What is the Data Telling Us About Consumer Travel Behaviour?

With more countries seeming to take control of the COVID-19 pandemic and lifting lockdowns, or easing restrictions in the very least, dare we begin to ask if the worst is behind us? Experts across the medical, economic and social fields are hesitant to answer this question, as there is still no effective treatment for the virus. However, there appear to be signs of recovery and hope, at least for some markets. This optimism bodes well for those of us within the tourism industry, and encourages us to actively prepare for a resurgence in travel.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance launched its hugely successful Resilience Webinar Series soon after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar series features global and local experts who share knowledge relevant to the whole industry, including hotels, DMCs, SMEs and other tourism-related service providers. Discussions on a range of pertinent topics from ‘Surviving and thriving post-COVID-19’, to ‘How to prepare your business to reopen – insights from Singapore’ and the most recent ‘What is the Data telling us’, have proved to be insightful and topical for the industry, with the sessions having over 30,000 views up to now. Information regarding upcoming webinars can be found on the Tourism Alliance Facebook page, as well as in the news section of this website.

At the last webinar, the Alliance had the opportunity to take a closer look at the data on consumer travel intent and behaviour with a panel of experts including Sarah Mathews, Group Head of Destination Marketing APAC at Tripadvisor, Hermione Joye, Sector Lead Travel, APAC at Google, Dileep Mudadeniya, Current CEO-Cinnamon Life Mall, VP-John Keells Group, Head of Brand Marketing Cinnamon Hotels and Niranka T. Perera, Chairman and CEO of Antyra Solutions.

The discussion provided a number of valuable insights, which will help the local tourism industry understand consumer expectations and prepare for the post-Covid-19 travel revival. Below are some of the salient points on consumer behaviour brought to light by the panel, in addition to recommendations for what businesses, and the nation as a whole should be doing to ensure we are well positioned to take advantage of the pent-up consumer demand for travel.


The Lockdown Travel Bug – Consumer Demand for Travel

Google has been conducting surveys across the world to better understand consumer travel intent and sentiment in the COVID-19 era. Google’s Hermione Joye shared insights from the State of Travel in APAC report, which was released in May 2020 to identify the trends in the region and help prepare for the road ahead. As per the report, some markets in APAC are already expressing interest in future domestic and international travel. More than 25% of respondents in Indonesia, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam expressed plans to travel domestically in the next three months, while less than 14% of respondents in countries like Australia and Japan plan to do the same. When it comes to international travel, respondents in Indonesia, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam indicated that they are 1.5X more likely to travel internationally in the next six months, compared to those in Australia, Singapore, and Japan.

Tripadvisor’s Sarah Mathews shared that 68% of consumers are thinking and dreaming of travel and planning where they want to go, even while they are under lockdown. Although the travel platform’s user forums saw a spike in COVID-19 related discussion topics in February, it seems to be tapering away. Instead, the discussions seem to be shifting towards travel information, with people looking for facts and credible details regarding travel advisories, restrictions, quarantine procedures etc.

Sharing stats for Sri Lanka, Niranka T. Perera stated that although global interest in travelling to the country was at an all time low, recent data shows that it is now starting to pick up. Based on an online study of 60+ hotels, USA, UK, Australia, India and France showed the highest forward booking demand for Sri Lanka, while countries such as Malaysia, Belgium and Poland showed an increase in booking demand market share based on Year-on-Year comparisons. In terms of experiences sought, honeymoon and romance related travel to Sri Lanka seem to be the least impacted segment based on a review of online demand from multiple source markets.

Interpretation of this data, however, is subject to a number of variables. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic impact is unpredictable. Travel advisories, restrictions, airline connectivity and capacity are just some of the factors that can have a practical implication on which markets will be able to travel to Sri Lanka in the coming months.

Note: All statistics shared by panelists can be downloaded here.


The Rising Importance of the Domestic Market

The data indicates very clearly, that the demand for domestic travel, especially in the APAC region, is significantly high. The understanding is that people are much more comfortable travelling domestically, for shorter distances (typically 0-3 hour journeys). Families or groups can simply get in their vehicles and drive to their destination, unencumbered by flight cancellations, or the fear of being exposed to the virus in crowded airports and airplanes. There is also no uncertainty of being quarantined, or being stranded in a foreign country in the event that the pandemic suddenly takes a turn for the worse.

As highlighted earlier, consumer intent and behaviour data show that people are yearning to travel as soon as they are allowed to. And the reality of the situation is that the first opportunity for all potential travellers are domestic destinations.

What Can Businesses Do to Target Potential Travellers?

In Sri Lanka, the domestic travel market is relatively small, amounting to approximately 100,000 room nights, as shared by Dileep Mudadeniya. It may not be large enough to sustain the local industry in the long term, but it does offer a short term respite for local businesses that are suffering the biggest slump in recent memory.

Marketing Strategies – Discounting vs Value Addition

Local businesses should develop an effective strategy to market to domestic travellers right now. Both Niranka and Dileep highlight that businesses should not fall down the discounting rabbit hole, but instead focus on value addition. For example, develop offers around special personal celebrations such as anniversaries and birthdays, offer flexible check in and check out options, advanced vouchers and encourage a ‘work while on holiday’ concept (as schools in the country are closed and many employers have established remote working).

Sarah believes that brands should encourage domestic travellers to begin exploring local destinations – ‘discover your own backyard’. Businesses that operate in less crowded spaces, with a focus on wellness, nature and outdoor activities will have a clear advantage, as both domestic and international travellers are going to be looking for more isolated, less crowded experiences. Operators who have been focusing on groups instead of FIT, will now need to consider a shift in business, as group travel is going to take longer to recover.

Capitalizing the Shift to Digital  

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to digital, even for more conservative brands, businesses and industries. People have gone digital, as it is arguably one of the few things in the world that has not been negatively impacted by the virus. The pandemic is also accelerating the move towards digital for businesses, because that is where consumers are. In this context, Hermione stresses the importance for brands to think about how they communicate with customers on digital platforms. There is a captive global audience, one larger than we have possibly ever had before, and they are looking for content and looking for communication opportunities.

Smart brands will grab this opportunity to communicate and engage with consumers, and the beauty of it is that today’s consumers are happy to consume more ‘scrappy’ content. They are not looking for cinematic quality videos, they are more willing to overlook a ‘low budget’ production, as long as the subject matter is interesting and relevant. Therefore, brands should not be limited by dwindling marketing budgets, and instead use video and social platforms to tell people about their properties, about their brand stories, about their people and about their experiences. Create an interest, so that your property, your people and your story will resonate with consumers and help you build connections during this time.

Operational Changes

From an operational perspective, Dileep emphasizes that local entities need to prioritize their readiness for post-COVID safety standards. Both guest and employee safety protocols, from the point of arrival to the point of departure, need to be developed and implemented in a stringent manner. Hotels will need to relook at how they deliver certain facilities to guests during this new normal. For example, pool usage will need to be restricted and carefully monitored and F&B services will need to be restructured to maintain social distancing and hygiene standards.

Effective Communication

It is imperative that all efforts, be they marketing and promotion offers, flexible cancellation and check in policies, or health and hygiene protocols, are published on the business website and communicated clearly to customers. Educate and train your customer service staff and reservation teams so that they are equipped to handle the type of queries that have become a priority for today’s consumers.

Throughout the world, consumers are clamouring for credible information. They want to know what brands and governments are doing to mitigate health risks and create an environment that is safe for travelling again. They are looking for reassurance, and they will continue to do so while COVID-19 remains a very real threat. The message that businesses, as well as tourism authorities need to be conveying to domestic, as well as international markets, is one of confidence and reassurance – a message that everything possible has been done to ensure that every aspect of the travel journey has been covered in terms of policies and guidelines. Ultimately, consumers want to travel, but they also need to know that you are ready for them. Give them that assurance.