2021 Summer Travel Outlook: Cautiously Optimistic

With COVID-19 restrictions easing up, the best words to describe the 2021 Summer Travel Season outlook are “cautiously optimistic.”

That’s according to University of Delaware’s Sheryl Kline, Aramark Chaired Professor of Hospitality, Sri Beldona, professor of hospitality business management, and Robert Nelson, associate professor of hospitality business management in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

“We believe that it will be a much more positive travel year for the Delaware Valley region, particularly the New Jersey and Delaware beaches, and also remote locations across the U.S.,” said Kline, who is also deputy dean of the Lerner College.

Over the winter, Kline and Beldona worked with the Delaware Data Innovation Lab supported by CompassRed to develop a prototype for a hospitality sentiment tracker. This prototype tracks sentiments on travel and safety using consumer-based online review data across the State of Delaware. Early indicators showed that proprietors were taking conscious steps to be compliant with COVID-19 safety measures. Customers noticed and commented on precautionary measures these establishments put in place and expressed their comfort level in social media posts.

“While there is a pent up demand for domestic travel, the overall travel experience is going to depend on how COVID-19 guidelines continue to be observed,” Beldona said. “Through our research we have learned that consumers are hyper aware of how the travel industry reacted to the government restrictions and precautions taken to cope with this pandemic.”

The term “vacci-cation” for vacations being planned after sufficient vaccinations and before office life resumes has also entered the lexicon to describe what is expected of this summer, Beldona shared.

“As more people are fully vaccinated, they will become more comfortable traveling for much needed vacations and to visit family,” Kline said. “However, when they leave home, vacationers will definitely see more sanitation stations and improvements in cleaning practices. This is one legacy of the pandemic that will not go away.”

“There will be more cars on the road versus air travel,” Beldona said. “Beach rentals in Delaware are reporting higher occupancies than usual. It’s going to be a big summer for AirbnBs.” He also believes that more people will be visiting out-of-the-way places and having more family reunions.

But what you won’t see will be any extra incentives or travel discounts. “Prices won’t be lowered because the demand is there,” Beldona said.

With the increased demand, there will be increased pressure on restaurants, hotels and commercial tourism operators to find employees. Anecdotally, Kline, Beldona and Nelson are seeing the demand for employment at travel destinations growing, especially at the Delaware beach areas and other more remote locations such as national parks and destination all-inclusive resorts.

“Tourists are booking trips, but hotels, restaurants and other segments of the industry have no labor,” Nelson said. “Many of them depend on imported labor via J1 visas that are not available this year.”

The outlook is not quite as strong for major cities as remote, local getaways. The tourism recovery for places like New York and Chicago is predicted to progress at a much slower pace, according to Nelson.

“Major gateway cities are dependent on international travelers and business travelers, both of which are expected to recover more slowly,” Nelson said. “Also, business travel naturally slows in the summer months.”

As for international travel? Trends indicate that growth in domestic travel will outperform that of international travel significantly this summer, Beldona said.

“Countries are still trying to figure out how to allow people from different countries into their cities and how long they will need to quarantine,” Kline said. “It might be best to travel domestically and to stay local.”

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