Holiday forecast: Thanksgiving traffic on par with pre-pandemic levels despite inflation
Thanksgiving is a big travel holiday, but that doesn’t always equate to more business at ski resorts.
Skyler McKinley, the regional director of public affairs at AAA Colorado, said this year’s forecast is for a busy weekend on the roads and in the sky.
McKinley said, even with the higher cost of virtually everything, travel spending this year is at its highest point since the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means traffic levels are nearly on par with the record Thanksgiving weekend of 2019. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s holiday weekend data for traffic at the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnels is only as recent as 2017, but the average daily traffic in 2019 was 30,105 cars per day.
That average will almost surely be exceeded during the holiday weekend. The latest AAA forecast indicates that roughly 951,000 Colorado residents will travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving, a 2.8% increase over 2021.
Overall, AAA forecasts that about 54.6 million Americans will travel for the holiday, just below pre-pandemic levels.
“Thanksgiving travel is viewed as a right, not a privilege,” McKinley said. “Even if it costs a little more, we’re going.”
Gas costs a bit less
The good news, sort of, is that average gas prices in Colorado are lower than they were this time in 2021. Those prices are still about 60 cents per gallon higher than they were in 2019.
If you are going somewhere for the holiday, McKinley said the best time to travel is on Thanksgiving Day, when traffic is expected to be light. The day before the holiday is, as always, expected to be the busiest day for travel.
While Thanksgiving is a big travel holiday, that doesn’t necessarily equate to booming business on the slopes.
Tom Foley is the director of Business Intelligence at Inntopia. That firm’s Destimetrics division tracks lodging occupancy, rates, and other trends in resort markets.
He noted that lodging for the holiday is at, or near, 2019 levels. But, he added, that means local lodges will probably stay below 60% occupancy over the holiday weekend.
‘Organic’ crowd management
The good news, Foley said, is that changes in the industry, along with personal travel habits, means resort lodging is finally starting to see a long-sought trend: increased mid-week business.
That’s something the resort lodging industry has worked decades to achieve. But, he said, mid-week occupancy is starting to build more or less organically. That’s due to significantly higher weekend rates, combined with travelers having more flexibility, from remote work to changing school calendars.
He noted that higher weekend rates, combined with economic uncertainty, is also a form of crowd management. That’s particularly important when so many businesses are short of staff.
With short-staffed businesses, Foley said many lodging operators are keeping weekend rates high as a way to spread out scarce employee resources.
But, he added, Thanksgiving has never been a gangbusters lodging holiday.
“The perception of Thanksgiving is that it’s a hearth and home holiday,” he said, adding that a bustling Thanksgiving has long been thought of as “gravy” on a successful year.
While new restaurants enter the Aspen scene, there are several spaces that will remain empty this winter. Meanwhile, the retail market remains extremely hot.