| AspenTimes.com

Measuring up: Driving the travel economy by changing how – and what – we measure

Bookings in the end of March were up 1580% versus 2020, and up 58.5% versus pre-pandemic 2019.
Source: Inntopia Business Intelligence
INSIGHTS FROM ASPEN & SNOWMASS

Traditional tourism metrics may not help in 2021

Eliza Voss, vice president of destination marketing with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said that 2020’s unusual numbers will require some different metrics to predict this season’s tourist traffic.

“ACRA’s Destination Marketing and Snowmass Tourism’s efforts are partially funded by the lodging tax, so we have always looked at occupancy and average daily rate metrics,” she said. “Historically we have viewed these metrics as year over year measurements. Of course, this year, we need to look back 3 years to get a sense of where we are as compared to a pre-pandemic world.”

Voss said the booking window for many travelers is now much closer to their arrival date, so the ACRA will also see how continued flexible cancellation policies influence future booking patterns.

Additionally, factors such as the vaccination rates in top feeder markets or even the availability of flights from traditional tourist hometowns need to be looked at more closely, she explained. But those numbers don’t tell the entire story, she admitted.   

“Something a little outside of the ‘metrics and data’ box is measuring local sentiment, and the change in makeup of our communities with new residents, or part time residents spending more time here,” she said. “ACRA will dive into a destination management planning process in the summer of 2021, which will involve gaining insights into local sentiment so we can plan for what tourism should look like in our community for many years to come.”

A destination management plan is also critical to the community’s success as a sustainable destination, with flexibility being absolutely important to adapt to any future changes, she said.      

Snowmass looks to visitors who drive, versus fly

Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism, said that a report outlining the origins and destinations of Aspen Airport travelers has traditionally been an important planning tool.

“This information helps us to geographically target the audiences we go after,” she said. “For example, our Phoenix flight not only serves the greater Phoenix population but also serves as a very important connection to key southern California cities.”

But Abello said last year’s drop in air traffic has prompted more marketing directed at car travel.  

“In 2020, as we watched the numbers of passengers going through TSA plummet, we expanded our ‘drive’ marketing efforts to include destinations within a 12-hour drive, especially targeting mountain bike enthusiasts with our IMBA Gold messaging,” she said. “Summer has always been a more important ‘drive market’ for us than winter and we will continue to assess that balance of spend between fly and drive markets as we see how 2021 evolves.”

Listen to the accompanying podcast from the Insights Collective here.

Download

Destination travel providers have long since adopted reliable, actionable metrics to gauge the success or failure of their efforts to create thriving travel economies. And whether it’s the relatively isolated nature of their economies, the seasonality of revenue streams or the significant infrastructure requirements of snow sports, mountain travel partners and suppliers are proactive with a wide range of data.

But suppliers and their overall communities have both a need and opportunity to change how and what they measure to drive the evolution of the industry.

“How” you measure – recovery vs trajectory

Typically, suppliers and governments measure quantitative performance such as taxes, visitation and resource use in terms of year-over-year (YOY) comparisons. Measuring during similar periods helps ensure that conditions such as weather, economic cycles and holidays are similar in both periods, allowing them to identify what is and isn’t working on the operational or promotional side.

The resulting data provide a measure of annual growth or decline, which becomes actionable. But when you encounter disruption in one of the data sets (say, a pandemic, to use an unlikely and extreme example), interested parties need to adjust to ensure they’re seeing performance in the right context.

For example, if we measure lodging bookings at mountain resorts in the third week of March 2021 versus 2020, we find that bookings are up 1,580% due to shuttered destinations at the same time last year. That, in a nutshell, is a recovery metric that helps you understand emergence from the downside, but has little long-term value.

For long-term value we add more data and also compare the same week versus 2019. The results? Bookings are up 58.5% compared to the same week in 2019. We now have both a recovery metric and a long-term trajectory metrics to qualify our recovery findings and make sure we’re on track. For the record, the current 2021 gains are dominated by pent-up demand, with the dramatic gains over 2020 also largely attributable to last year’s shutdown.

While this is a simplified example, the Insights Collective and I recommend that a multi-year discipline be applied across all data points measured, so that decisions through the recovery keep the long-term interests of the supplier or destination on track.

“What” you measure – shifting long-term interests? 

Major disruptors have a way of creating challenges and opportunities, but rarely as aggressively as 2020. While many suppliers and towns are looking forward to a return to “normal,” others see this as an opportunity to drive change and address long-standing challenges like workforce housing, community relations, over-visitation or differentiation, to their competitive advantage.

Some of what was important in 2019 – generating foot traffic in a particular part of a town, for example – is still important, but may be lower on the list in 2021. Shifting away from volume in favor of exclusivity, visitor infrastructure in favor of local lifestyle, lodging tax in favor of workforce housing or any one of a dozen other shifts, are all initiatives destinations may identify that will require new ways to measure success.

Carl Ribaudo, president of SMG, and a co-founder of Insights Collective, suggests that resorts may pivot towards “looking at residents’ satisfaction with tourism as it’s currently delivered, making sure it truly benefits all segments of the community.” Ralf Garrison, founder of the Collective, has another approach, but perhaps to the same end, suggesting there’s an opportunity for suppliers and destinations to be more selective in “identifying the type of visitors that are most compatible with the destination.”

Local satisfaction vs. visitor compatibility

In the first instance, we’re adding Resident Satisfaction to the things being measured, while the Garrison approach compels you to identify and measure traits of consumers before they arrive, then refine, repeat and measure again. As an aside, and not to diminish the targeting efforts of destination marketing organizations, while many are engaged in some version of that exercise, visitor traits have most often been driven by price and access rather than premeditation.

In a quantitative example, Bill Wishowski, director of operations at the Breckenridge Tourism Office, says “focusing on room nights (instead of occupancy) has become a higher priority for us as the number of available units has changed year-over-year” an example of getting in front of changes to second-homeowner and rent-by-owner markets by measuring differently.

The travel industry has largely measured success as revenue gained through price since the Great Recession, but is also something of a victim of that success. There are compelling reasons to measure recovery and trajectory in terms of a return to normal. But there are equally compelling reasons to embrace changing consumer, resident and societal dynamics to measure success in new ways, something mountain travel professionals have proven themselves more than capable in the past twelve months.

ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

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. www.TheInsightsCollective.com  /  info@theinsightscollective.com 

Drivers on the Road to Recovery: Vaccinations, Vacations and Visitor Values

This Illustrative Example demonstrates how resort communities might characterize visitor types based on their Visitor Fit Factor.
Source: Insights Collective Think Tank
Insights from Aspen & Snowmass

Keeping things safe for an anticipated travel boom

Tourism leaders in Aspen and Snowmass say they expect 2021 travel to rebound considerably. That also means making a concerted effort to keep both visitors and local residents safe and happy.

 “We know there is a direct correlation between vaccine announcements and consumer confidence to travel,” says Eliza Voss, Vice President, Destination Marketing, with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “So vaccinations, coupled with pent up demand, are absolutely influencing the desire to get back out and travel.”

 And much like the “Visitor Fit Factor” model, Voss says that the older “haves” have become a high priority for summer 2021 marketing.

 “Baby boomers, one of Aspen’s key demographics, were first in line to the vaccine and are eager to connect with friends and family, and we hope they consider Aspen as a destination for restorative multi-generational travel,” she says.

 To expedite a safe season, Voss says visitor education remains front and center.

 “ACRA’s role as a destination management organization during this time of transition is to educate, with programs like ‘How to Aspen,’ and manage expectations for our guests this summer,” she says. “Economic recovery is tied to public health, and so we will continue to work alongside our public health officials and business owners to ensure success on both sides and create an environment for Aspen to thrive.”

Snowmass encourages longer summertime stays

Rose Abello, Director of Snowmass Tourism, says Snowmass is working hard to take advantage of pent-up consumer demand for travel, as well as encouraging visitors to consider longer stays as a more pleasant setting for their continued work-from-home arrangements.  

 “Consumer confidence for travel is at a 12-month high, with 87% of those surveyed saying they have a trip planned in the next 6 months,” she says. “In addition, we believe that more and more people are going to take advantage of the flexibility to work from ‘home’ to plan longer stays – possibly with extended family. To appeal to these visitors we are tweaking our advertising campaign to include the line ‘this summer, summer in Snowmass.’” 

 Abello also reiterates Snowmass’s commitment to public safety.  

“State and local health officials are working diligently to balance easing restrictions with keeping our communities safe and economies vibrant,” she says. “In Snowmass we are planning events and activations that will scale to the public health orders/restrictions while still creating fun and engagement for locals and visitors alike.”

Listen to the accompanying podcast from Ralf Garrison and Insights Collective here

Download

Our first article in this Road to Recovery series established that vacation demand is strong. Seemingly everyone is thinking about vacation travel, and the Inntopia/DestiMetrics data shows that advanced bookings are strong, particularly for end-of-season visitation.

But COVID-19 and its variants also love to go traveling. They are spread by congregation and are full of surprises, and demand our respect and careful consideration. “Infections are trending upwards in most states, and several, including Colorado, reported increases of more than 30%,” according to Washington Post reports. Dr. Fauci cautions that we have not turned the corner but are approaching the intersection.

As summer season approaches, community leaders face tough decisions as they contemplate who, how and when to invite visitors back. It’s all in an ongoing effort to strike a balance between the safety of pandemic protocols and the benefits of economic liberation. The CDC is currently advising against non-essential travel, but promising imminent guidance, according to CDC Director Dr. Wilensky. 

So now what? The Insights Collective took on the subject, from which I offer the following synopsis.

A destination-centric shift

Traditional destination tourism promotion has been largely based on marketplace demand but then the concept of “over-tourism” emerged and COVID-19 considerations accelerated, creating a distinct local-resident-centric perspective. Travel Weekly’s Jeri Clausing writes: “some… tourism economies are pushing back on attempts to return to the status quo and advance tourism management… with an emphasis on more local input and control.” Not a new concept, but easier said than done.

Now, with the prospects of what one community leader called “more demand than we know what to do with,” there may be a unique opportunity to be more selective: identifying, inviting and hosting the type of visitors that are most compatible with the character and values of local and part time residents. Let’s call it the “Visitor Fit Factor.”

To illustrate, we’ve segmented prospective visitors by typology to demonstrate how it might work and why it matters:

1. HAVES: Those already vaccinated – over 70% of those over 65, and over 50 million who have completed vaccination per CDC at writing, plus many more with natural immunity – are all injected with a sense of liberation and impunity about travel. Our Think Tank destination experts Carl Ribaudo and Brian London expect Baby Boomers (born 1948-1964) to lead the way and emerge as the preferred target guest for many discerning destinations.

2. HAVE-NOTS: Interested but not yet vaccinated, much of the U.S. population is still in queue, but as per Dr. Fauci, “anyone who wants one (vaccination) should be able to get one by May.” Mostly mid-life and younger population (Gen X, Y, Millennials), this has been the most active emerging market segment for travel in recent past, and likely will be again in the future. For now, eager to travel and anointed with the hubris of youth, some Have-Nots are demonstrating conflicting values and generating friction with local residents in some markets – the coastal spring break news being a recent case in point.

3. WON’T/DON’T: A significant portion of the U.S. population does not intend to become vaccinated – as many as 30% of all Americans, per National Institute for Health estimates – but have already been traveling and intend to continue. This WON’T/DON’T typology is not age specific, appears to have overriding interest in freedom of choice, distrust of science and government, and follows political influence that trumps any concern for personal welfare or the greater good. As such, they could be least likely to be in sync with the values of their destination residents, and subsequently earn the lowest Visitor Fit Factor.

While all three visitor typologies demonstrate strong marketplace demand for travel, the wellbeing and compatibility with their destination community residents means their Visitor Fit Factor varies widely. And so should be the priority as resort leaders determine who, when and how to restart tourism promotional efforts going forward. 

At stake is not just the ability to defend against a spring 2021 spike in COVID-19 infections in the short term, but longer-term local sentiment about the future of a tourism-based economy down the road.

The least compatible may be the most likely visitors

Ironically, absent strong leadership and a premeditated, inclusive policy on what, when and who to target, visitors will make travel decisions based on their own preferences. The result could be counterproductive, with more business from the least compatible visitor types, and even less business from those most attractive and compatible, who have the highest Visitor Fit Factor.

The road to recovery is neither smooth nor straight, with curves, potholes, road closures and detours, especially for those who are not clear about their final destination, haven’t thought out their route map or lose their way along the path.

While the challenges are steep, the pandemic has brought with it a silver lining: a unique opportunity to emerge with a clear road map to a new reality and more sustainable future for all. The war against the pandemic is global, but this battle will be waged, won or lost locally.

About Insights Collective

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. www.TheInsightsCollective.com  /  info@theinsightscollective.com

What does tourism look like this summer?

Data shows that travel bookings arriving in the market within 90 days go up when infection rates decrease, and go down when infection rates are on the rise. (Source: Inntopia)
About Insights Collective

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. www.TheInsightsCollective.com  /  info@theinsightscollective.com

The Collective’s Resource Center is comprised of its founding members, each a specialist in their own right

Jane Babilon, Lodging Research Consultant
Dave Belin,  RRC Associates
Chris Cares,  RRC Associates
Barb Taylor Carpender, Taylored Alliances.
Tom Foley,   Inntopia/DestiMetrics
Ralf Garrison,  Advisory Group of Denver
Brian  London.  London Tourism Publications
Carl Ribaudo, SMG Consulting
Susan Rubin Stewart, Contact Center Consultant
Jesse True,  True Consulting

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to feel like it is subsiding, given the decreases in infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths, combined with the rapid increase in vaccinations, thoughts in the tourism industry focus on returning to a pre-pandemic normal. Many tourism destinations, attractions, lodging, restaurant providers, recreation providers and retail stores – as well as residents and local governments – are asking (or at least thinking), what will tourism look like this summer?

Yes, the conventional wisdom view is that there is significant pent-up consumer demand for travel. And as the COVID-19 vaccination numbers continue to climb, that in turn will unleash increased visitation on tourism destinations across the country. But as I have learned, conventional wisdom is often not conventional or wise. Let us consider the following.

Across the country, there is evidence that the lodging industry is picking up. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Smith Travel Research reported hotel occupancy for the week ending March 6 was 49% nationally, the highest it has been since October.” Additionally, the same article reported the Transportation Security Administration saw 1.36 million people pass through airport security checkpoints on Friday, March 12 alone, the most in an entire year. Leisure travel has now become the driver in the industry as many analysts concur that the more financially impactful business travel will be slow to recover, perhaps waiting until COVID-19 herd immunity is achieved. It remains to be seen when major corporate customers will be back to pre-pandemic levels.

From a mountain tourism destination perspective, the past year has given us several insights. First, despite the pandemic, demand for outdoor recreation-based destinations was substantial. These destinations, be they located in the mountains, on the coast or in the desert, did very well in terms of visitation. Consumers looked to escape the claustrophobia of city locations and find relief from the limits of COVID-19 on the hiking or biking trail, the ski run or just by being outside. The consensus view of the Insights Collective:

“That mountain destinations will see a continued level of visitation because of the interest in outdoor recreation. This level of visitation would be similar to last summer. In some cases, even greater demand as more people become vaccinated, mask mandates expire and people feel confident traveling again. The Insights Collective also expects fall visitation to be a strong at mountain destinations for the same reasons.”

This view is supported by some recent data from Inntopia that may give some insight into consumer behavior. In the short term, that might lead to more mountain destination travel demand over the summer and fall. According to Tom Foley, Senior Vice President with Inntopia and an Insight Collective member, “There have been two lead indicators through this pandemic. The first is infection rates, with bookings arriving within 90 days going up when infection rates go down, and vice-versa, as seen on the chart. The second – and more exciting – is a direct correlation between first-time vaccinations and bookings, with bookings arriving within 90 days almost directly mirroring the patterns of vaccine doses administered across the country.” Foley also added, “While this doesn’t mean that only vaccinated people are booking, what it strongly infers is that society is responding to vaccinations, both with vaccinated persons planning immediate travel, and with non-vaccinated persons feeling more confident (for better or worse) that much of the threat is behind us and following suit.” As the vaccination trend takes hold, it appears consumers are trading the long-term planned trip for a more spontaneous one within the next several months – a clear sign of confidence and interest in booking travel.

Despite these positive indicators both nationally and in mountain tourism destinations, there could be some hiccups. There are several trends to keep an eye on that may impact travel to mountain tourism destinations. First could be the slow resumption of youth activities, including everything from summer camps to swimming lessons, which could curtail family travel and keep some parents and families closer to home. Second and more troubling would be issues related to a national failure to reach herd immunity. One could imagine a scenario as the initial surge in vaccinations gives way to holdouts and deniers, both of which are already showing up in the media. Could this enable COVID-19 variants an opportunity to flourish and force further restrictions? A final trend to keep an eye on could be economic challenges that hold back consumer confidence. Some 9.4 million jobs have been lost since the pandemic began. There’s also the possibility of inflation impacting the $1.3 trillion consumers have in savings, as well as the additional $1.9 trillion in stimulus making its way into the economy. And there’s increased interest rates – all factors which suppress travel.

Our view: Be optimistic, but be cautious.

Local leaders in both Aspen and Snowmass are planning to take that approach for the season ahead.

“Snowmass properties are telling us that there is strong early demand for summer already,” said Rose Abello, tourism director for Snowmass. “We anticipate a combination of longer stays booked farther in advance along with the continuation of demand for last minute bookings.” 

Abello says Snowmass Tourism will continue to plan a series of events and activations for visitors and locals alike, shifting as needed when state, county and local regulations change.

“The great news is that what the Valley offers — wide open spaces, access to the outdoors, a great variety of dining, shopping and more – should continue to resonate with travelers and provide some level of resiliency with fluctuating restrictions,” she said. 

Eliza Voss, vice president of destination marketing with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, says ACRA is cautiously optimistic for summer, but plans to remain nimble in order to pivot as public health guidelines may dictate.

“There is certainly pent-up demand for summer, particularly from those that have been fully vaccinated and are interested in resuming some leisure activities with family and friends they may not have seen for a year,” Voss said. “Many arts & cultural organizations are planning for in person programming albeit with reduced capacity and necessary protocols in place, but we are thrilled at the idea of live music & theater.”

When it comes to exploring the outdoor recreation that Aspen has to offer, Voss said ACRA’s messaging will focus on education and sustainability, highlighting the best ways to explore these natural assets while preserving them for many years to come.

Complete destinations: Not Just Skiing

Skiers and snowboarders expect to behave differently this winter — more midweek downhill skiing and off-mountain outdoor activities, less eating in restaurants and shopping in stores.
About ACRA

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is a destination management organization focusing our work in sustainable tourism around dispersion, education and communication. As stewards of the destination,and as members of the local community, the ACRA destination management work is mindful, focused on generating harmony between quality of life for the resident and maintaining economic vitality to ultimately create an environment for Aspen to thrive. To learn more visit aspenchamber.org/about/data-center/reports-surveys/2020-tourism-outlook.

Successful towns and cities all over the world strive to improve the quality of life for residents, which in turn often makes these locations attractive for visitors and second-home owners. One of the keys to that success is collaborative partnerships between different entities, both public and private, toward a common goal. 

The maturation of tourism economies in many towns in the West has represented an evolution from a one-trick pony (ski resort only) to a vibrant, complete destination with activities, attractions and facilities for a wide variety of visitors and residents. The diversity of restaurants, cultural offerings, retail shopping and outdoor activities represents a potent draw for tourism.

While many COVID-related challenges exist, creative new partnerships between visitors’ bureaus, local governments, private foundations, citizens and other entities have quickly emerged to offer new and different activities to visitors, to communicate effectively to keep visitors safe, and to develop innovative new programs that support local businesses. These dynamics are an extension of the trend of mountain communities becoming complete destinations, appealing to many different types of visitors for different reasons. 

New amenities for visitors and locals

Getting outside has never been more popular. This summer, national park visits set records, bike and sporting goods retailers reported empty shelves and racks, and even Hershey’s chocolate sales were up from more people making s’mores outside. The surge in the number of visitors seeking outdoor experiences is normally a welcome trend in mountain communities, but this winter obviously presents new and unique health and safety challenges.  

Steamboat Springs is addressing the anticipated demand for outdoor recreation head-on by creating two outdoor ice-skating rinks that will be free for all skaters. The temporary rinks are being built on top of existing tennis courts, which already have lights for after-dark tennis play. Usage of the rinks will be free for residents and visitors alike, and the new, innovative facility is funded primarily by private individuals and business sponsors. 

“In a time where indoor capabilities are limited and public opportunities are scarce, we’re able to create unique recreation opportunities for the community,” the City of Steamboat Springs Parks & Recreation Director Angela Cosby said in a recent press release.

The new skating rinks in Steamboat are one of many non-downhill activities available in the community, which contributes to a well-rounded winter economy and makes Steamboat Springs an even more attractive place to visit. The broader offering of different activities not only makes resort towns more appealing to a wider range of visitors, but also enhances the quality of life for existing residents. 

“Beyond skiing, you can ride fat bikes on groomed trails, go horseback riding, ice fishing, dog sledding and even learn to drive in icy conditions. As always, relaxing in hot springs is a unique winter experience,” commented Laura Soard, Marketing Director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. 

Support for Local Restaurants

When it comes to what SKI Magazine calls “Down Day Activities,” dining and retail shopping are two important elements in the mix. Many restaurants that were able to offer outdoor seating this summer will transition to a greater share of take-out and delivery meals this winter. Indeed, it is likely that winter visitors will want to “dine out,” but do so more safely at their condo or hotel suite. 

With the shift to delivery, restaurants are absorbing the fees that third-party delivery apps charge to deliver the meals to customers. One way to address this increased cost is a new restaurant grant program from the City of Boulder. The city is using a portion of the federal CARES funding to pay the restaurant portion of third-party delivery fees, which will allow restaurants to retain more of the profit on the sale of delivery meals. 

“Communities lose vibrancy, character and precious tax revenues when restaurants close down. Everyone loses,” said Sean Maher, CEO of RRC Associates. “This program will help struggling small businesses survive during the winter season, when outdoor dining is limited, and customers are nervous about eating inside.” 

New cases of COVID-19 across western U.S. mountain destinations.

Non-Downhill Outdoor Activities

When ski resorts shut down in mid-March, backcountry skiing and touring quickly became a popular alternative activity. That popularity is expected to continue this winter, given the sales figures for backcountry gear of all kinds. 

“We’ve seen some big orders this fall from retailers, especially for our lower price-point products,” noted Bruce Edgerly, vice-president and co-founder of Backcountry Access. “Other retailers have moved up their pre-season order ship dates. Given this high demand for snow safety equipment, it’s likely we’ll see some new participants and greater overall usage in the backcountry this season.”

Other on-snow activities are likely to be popular as well, especially among non-skiers. If the surge in interest for hiking and biking this summer is any indication, then tubing, Nordic skiing, ice skating, fat biking and snowshoeing will likely be in high demand. 

“At both ski areas and elsewhere, we anticipate an enormous interest in getting outside this winter. The dual challenge of pent-up ‘cabin fever’ during COVID and an ongoing recession, will make lower-cost options like sledding and snowtubing an incredibly popular and affordable option,” said Dave Byrd, Director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs at National Ski Areas Association.

Communication and safety

For all of these activities, it will be important to communicate not only their availability, but also the rules and limitations on certain trails to keep all users safe, particularly newcomers to winter outdoor recreational activities. Communication about current health orders, trail closures or modifications to trail usage will all be essential topics to push out to the public this winter. 

Resort apps and social media are great ways to push messages to visitors in town. Additionally, emails and websites are proven communication technologies that resort visitors are accustomed to using to get information 

“Articles in local media and local radio/TV are key outlets for communicating with visitors and locals alike,”Byrd said. “For example, in terms of guests looking to go sledding on their own, enhanced signage, clear rules of when/where sledding or tubing is allowed, and security policing areas like golf courses, parks and easy-access hillsides will be important to keeping our visitors safe.”

Preparing for Resilience

Fostering the diversity of the resort economy, working to support local businesses, keeping visitors informed and safe, and evolving into a complete destination are long-term evolutionary trends in mountain communities. In the current COVID environment, communities that work together, think creatively, and react quickly will have greater resilience and a better chance for continued success.

ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

Lessons to Date: Legacies around the corner

Declines in taxable lodging sales across western U.S. mountain destinations.
About ACRA

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is a destination management organization focusing our work in sustainable tourism around dispersion, education and communication. As stewards of the destination,and as members of the local community, the ACRA destination management work is mindful, focused on generating harmony between quality of life for the resident and maintaining economic vitality to ultimately create an environment for Aspen to thrive. To learn more visit aspenchamber.org/about/data-center/reports-surveys/2020-tourism-outlook.

With the 2020 election behind us and winter season just around the corner, it’s time to turn our attention toward the future and how it will impact those of us who live and work in mountain resort communities. Using Insights Collective think tank and lodging tax data, we’ll recap evidence to date, then summarize our current thinking about the key factors upon which 2021 will depend. 

COVID-19 pandemic: A new reality? Now significantly worse that originally modelled, cases are at an all-time high — nearly 125,000 new cases per day in the U.S. at press time. And with flu and holiday season upon us, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx both predict the worst is yet to come and will extend well into 2021 until the forthcoming vaccine reaches a worldwide critical mass. Until then, and certainly for winter 2020-21, pandemic protocol management is the likely new reality for some time to come.

Resulting Economics: COVID vs. the Fed? The COVID-19 pandemic is the economic driver and federal intervention is the offset, but results vary widely and favor many mountain resort communities with more rural, outdoor activities and established drive markets. But among residents and visitors, anecdotal data suggests negative impacts to be greater for the service industry workforce, and less for boomers/retirees whose assets are largely in the market and home ownership, both of which are holding up well. 

Geo-Political Considerations: a post-election shift? The election is finally over, notwithstanding a long tail of legal challenges and early 2024 positioning. But at press time, it is uncertain that a clear mandate will substantially change the disparity and polarization of a deeply divided nation. 

“To a remarkable degree, this traumatic election year (pandemic economics, etc. ) has not really changed the political divide of the political contour in America since 2016,” observed Gerald Seib, political analyst for Wall Street Journal.

New cases of COVID-19 across western U.S. mountain destinations.


Mountain Tourism 2020-21: Lodging reservation activity is the best indicator of destination tourism, having done better than feared in many mountain towns, but varied widely (see graphic. Our Insights Collective think tank, along with some of our national affiliates, offer some brief insights:

  •  ”While the broader travel industry has been hurt more than many market segments, the hardest hit are international; meetings and conferences; larger leisure groups, sporting, and special events.  None of these are likely to rebound soon or contribute much to winter ‘20-’21.” — Barb Taylor Carpender, Taylored Alliances
  • “Guests are seeking travel assurance in record numbers — up 40% year to date — and producing better summer business that had been anticipated as they do. And, looking forward, the trend is continuing; with warm weather coastal resorts booking more strongly than winter/mountain resorts, where winter weather and complicated ski area operational considerations may be contributing to slower booking patterns to date.” —  Laird Sager, CEO of Red Sky Travel Insurance, whose customers include both travelers and rental property owners around the U.S. and Hawaii.
  • “The initial wave of bookings that resulted from the release of operational plans by the big ski companies has waned,  and consumers have reverted to booking patterns akin to late summer, with short booking lead times and a “coast is clear” approach. The result is a mixed bag, with strong arrivals for now through December, but only modest activity beyond that.” — Tom Foley, Inntopia/DestiMetrics and The Insights Collective
  • There appears to be a (COVID-induced) shift in lodging preferences. Guests are showing preference for larger, stand-alone vacation rental lodging over more dense condominium rentals and traditional full-service hotels, whose usually attractive amenities and services are often being limited by COVID protocols.” — Kellen Kruse, Air DNA
  • “Just as the lodging data is a proxy for the destination guest,  we can similarly see that retail sales data indicates that local business and day traffic is rebounding more rapidly. For example, Vail’s taxable lodging sales are down almost 54%, while other taxable sales are only down 16%.” — Susan Rubin-Stewart, customer contact consultant and analyst for the Insights Collective

So while the vote’s in from a political perspective, it’s still, “too early to predict” mountain tourism ‘20-’21 and will depend largely on how we, together, manage the pandemic and adjust to the changing economic landscape. Charles Darwin’s statement about “survival of the fittest” is well suited to the pandemic, but his subsequent amendment to “the most adaptive” is the statement that best suits the broader situation and determines the winners and losers going forward.  So, stay tuned — we’ll be tracking the trends, working the data, and sharing our ongoing insights on a weekly basis.

ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com

Vacations shift into longer, seasonal stays and relocation

In addition to new residents purchasing real estate, about one-quarter of existing second homeowners are changing the way they use their second homes.
About ACRA

The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is a destination management organization focusing our work in sustainable tourism around dispersion, education and communication. As stewards of the destination,and as members of the local community, the ACRA destination management work is mindful, focused on generating harmony between quality of life for the resident and maintaining economic vitality to ultimately create an environment for Aspen to thrive. To learn more visit aspenchamber.org/about/data-center/reports-surveys/2020-tourism-outlook.

The pandemic has accelerated the exodus from dense, crowded urban areas to remote, unpopulated resort areas. This in-migration is traced back to the perception of personal safety that can be obtained by living in uncrowded, unspoiled destinations. 

A Pew Research study conducted in June noted roughly one in five Americans either have relocated due to the pandemic or know someone who has. The study further found that among U.S. adults who moved due to the pandemic, 28 percent say the most important reason was to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.  

As people relocate to mountain towns across the West, leisure activities that were previously experienced during typical vacation periods are now pursued daily. Research on physical activity has shown that when people live close to trails and greenspace, they tend to be more physically active and thus healthier.

Workers remain virtual

Accelerating the trend are work-from-home policies and a work-from-anywhere culture amplified by the technology industry. These same work from home opportunities are concurrently being offered by many school districts, making the ability to relocate easier.  

“Taken together, these factors are creating both challenges associated with more full-time resident infrastructure, particularly housing, and prospective benefits including flattening peak holiday and school break periods when resorts are historically constrained, and filling in low-demand periods when resort resources are often underutilized,” said Ralf Garrison, Insights Collective founder and strategist. “With prospective Covid capacity constraints this winter, this could help resort communities better balance visitor supply-and-demand to the benefit of all.”

Many tech companies have expanded their work from home policies to now run through the beginning of 2021 and in a growing number of instances those policies will have no expiration date. Microsoft, in the most high-profile example yet, will allow its employees to work from home permanently. The benefits to the corporation are numerous in terms of lower overhead expenses. And so long as the work is getting done, workers — many of whom are high-income — will relocate. 

”This trend has the potential to change local culture and economics with a community,” said Carl Ribaudo, president of SMG Consulting and an Insights Collective member. “Imagine the in-migration of additional residents and the impact of dining, shopping, recreation use, voting and the overall culture of a destination.”

New Covid cases across western U.S. resort destinations.

Real estate growth — the good and the bad

The real estate market is growing very quickly, and with that growth comes the associated purchases needed to stock the home with essentials. Data provided by the Colorado Association of REALTORS confirms the growth in Summit County. In September, 111 single-family home listings sold, a 94.7 percent increase from the 57 sold listings in September 2019. The average sales price increased 23.5 percent to $1,706,149.

This real estate growth leads to a problematic lack of affordable housing. In-migration represents increased demand on housing supplies, which pushes prices upward. To those new arrivals, the price represents a decrease from their urban real-estate market — they don’t feel like they are paying a premium, they feel like they are getting a bargain.  

“Some mountain town second homeowners are using their units personally, taking them out of the rental pool. For short-term rentals, the contraction of inventory will result in transient visitors having fewer options to choose from. This dynamic is especially challenging given the preference that mountain travelers have expressed for rent-by-owner lodging over hotels during COVID,” Dave Belin, Director of Consulting Services at RRC Associates and Insights Collective member. “Similarly, long-term rentals that would normally house employees are also being taken off the market, further straining the availability and affordability of worker housing.”

Once a local, always a local?

These new full-time residents don’t think of themselves as outsiders. Many of them have been vacationing here for many years – either as second-home owners or as frequent skiers. They already feel as if they are part of the fabric of the community – and they are. The best we can do is to welcome them and cherish their contributions. We weren’t the last to settle here, and neither will they.  

“There is already beginning to show some decline in the number of people that are buying resort real estate at absurd prices,” Garrison said. “As people leave their New York and Chicago condo-doorman lifestyles for this perception of a new reality, how’s it really going to play out with a winter of snow shoveling and this perceived lifestyle? Where will they be next year?”

ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

Survey reveals ski resort visitors’ top concerns for upcoming winter

A study showing the COVID-related sentiment of visitors to mountain resort destinations for the upcoming winter.
ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

The intention to ski and snowboard this winter is strong, season pass purchase is up nationally, and skiers are planning for a socially-distanced, face-covered winter at mountain resorts, with some adjustments to their typical behavior. 

These topics and more were part of a comprehensive national survey that RRC Associates conducted with skiers and snowboarders in September of 2020. The survey received over 20,000 responses from all corners of the U.S. and provides unique insight to what skiers and snowboarders are expecting for the 2020/21 season. 

The results of the survey give local leaders and resort staff critical information about what visitors, locals, and second homeowners are thinking about in terms of safety, adjustments, concerns and behaviors for this winter. 

“Understanding what our visitors are thinking before they get to our resorts is critical,” said Kelly Pawlak, President and CEO of National Ski Areas Association. “This information is another helpful tool we will use to open the winter season with the safety of our staff and guests front and center.”

Visitor concerns

The survey showed that one of the biggest concerns of both visitors and locals alike is whether ski resorts will be able to stay open all winter. People are worried about a situation like the one in March, when resorts were forced to close abruptly. About two-thirds of visitors and locals indicated that they were concerned about Coronavirus-related closures of ski areas. Resorts have been making preparations to address that issue, but maintaining focus on staying open all winter will be critical.

“At our resort we are meeting daily and sometimes multiple times a day internally to stay aware of trends and changes in the way this pandemic is behaving regionally,” said Nick Polumbus, Director of Marketing and Sales at Whitefish Mountain Resort. “We know that it will take constant attention to trends as well as our own protocols and procedures to keep the virus in check and the lifts spinning.”

Other concerns among local residents are whether guests follow health and safety protocols, the overall health and safety of the community, and visitors from major cities/hot spots. Additionally, locals are focused on the potential impact of COVID-19 on the local economy. These legitimate concerns among local residents are important for local leaders to monitor and communicate with community members. 

Adjusting behaviors

In terms of skier behavior at the mountain this winter, survey results show that most snowsports enthusiasts are already planning to wear a face covering around the base area and while riding lifts, to make an online appointment to rent equipment, and to eat lunch at their car or outside. The survey also revealed they are generally OK with longer lift lines due to unrelated parties not riding together on chairlifts. Knowing what the guests know ahead of time gives ski areas a head start on guest education and safety. 

“Skiers and riders continue to show that they’ll do what it takes to get out on the hill. I am encouraged by the willingness of skiers/riders to wear masks and socially distance. This level of flexibility and resilience among snowsports enthusiasts is impressive, even during a pandemic,” said Jesse True from the Insights Collective.

Skiing midweek will be more common, with nearly half of survey respondents saying they are more likely to ski midweek this winter. Increases in midweek skiing will contribute to spreading skier visits out across the week and could alleviate some weekend crowding, a significant concern for resort operators. On the other hand, carpooling will be somewhat less popular and could therefore strain resort parking infrastructure. 

Most downhill skiers do not plan on changing their behavior when it comes to enrolling children in midweek ski lessons (rather than weekends), participation in half-day ski lessons (rather than full-day lessons), or partaking in off-mountain activities like snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, and snowmobiling, Nevertheless, about 1/4 of survey respondents are more likely to take part in off-mountain activities, and resort areas can help to show visitors how to access and safely participate in those alternate activities. 

“Resorts and resort towns will need to have plans in place to accommodate this additional demand for alternate activities and to manage capacity appropriately,” said Barb Carpenter, of the Insights Collective. “Communication with visitors about the availability and safety of alternate activities will be key to ensuring a good guest experience.”

Since comfort with dispersed outdoor recreation like ice skating and Nordic skiing is incredibly high, demand for these activities – beyond that from the downhill skiers and snowboarders represented in the survey – is anticipated to be elevated this winter. 

Preparing for a different ski season ahead

New COVID cases across western mountain resort destinations.

Communication with visitors will have to be accurate, nimble and frequent. Fortunately, skiers are very receptive to opting-in to receive text message updates from resorts. Email and resort or town apps are also good ways to communicate information to visitors. Towns and ski areas should be planning to use these methods to communicate with visitors this winter.

“This continual use of technology to manage the visitor experience in an effort to provide a seamless experience will become a standard going forward for destinations,” said Carl Ribaudo, President of SMG Consulting and a member of the Insights Collective.

The majority of second homeowners are not anticipating changing the way they normally use their second homes this winter. However, about one in five ski area second homeowners said they would plan to use their home more for themselves or for friends/family, rather than renting it out, which could have implications for the short-term rental inventory in some resort towns. Indeed, skiers responded in the survey that they are more comfortable with rent-by-owner lodging than with a traditional hotel, for a variety of reasons, including safety, cleanliness and the ability to make and eat meals more easily. 

These national-level survey results might play out somewhat differently in specific resort towns across the U.S.; however, the results indicate that ski area and town leaders should anticipate a positive, though different, ski season than the past, and that safety, cleanliness, communication, and flexibility will be critical to that success.

Should tourism return to “normal?”

This peak demand pattern is typical for several mountain destinations throughout the West.
Source: INNTOPIA for use by Insights Collective

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank composed of tourism industry experts from across the country with a combined 250 years of experience. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

Remember the fondness one had for 2019 and the previous decade when tourism experienced some of the most significant travel spending increases?

Tourism industry revenues grew with hotels sprouting and new restaurant concepts at every turn. Consumers were absorbing price increases without much complaint, and municipalities enjoyed strong transient occupancy and sales tax growth. If only this virus could be tamed, and things could return to what was once familiar.

While many destinations across the West would love to see a return to that time, a more profound and more fundamental question needs to be considered: Should tourism return to normal? The COVID-19 crisis has given the tourism industry, municipalities, and residents a needed pause to consider that question and, if necessary, consider a different future.

“It could be a perfect time for destination marketing organizations to assess their future and what role they play moving forward,” said Brian London, CEO of London Tourism Publications, and an Insights Collective member.

A New Trend Emerges

Even before COVID changed the landscape, the tourism industry struggled to grapple with significant systematic marketplace changes including “overtourism” and the impacts of climate change. These issues have  only been exacerbated by COVID-19, causing all involved to consider the best way forward.

Pre-COVID, tourism destinations and destination marketing organizations such as chambers of commerce and the like, were on near autopilot — growth in visitor volume, travel spending and tax collections had reached a level of near predictability. The lodging industry had experienced consistent growth in both average daily revenue and revenue per available room (RevPAR). Attractions had seen consistent growth, and municipalities even enjoyed consistent and growing tax collections that had become ever more critical to their general fund budgets.

“The industry had seen incredible success since the 2008 recession and was poised to continue before COVID significantly impacted travel and tourism,”  added Susan Rubin-Stewart Customer insight expert at SRS Consulting and also a member of the Insights Collective.

Overtourism

But like all trends, there is always an unintended consequence that few, if any, in the industry could see or wanted to see. This growth in visitor volume and travel spending led to peak visitation, also known as overtourism, in each significant destination. 

Overtourism brought forward a host of issues that impacted the destination and the local community. The data provided by INNTOPIA (see graphic) is representative of many destinations throughout the West. This chart shows consistent occupancy above 90% and, at times, close to 100%. 

The problems associated with this demand level vary from alienating residents to overloading infrastructure and the natural environment. Below is a summary of the issues:

Alienated residentsResidents often voice various concerns, including traffic congestions, rising rents, over-crowded access to recreation, thus impacting their quality of life.  
Impacted infrastructureThe visitors’ infrastructure is often the same as residents; thus, visitation adds to wear and tear to the community. Bike trails, recreation activities, and attractions are all impacted. Often these impacts are not calculated into fees and taxes that visitors pay.
Impacted and potential damage to the environmentPerhaps one of the biggest concerns is the potential damage to the local environment. Parking is often full, but potential visitors are not informed until they arrive, creating additional travel and vehicle miles traveled, further impacting air quality and additional cars on the road. 
Impacts on local cultureWhenever there are significant increases in visitor volume, there are impacts on the community’s local culture. Residents develop a specific flow of life-based on the local culture. They develop patterns and rhythms, when they shop, where and when they recreate, how they take care of the place, etc. Increased volumes of visitors can wreak havoc with local community culture creating negative perceptions to visitors. 

An opportunity to rethink the future

New COVID cases across western mountain resort destinations.

These issues combined have led in many destinations to the “rise of the resident,” who has morphed into a political force and wanting a say in tourism policy. 

Many destinations are becoming more supportive in implementing sustainable programs, effectively trying to manage tourism better. While important, these efforts fail to consider the more fundamental visitor volume issue, available destination capacity and pricing. 

“The destination, including the tourism industry, local government and residents, will need to reconcile how many visitors their destination can effectively handle AND get the desired behavior once visitors arrive,” according to Ralf Garrison, Insights Collective founder.

The current situation presents a unique moment-in-time for destinations: Stay the course or pivot in a new direction? 

The Insights Collective recommends destinations resist the inclination to confuse the COVID-19 situation specifically with the underlying forces of change that were already present before the pandemic, but consider it an opportunity to rethink the future. 

Carl Ribaudo is a tourism industry thought leader, consultant, speaker and writer who lives in South Lake Tahoe. He can be reached at carl@smgonline.net.

Welcoming visitors while keeping communities safe

Tracking the Great Recession recovery in mountain destinations: Monthly 12-month moving average, Revenue Per Available Room (RevPAR) versus RevPAR at the time of the Bearn Stearns collapse in March 2008.
ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. For more information, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

Residents, not visitors, are the ultimate customers of destination marketing organizations, which is why it’s important that tourism address the needs of residents first. 

Resident sentiment can determine a destination’s ability to bounce back from the pandemic-recession. It’s hard to see a best-case recovery scenario without support for visitors from the resident population. 

“Residents matter. A critical aspect of COVID-19 management is communicating to residents how the tourism industry is working to implement management practices that will keep them, as well as visitors, safe,” said Ralf Garrison, founder of the Insights Collective, a pandemic economy think tank.

Given the wave of financial hardship that is hitting many destinations, the idea of complaining about visitor behavior may seem extremely out-of-touch. Everywhere you look in the tourism sector – hotel occupancy, airline traffic, cruise ships that can’t even leave port – declines of more than 90 percent forced organizations of all shapes and sizes to take drastic steps to survive. 

In these conditions, who wouldn’t trade an empty downtown for one bustling with visitors, even if they behaved a little impolitely?

Scrutiny of visitor behaviors

Open destinations are facing a growing backlash to tourism rather than appreciation that it continues to bring in revenue. If anything, visitors are being held to an even higher standard than normal. 

In Colorado, White River National Forest Public Information Officer David Boyd reported heavier use of trails in the region has led to more litter. 

Around Lake Tahoe, residents staged a series of rallies in five different locations to protest tourism-related issues. A historic heat wave recently sent visitors flowing into the destination, which is one of relatively few in the area that has remained open for business. A surge in travel that should have been spread out across the region was instead concentrated in places like Tahoe, resulting in packed stores, slowed traffic, and trash that overflowed from containers. 

The protests began with online complaints and pictures of trash sites, but they ended up drawing several hundred people to greet tourists on their way in and out of town with signs and demands for better behavior. 

Another protest took the form of a petition calling on tourism officials in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to redirect marketing funds toward cleaning up after visitors. 

This is one of the underappreciated impacts of the pandemic – the presence of other people has gone from an inconvenience at worst to a potential threat to public health. And as tourism slowly resumes, this scrutiny of visitors will only increase. 

“I think we are seeing a “rise of residents’ and their involvement in the tourism industry within the destination because they have grown weary of the impacts. They want a voice,” said Carl Ribaudo, president and chief strategist of SMG consulting.

New COVID cases across western mountain resort destinations.

Health vs. quality of life vs. the economy

The danger of this trend is that we are increasingly left with two kinds of destinations for the next several months: places that can’t accept visitors for health reasons and places that don’t want any more visitors for quality-of-life reasons. That dynamic will only complicate an already slow climb back to a healthy level of tourism for everyone. 

“Mountain travel had a long, 70-month revenue recovery from the Great Recession, driven by a dramatic economic downturn.  All things being equal, we could expect the same as we travel along a Covid continuum. But things are not equal; the recent economic slowdown is a symptom of the Covid-19 pandemic, not a cause,” said Tom Foley, senior vice president of Analytics at Inntopia, a resort marketing and ecommerce platform. “While we fully expect economic recovery to be measured with a calendar, not a watch, until the pandemic is controlled and the long-term economic damage is fully understood, we can only guess as to whether recovery for the destination travel industry will be shorter or longer than last time around.” 

The Insights Collective recommends informing visitors of the impact litter can have on the natural environment through signage and educational outreach. Working with city officials to ensure trash receptacles are available for use is also a good idea.   

Visitors are guests in our communities. It’s appropriate to hold them accountable for their behavior to ensure they follow basic social responsibilities (and the law) by not leaving trash everywhere, or that they follow health and safety protocols. 

Remember, a place in which we’d want to live is also going to be a place in which others will want to visit.   

Creating positive wins for mountain destination marketers

This chart shows the average length of stay for visitors by arrival day of the week at western mountain resort destinations for September 2020 and September 2019, as well as the difference in nights between the two years.
This chart shows the average length of stay for visitors by arrival day of the week at western mountain resort destinations for September 2020 and September 2019, as well as the difference in nights between the two years.
ABOUT INSIGHTS COLLECTIVE

The Insights Collective is a pandemic economy think tank, established as a platform for the exchange of information, best practices, collective wisdom and the application of scientific evidence where available. Founded by Ralf Garrison, the Insights Collective’s objective is to leverage its resources to provide insights and actionable recommendations to public and private sector decision makers in leisure travel destinations. 

The Insights Collective is composed of the following tourism industry experts, with a combined 250 years of experience:

Ralf Garrison, Advisory Group
Chris Cares, RRC & Associates
Tom Foley, Inntopia
Carl Ribaudo, SMG Consulting
Brian London, London Tourism Publications
Jesse True, True Mountain Consulting
Susan Rubin-Steward, SRS Consulting
Barb Taylor Carpender, leisure travel specialist
Jane Babilon, leisure travel specialist.

For more information on the Insights Collective, visit www.theinsightscollective.com.

For decades, as weekends have reached maximum practical capacity, mountain destination marketers have been looking for ways to spread visitation across midweek and lengthen stay duration, what one calls “the holy grail” of travel consumer patterns. 

And now, with consumer behavior shifting both by economic circumstance and emotion, that holy grail is edging nearer at an increasingly faster rate with each passing month. 

Monitoring booking behavior at some 1,700 of Inntopia partner properties primarily across mountain destination resorts, the two trends of the holy grail — midweek and longer off-peak stays — are emerging organically as consumers adjust to the new realities of more flexible work or school schedules, while also looking to uncrowd their travel experience.

Length of stay at mountain community lodging properties began to increase in earnest in June, with the average reservation arriving in that month staying 0.14 nights longer. While that number may not sound like much to the non-lodging operator, it’s an extra 1.4 nights of revenue for every 10 nights booked when applied over time; real numbers that add up. 

And, though occupancy across those properties in June was down 57% year-over-year, the boost in the average length of stay in that month was the first hint that the market was changing. 

EXTENDING THE WEEKEND

The June trend has increased in each subsequent month as consumers find new ways to take advantage of time and space, and marketers recognize the opportunity. 

Length of stay was up:

  • 0.23 nights in July (an extra 2.3 nights for every 10).
  • 0.29 nights in August (an extra 2.9 nights for every 10). 
  • 0.33 nights in September (an extra 3.3 nights for every 10). 

Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, said that Covid-19 “creates potential for mountain communities to drive mid-week business as schools around the country are under remote learning and many businesses across the country experience remote working.” 

Look more closely at the data by day-of-week, and it becomes clear that the varying changes in length of stay are reflecting changing attitudes toward not only what a weekend or weekday is, but whether or not a crowd is desirable as part of a vacation. 

Here’s a look at length of stay increases for stays based on the guests’ arrival day: 

  • Mondays, up 1.37 nights.
  • Sundays, up 0.72 nights.
  • Tuesdays, up 0.6 nights.
  • Saturdays, up 0.45 nights. 

A NEW PACE FOR VISITORS

Eliza Voss, director of marketing at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, is seeing the change and is planning for peaks and valleys to level a bit as a result. 

“Typically, in a fall season we see peaks on weekends, driven by weddings and a typical work/school-week pattern. This fall, with the flexibility provided by both remote work and school, we are anticipating more of a steady stream across the week,” she said.

The shift doesn’t end there. Bookings scheduled to arrive on Wednesdays and Thursdays are each experiencing sharp declines in length of stay, with Wednesday arrivals for September 2020 typically staying 2.44 nights this year, down from 2.8 last year, while Thursday arrivals are only staying 1.84 nights, down from 2.47 in 2019. 

These developments actually wind up taking the heretofore desirable peak night of Saturday out of play for those guests. Whether this is a reflection of consumers looking for an uncrowded experience or a lower room rate — a possibility as a result of some of the broader economic pressures on consumers — is not entirely clear just yet. But, according to Voss and Romer, it’s a long-sought desired state. 

“Though the circumstances created by Covid 19 are out of our control, it’s actually dispersing the guest into a pattern we have long hoped to achieve,” Voss said, “by spreading out the visitation pattern and allowing guests to experience destinations on off-peak days and at their own pace.”

New COVID cases across Western mountain resort destinations.
New COVID cases across Western mountain resort destinations.

A SPOT OF BRIGHTNESS

This conversation is a lot broader than just lodging properties. Real changes in which days of the week consumers wish to travel to mountain communities, and their length of stay, will have real operational and fiscal consequences within the greater community if those changes are sustained.   

Other service providers will have to look at historic staffing and systems protocols and adjust them accordingly to take advantage of the revenue opportunity. And at the jurisdictional level, there are considerations such as modified parking restrictions, transportation services, and health and safety services like police, fire, and sanitation.

With strong room rates coming out of summer, and now a lengthening of stays, the opportunity to mitigate revenue, and therefore tax, losses is one the industry will gladly embrace. And the chance to make a long hoped-for shift toward midweek and non-peak stays is a spot of brightness in challenging times that destination marketing organizations can build on.  

“Creative packages and messaging to position our communities and properties as welcoming and accessible to these markets is an opportunity moving forward,” Romer said.

Tom Foley is the senior vice president of Analytics at Inntopia, a leader in travel technology, marketing and research.