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Travel trends: Easing friction to help travelers create lasting memories… with your brand

Englash Sharpe, Lauren Sutherland

The last 12 months have been rough for the travel industry.

After numerous complaints, the airline industry is responding to questions from both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Issues include lack of transparency around “Booking award tickets, the devaluation of miles over time, the transferability of points and miles, and the nature of notice given to customers when making changes to the program,” including for co-branded credit card holders. Notably, this comes after SkyMiles member outrage forced Delta to roll back some sweeping changes it announced this past September. Also, the Department of Transportation recently expanded passenger rights by standardizing rules around how airlines issue refunds for delayed or cancelled services.

This turmoil isn’t isolated to airlines alone. Fraud and data security continue to be a challenge for hotels and resorts. Omni Hotels & Resorts suffered a cyberattack in March, and MGM Resorts and Ceasars Entertainment experienced cyberattacks in 2023.

However, travel intent is still strong, and many analysts predict an especially busy summer season ahead. According to International Media Group, 85% of consumers have at least one domestic trip planned in 2024, and 49% have more than three trips planned. Overall, for 2024, eMarketer predicts revenue growth to increase by 12% for airlines, 11% for cruises, 8% for hotels, and 7% for short-term rentals.

We see three primary trends happening industrywide with travelers and brands: prioritizing events over location as motivation behind travel changes, increasing the role of inspiration as consumers spend more time planning their next travel experience, and improving the booking experience as brands reduce booking friction to increase traveler satisfaction, conversion, and loyalty.

Events and once-in-a-lifetime experiences drive trip planning

Travelers want unique experiences and shared memories. According to an Expedia Media Group report, 24% of travelers are initially inspired to take a trip because of a specific event or celebration. Mintel reports that over 80% of Gen Z and Millennials are planning an event-based trip in the next 12 months.

Delta Air Lines recently sold tickets for two (initially it was just one) flights, “chasing” the solar eclipse. The flights left Austin, Texas, at 12:15 p.m. when the eclipse officially started and followed the path of totality before landing in Detroit, Michigan, at 4:20 p.m. This allowed passengers to experience totality for longer. Although they were regularly scheduled flights, Delta upsized the planes to Airbus A220s, which boast larger windows, to maximize passenger viewing. To address the inevitable FOMO for those who missed out on the path-of-totality-flights, Delta identified five additional flights that offered good viewing opportunities.

To promote global locations, Marriott is holding a sweepstakes for three travel packages to see the Taylor Swift Eras tour. Marriott Bonvoy members can enter for the chance to win a grand prize valued at $19,500: three separate four-day trips to see Swift perform in Vienna, Miami, and Toronto. The package includes round-trip airfare, hotel accommodations, and a pair of tickets to each show. The second prize is similar but only includes the final show in Vancouver. There are 248 additional chances for members to win two tickets to the remaining concerts and a welcome gift. The sweepstakes runs through October when the last entry period ends prior to the final show.

A lucky few Marriott Bonvoy members who have 500,000 points in their accounts can outright redeem those points on additional Eras Tours packages valued at $5,000 through Marriott Bonvoy’s Moments platform. In exchange, members receive a pair of tickets to the concert, a two-night stay, dinner at a Bonvoy-affiliated restaurant, spa treatment, and transportation to and from the concert venue.

Last football season, American Airlines flew routes from Chicago to State College for Penn State games, and from New York and Washington D.C. to South Bend for Notre Dame games. They also added additional routes from American hubs to these college towns. Additionally, American captured University of Texas college football fan loyalty through a sweepstakes around the annual rivalry with Alabama. As the official airline sponsor of the University of Texas Athletics, home to the Longhorns, American awarded a Longhorns versus Crimson Tide package valued at $5,400, which included round-trip air transportation, hotel accommodations, two game tickets, and $200 in spending money.

Expert tip: Don’t miss the chance to capitalize on FOMO. Connecting your brand to iconic and memorable experiences can create a positive association and garner a community of brand fans, increasing emotional loyalty to your brand.

Inspiration plays an increasing role in boosting brand awareness

Social media dominates trip inspiration. According to Expedia Group, travelers view on average 141 pages or 303 minutes of travel content in the 45 days leading up to booking a trip. Overall, the most used resources during these 45 days are Online Travel Agencies (80% of respondents use), search engines (61%), and social media (58%). The top three sources used during the inspiration phase at the beginning of the purchase journey are social media (78%), destination sites (48%), and search engines (40%).

Expedia also found that two-thirds of worldwide tourists considered visiting a place they saw on a show or move. Of those surveyed, 39% actually took those trips.  While “set-jetting” (also called “The White Lotus Effect”) is not new, being a warming trend since the end of pandemic lockdowns, increasing numbers of travelers are flocking to the sets and scenes of their favorite movies and tv shows. In Hawkins, Indiana (Jackson, Georgia, in real life), fans of hit Netflix series, “Stranger Things” can take a 90-minute “Ultimate Stranger Things Guided Walking Tour of Hawkins.” Netflix, trying to further capitalize on the popularity of one of its most popular shows, also created “Stranger Things: The Experience,” a travelling immersive exhibition, in partnership with Fever.

To stem the flow of tourists and address over-tourism, some cities now require “tourist taxes” to cover the cost of increased services. From travel sites to TikTok influencers, many are sharing “Destination Dupes”—alternative cities or locations that are similar in vibe to classic destinations, but lesser known, less crowded, and in some cases, less expensive. Examples of popular 2024 “dupes” include Taipei, Taiwan, instead of Seoul, South Korea (trending flight routes of +2,786%); Quebec City instead of Geneva, Switzerland (trending +60%); and Curaçao instead of St. Martin (trending +185%).

Hotel brands invest heavily in social media as part of their paid media strategy. Mintel found overall spend distribution varied greatly across brands for ad platforms beyond staples like Facebook and Instagram. And to no surprise, hotel loyalty online ad spending peaks ahead of the summer and winter travel seasons.

Choice Hotels uses paid media to increase brand awareness of its Comfort and Cambria brands and target Millennials and Gen Z. As part of a campaign with Jimmy Darts, known for his good-will giving of cash to strangers, Choice gave away two trips: one to Orlando, to a family that hadn’t traveled in nine years, and one to Austin, to a waitress who had never been on a plane. Both trips included a three-night stay and $7,500 to cover travel expenses.

Expert tip: Travel brands should act on the opportunity to play a larger role in trip inspiration. Get out in front of travelers before they book to keep your brand top of mind when the time comes to break out the wallet.

Travelers expect seamless and tailored planning and booking experiences

Travelers want booking flexibility and transparency, foremost when it comes to pricing and easy-to-use websites. For vacation rentals, positive previous experiences and travel ratings or reviews are more important when compared to other types of travel companies. For travel packages, trust is more important. Travelers also expect a personalized booking experience, such as (37% of respondents selected as a desired loyalty booking feature) and “suggestions based on previously booked trips” (selected by 35% of respondents).

Launched last year, PointsYeah is a new award discovery tool, comparable to or Seats.Aero. Offering “all-in-one points travel planning,” the engine can search 5 bank, 21 airline, 6 hotel, and 4 booking portal rewards programs to help travelers optimize their points for flight redemptions across multiple loyalty program memberships. While both a free and premium version of the service is offered, the free program stands out compared to competitors in this space because it includes more tools.

Points.Yeah users can search for available redemption opportunities by airport, number of passengers, cabin preferences, program preferences, and number of stops; search within a 4-day window by itinerary type including multiple cities or open jawed; and set the maximum number of points or taxes they are liable for and up to 4 alerts—all for free. Results are returned within 20 seconds (another differentiator), and the brand recently added the ability to search for available hotel room redemptions.

Marriott is piloting an AI-powered evolution of its “Renaissance Navigators” program, called RENAI by Renaissance. The virtual concierge service leverages ChatGPT and other reputable open-source outlets to provide curated suggestions for local restaurants, bars, entertainment, tours, and activities. Designated “Renaissance Navigators” or hotel associates help train the tool and vet all suggestions. Guests can simply scan a QR code to use the tool by SMS or WhatsApp and plan their trip ahead of time. Alternatively, guests can opt to meet with a Renaissance Navigator directly.

IHG has started applying “white glove service” to its digital channels with the intent to further bridge on-property and digital customer experiences. When customers engage with IHG on social platforms—to inquire about loyalty program terms, to ask for help with an existing stay, or to let IHG know about a poor experience— they can expect to receive a response within four minutes. This comes on the heels of improvements to IHG’s app booking experience as well. Members can now view past and future stays, save properties to a travel wish list, book trips in seconds, and personalize their stays before arrival—all on the app.

Expert tip: Travel brands should continually improve booking experiences. Frustration during times of high purchase intent can erode brand trust. Invest in the booking experience to reduce cart abandonment.

What this means for travel brands

The connecting theme among these three trends is getting prospective customers to the finish line in terms of planning and booking their trips. So many consumers want to take a trip, but getting over the barriers of where, what, and how can be daunting. Beyond simply converting travelers, brands should position themselves as trusted guides that help consumers get the most out of their trips with the least amount of hassle; it’s about instilling trust and a sense of reliability with travelers.

What are the key takeaways for your brand?

  1. Facilitate logistics planning and help travelers make the most of memorable events or experiences.
  2. Reach customers as they gather and review inspiration for upcoming travel.
  3. Improve booking experiences so they are seamless and easy to navigate.