Travel Trends: What to Watch For in 2021

By Jim Leonard

Travel Trends: What to Watch For in 2021

As we transition into 2021, we all understand things will be different from pre-pandemic life. As one of the hardest-hit industries, travel and tourism has—and will be forever—changed because of it. Here we offer some predictions of travel trends for 2021. Read time: three minutes

As the pandemic persisted through essentially all of 2020, studies and anecdotes have not surprisingly revealed that people appreciate the value of traveling, and for many, more than they ever realized. Now, after saving up a year of vacation time, people are itching to get out of their house, take a break from work and go to new places or revisit old favorites. However, as we transition into 2021, we all understand that going forward will be very different from pre-pandemic life. As one of the hardest-hit industries, travel and tourism will likely be changed in many ways for the foreseeable future, and in some ways, forever. As we look ahead into 2021 and beyond, below are some predictions of travel trends based on the pandemic's effects as a whole.

Social Distancing and Health Guidelines

As travel begins to increase, people are going to be more cautious about social distancing and their health and safety. Your destination has to be willing to establish, communicate and follow the guidelines that keep visitors and your staff as safe as possible. This includes supplying the necessary training and equipment.

“Three-quarters of travelers said measures such as mask enforcement, reduced capacity or contactless services and flexible cancellation policies will inform where they stay on their next trip.” (source: USTA COVID-19 Travel Industry research)

The measures you create and instill in your destination will impact the attractiveness to future guests, so it is no longer a luxury but an expectation.

Preference for More Outdoor Attractions & Activities

One of the few ways people were able to safely travel this year was by experiencing outdoor excursions such as camping, hiking, whitewater rafting, etc. Since it’s much easier to be socially distanced outdoors, people will continue to enjoy outdoor activities that allow them to be active while also keeping them safe. Another contributing factor is that people spent a good portion of 2020 indoors, so some people might have a newfound appreciation for outdoor activities that they miss or some that they have never tried before. Think beyond the outdoor attractions in your area and promote outdoor dining options, walking tours and the like.

Private Traveling

To maintain social distancing, people are becoming more interested in private traveling. Though this type of travel is not new, there will probably be an influx of individuals or small groups choosing this option in the coming year. Based on budget, this type of traveling can be very diverse. It may include things like utilizing shared or charter flights, single residence accommodations, private excursions, camping, or even vacationing on a private island like St. Phillip’s Island (which was acquired by the SC Department of Parks & Recreation in 2018 and is now ready for private island rentals.) Any of these options offer travelers the ability to limit their contact to smaller (or even no other) groups and provide some of the safest ways to travel in 2021 due to the more limited chance of exposure. 

Bleisure Travel has New Meaning

For many years, bleisure travel primarily referred to people extending their business trips to enjoy leisure activities in destinations where business travel brought them. Promoting extending stays was primarily an effort to increase the number of hotel room nights occupied for business reasons and the economic activity that comes with those additional nights. Now, for many people, working from home is the new normal—and the WFH acronym has even found a place in common parlance. As workers adapt to (and become adept at) WFH, many find that as long as they have reliable internet access, they can work from anywhere (WFA?). With this in mind, bleisure travel looks to take on a new dimension as travelers craving a change of scenery work remotely from their getaway location (often with their family in tow) vs. working only from home.

Traveling Off-The-Grid

After spending countless hours locked inside with nothing to do but watch TV, scroll on social media and have Zoom meetings, we expect there to be an uptick in folks looking to find ways to disconnect. And, even though WFA may facilitate some blurry bleisure activity, making an extra effort to offer off-the-grid travel experiences will provide visitors an opportunity to take a step back and focus on relaxing without the non-stop presence of external distractions such as phones, computers, tablets, etc.

Local Traveling

As people begin to warm to the idea of traveling again, a way for them to dip their toe into the proverbial water is to plan to explore places within an hour or two of where they live. This type of tourism allows people to feel safe as they visit for as long as they wish—whether it’s just for a few hours during the day or overnight. Local travel is very attractive as it offers people a respite from the walls of their house, provides them opportunities to explore adventures right around the corner, allows them complete control of their transportation, and their activity almost always has a more direct impact on the economies of their local and regional communities.

Travel Rewards 

Incentivizing repeat visits through rewards is one strategy that we expect to see popping up more frequently within destinations in the next year. To get more people traveling and returning to some of their favorite places, consider a rewards program or “points” that give people an incentive to return to your destination. Your rewards program could include things like discounts at local restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Strengthening PR Efforts

Many organizations are strengthening and adapting their PR efforts to make people feel safe traveling to their destination. Showing people that you are invested in their safety, responding to the current situation (even as it changes), and making sure to provide up-to-date information will help visitors feel they can trust your brand. Having good PR efforts is always key, but it is vital now because everyone in the industry is fighting hard to grow their visitation. However, if you layer in some of the above trends with your existing PR messaging, you may uncover interesting ways to lift up some of the elements that travelers will be looking for in 2021 and illustrate how they could find them in your destination.

One thing 2020 has taught us is that it's impossible to be prepared for everything—you have to be ready and willing to adapt. While there is little chance that things will be back to the "normal” we all knew prior to 2020, some of the trends covered here will be evolving into the “normal” we will come to know over time. While people are certainly looking forward to traveling, they are now more cautious, want to be more informed, and have a higher expectation of safety measures being in place. The effort and measures you take to instill safety combined with the fun/relaxing/ quiet/educational/or fill-in-the-blank draw of your destination will pay off as you evolve along with consumers’ intent to travel again in 2021.