apple orchard outings. 

The U.S. Travel Association’s recent National Plan for Vacation Day (January 26, 2021), a part of the greater “Let’s Go There” campaign, encouraged use of the social media hashtags #PlanForVacation and #LetsMakePlans to build excitement. The toolkit offers strategies for mobilizing consumer anticipation and excitement now. 

Focus on local and drive markets 

As the pandemic wanes but lingers, travelers may perceive lower risk associated with car travel. The pandemic has inspired many to explore the leisure and recreational offerings of their own region. This is a significant silver lining for tourism businesses and destinations in terms of marketing and promotion, as the habits people have formed during the pandemic could be lasting. Locals may embrace the re-opening of indoor attractions as celebration-worthy signs of a return to “normal.” 

Additionally, Summer 2021 may see the return of Canadian visitors to neighboring U.S. states. In the last decade, Canadian overnight visits to Northeastern states declined 6% even though visits to the U.S. overall grew 5%[10]. Interest in drive-based travel could be a valuable opportunity for New Hampshire destinations to regain the interest of their northern neighbors. 

What you can do: 

Leverage local excitement to attract new visitors/customers within your region. Consider themed days (and events, when larger gatherings become appropriate) as well as discount days for locals to reach regional audiences. A limited-time offer may help locals overcome the “I can always do that another time” mentality. When the northern border reopens, promotional strategies aimed at nearby Canadian markets could yield a broadened visitor or customer base. 

The improving outlook for travel and tourism offers hope and opportunities for New Hampshire’s visitor-oriented businesses and communities. Capitalizing on the local and drive markets and capturing the interest of those dreaming of trips later in the year will help solidify these positive trends. Reviewing and strengthening marketing and visitor strategies to appeal to confident and cautious travelers can help create accessible and attractive visitor offerings during the transitional period. 

If your community committee or business organization is interested in assistance with destination development and planning, please reach out to Jada Lindblom and Penelope Whitman.

Photo: © New Hampshire Division of Travel & Tourism

Sources/For further reading:

[1] U.S. Travel Association, 2020. https://www.ustravel.org/system/files/media_root/document/Research_Fact-Sheet_Domestic-Travel.pdf

[2] U.S. Travel Association, 2020. https://www.ustravel.org/system/files/media_root/document/Research_Fact-Sheet_International-Inbound.pdf

[3] STR, January 28, 2021. https://www.nettra.org/conference-materials.html

[4] Tourism Economics, January 22, 2021. https://www.ustravel.org/sites/default/files/media_root/document/TE_Coronavirus_WeeklyImpacts_01.22.21.pdf 

[5] Destination Analysts, January 28, 2021. https://www.milespartnership.com/sites/default/master/files/2021_SATS_Destinations_Deck.pdf 

[6] Destination Analysts, 2021. Ibid. 

[7] Destination Analysts, 2021. Ibid. 

[8] Destination Analysts, 2021. Ibid. 

[9] Destination Analysts, 2021. Ibid.

[10] XBorder Canada, 2021. https://www.nettra.org/conference-materials.html