Many Americans are looking forward to traveling again this summer, with several new research studies pointing to a high level of interest in hitting the road. Upwards of 90% of American travelers already have at least one leisure trip planned for this summer, with an average of three leisure trips overall, according to research from Destination Analysts.
While many people are starting to feel generally safe doing certain travel-related activities, some visitors remain hesitant. For example, a recent national survey from RRC Associates shows that Americans are looking forward to outdoor events/farmers markets and indoor retail shopping, while some indoor facilities, like gyms/rec centers and bars/night clubs, are still viewed with caution.
Having a sense of how your visitors feel about these issues will allow local businesses and chambers to provide the right communication, safety guidance and level of service this summer.
Aspen’s experiences in 2020 will help feed a positive summer
When it comes to discussions regarding “reopening” in 2021, Aspen (and Snowmass) are a little more ahead of the curve, given that the communities were open to visitation last summer as well as throughout the winter season.
Eliza Voss, vice president, destination marketing, with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, says she hopes local businesses and leaders will be able to build off those experiences and use them to prepare for summer 2021.
Voss said the City of Aspen will once again allow operations in the right of way based on feedback from the community survey they conducted earlier this year as well as the success of that program last summer.
“Our role as a destination management organization since the beginning of COVID has been to thread the needle and balance the public health orders with resident sentiment, business needs and guest expectations,” she said.
In an effort to provide useful, relevant content about the destination to visitors, officials launched the “How to Aspen in a COVID-19 world” educational content and video series, to ensure visitors understood what was expected of them when visiting Aspen.
“As public health restrictions sunset, and responsibilities go back to individual business owners and operators to make their requirements, we will continue to provide guests with educational information on how best to enjoy Aspen, what they can expect upon arrival, as well as what vaccine or testing requirements are in place to attend special events or participate in certain activities,” she said.
Visitors are still likely to choose destinations based on their personal comfort level, potentially seeking out places to visit based on how strict or relaxed their COVID restrictions are. That will require some finesse on the part of Aspen businesses and residents, she added.
“In Aspen, many of our visitors come from locations that don’t have the same requirements that we do, so we suspect there will still be some confusion and teachable moments as we navigate emerging from a global pandemic, and hope that these interactions can be handled with respect.”
Snowmass encourages respect, flexibility to build positive visitor experiences
Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism, said flexibility will remain key to the community’s tourist success this summer.
“With public health requirements easing to recommendations, there will be a broad spectrum of ‘rules of engagement’ based on the decisions of individual stakeholders and business owners,” she said.
Other entities, such as public transit, will still remain subject to federal mandates for mask requirements. Keeping the community up to date on those changes will be a big job for the rest of the year, she added.
“The most important thing for all of us – locals and visitors – to remember is that there is a wide range of ‘risk tolerance’ among people and we see a big opportunity to remind people to be kind, mindful and respectful of others,” she explained.
“For some special events like our Thursday Night Free Concert Series on Fanny Hill, we are fortunate to have a very large venue where we can encourage those who are more ‘COVID-cautious’ to select a less crowded area from which to enjoy the show. Overall as a Tourism office, we will work diligently to provide locals and visitors the latest and greatest information on what will certainly be a very fluid summer.”
Survey suggests anticipation is high among vaccinated travelers
The RRC Associates traveler study compiled responses from over 4,000 active Americans who travel, shop, dine, and attend events. The vast majority of survey respondents is planning to take an overnight leisure trip this summer, a strong sign of the pent-up demand that has been talked about.
As well, 84% have received one or more COVID-19 vaccine shots, far greater than the roughly 50% of all Americans who have had at least one dose. The higher vaccination level among travelers is clearly contributing to the increased interest in getting back to visiting favorite destinations once again this summer.
Encouragingly, survey respondents are feeling significantly more safe than they were three months ago doing a variety of travel-related activities, like dining, shopping, attending festivals/events, staying in hotels and watching spectator sports. This is good news for business owners and mountain town officials, signaling that visitors are anticipating spending money at local businesses and generating local sales and lodging tax dollars.
Some spin-off benefits pandemic-prompted outdoor dining
The popularity of newly-created outdoor dining spaces, sometimes on sidewalks, parking spaces, or other public rights-of-way, is perhaps an unintended consequence of the pandemic. And, indeed, many would like to see these outdoor dining spaces remain permanent. According to the survey, 57 percent support keeping these alternative outdoor eating locations.
“One of the benefits to come out of the pandemic is this kind of innovation, which in many cases might have taken local government years to enable via permitting. It’s a benefit to the destination, residents and visitors,” commented Carl Ribaudo of Insights Collective.
However, a clear delineation remains between comfort with outdoor and certain indoor settings. People are very likely to want to dine at restaurants with outdoor seating, attend outdoor events, such as festivals, farmers markets and concerts. Intent to patronize retail stores, both small boutiques and large, big-box stores, is also high.
But visitors remain noticeably more cautious with other indoor businesses like gyms/rec centers, movie theaters, indoor spectator sports and bars/night clubs. These results show that visitor sentiment remains mixed and that certain businesses will likely have to continue to navigate the challenges of perceptions of safety.
Guests favor size limits, precautions for large events
Regarding special events and outdoor festivals, while people are ready for events to resume, they tend to want some limits on the size of the events and some safety protocols in place. With such precautions in place, 79% say they would attend an outdoor concert or arts festival this summer. On the other hand, without any precautions, 66% are unlikely to attend such outdoor events.
“The feedback is clear — event attendees do not want to be in a crowded space,” said Brian London of Insights Collective. “Less is more, in that fewer attendees and less crowding will lead to higher satisfaction.” The takeaway is that interest in outdoor events is high, but some level of limitation needs to be in place for attendees to want to partake.
When it comes to vaccines and masks, this controversial issue appears to be less divisive among the survey respondents. The majority of travelers feel that having proof of vaccination should be required to board a commercial airline (59%), but a significant minority is opposed to a “vaccine passport” or other requirements (22%).
Insights Collective; a Tourism Economy Think Tank and Resource Center – is a collaboration of destination travel industry experts who are collaborating and working, together with mountain resort communities and their stakeholders, to understand, plan, and navigate through the emerging tourism marketplace.
Turning vaccine requirements into a positive message
These results show that businesses will have to tread carefully in terms of how they approach encouraging or requiring customers or staff to show proof of vaccination. Spinning the issue positively, such as providing an incentive or coupon for vaccinations (like Krispy Kreme did last month), might be the best approach.
“VIP seating sections, designated floors on hotels (and) lift lines reserved for those who are vaccinated are examples of rewarding those who are compliant,” noted Ralf Garrison of Insights Collective.
Sentiment about travel and whether or not visitors feel safe doing certain things can evolve quickly, as local and national health guidance changes and people re-adjust to participating in activities they used to do. Indeed, the CDC revised its guidance about masks for vaccinated people just the other day.
Nevertheless, individual visitors are likely to have different attitudes about masks, distancing, sanitization, and other policies. Irrespective of local nuances, this summer generally looks like it will be busy, with visitation levels to mountain destinations likely to be quite strong and a return to a summer somewhat more like we are all used to.