By Dr. Cindy Heo
Insights from a recent research project that analyzes the post-pandemic emotional triggers behind making travel decisions. The findings highlight how people today are deciding to travel due to a desire to make human connections, find a sense of belonging, create lasting memories and undertake affordable sustainable actions. These new values of travel are opening up important opportunities for hoteliers and DMOs to create innovative and engaging offers based on quality rather than quantity of travel demand. In brief, new opportunities for tourism abound thanks to very personal, human triggers.
Impact of Covid-19 on personal life and travel
By the end of 2022, international tourism had reached about 65% of pre-pandemic levels and today continues to bounce back from the health crisis. UNWTO reported that Europe is leading the rebound of international tourism and hit 81% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022. According to Switzerland Tourism, overnight hotel stays may return to 95% of their 2019 level in 2023.
Although we can be optimistic about global tourism in 2023, the economic downturn, Russia-Ukraine war, rising energy costs and staff shortages and retention can still delay recovery. In particular, financial considerations caused by the rising cost of living around the world can be a significant factor impacting on travel demand.
While global tourism and hospitality sectors are on the mend, we should look beyond the numbers for hospitality industry to become more resilient. The pandemic was not only a globally shared experience but also a personally stressful event. A new research project has focused on how such a global catastrophic event can affect an person’s outlook on life, and consequently, their views on the ultimate value of travel and travel motivation.
Emotional triggers in making travel decisions
The research project explored how COVID 19 has changed the ultimate value of travel by using a Means-End Chain (MEC) approach. Traditional surveying techniques to understand peoples’ travel motivation and decision processes often focus on basic attributes, but fail to explore deeper into the person’s mind to determine the emotional triggers that drive their decisions.
Meanwhile, the MEC approach is concerned about how the abstract level of values and motives offer the ultimate reasons for pursuing a course of action, and thus constitute the why of behaviour. Indeed, many decisions are made emotionally and subconsciously. Therefore, MEC is a useful approach to uncover the underlying emotions, consequences (or benefits), and personal values that drive the decision making process.
The research data was qualitatively collected through in-depth interviews in Switzerland using the laddering technique. Respondents were asked to identify the key attributes of travel destinations that are crucial to them and then to reflect why each identified attribute is essential, identifying their perceived benefits. The result is a value chain connecting the attribute of tourism destination to its functional benefit, to the emotional benefit, and finally, to the underlying personal value.
Functional and emotional benefits of travel
The project findings indicate that the pandemic did not fundamentally change the major attributes that affect tourism destination choice (i.e., natural scenery and culture) and an ultimate value of travel (i.e., life enrichment). Learning was addressed as a key functional benefit of travel, whereas experience was stated as the most important emotional benefit of travel.
However, the research sees family and friends as a destination attribute and the sense of belonging as an ultimate value of travel becoming more important after the pandemic. In addition, the functional and emotional benefits of travel have been diversified, and self-development as an ultimate value of travel became salient.
Another interesting finding is that sustainability was addressed as an emotional benefit of travel and universalism appeared as an underlying personal value when respondents decide upon their travel destination. While sustainability was not addressed as a key factor for choosing destination before COVID-19, it appears as one of the emotional benefits of destination choice, which links to the universalism.
The movement restrictions and feelings of social disconnectedness experienced during the pandemic might offer a chance for people to appreciate the value of relationships with others. Moreover, as Switzerland lies in the heart of Europe, the pandemic might have helped people realize the importance of collaboration and collective action.
Important opportunities for hoteliers and Destination Management Organizations
As travel becomes more expensive in 2023, people will seek more authentic and unique travel experiences worth spending money on. Also, people will still travel to see family and friends, and to feel a sense of belonging. Destination management organizations and hoteliers may highlight their offers as an opportunity to create lasting memories with family. When prompting their offers, the use of an image with happy family smiles can be more effective than an image of an unoccupied hotel room or empty beach.
Sustainability that impacts the customer experience can be another driving force. However, although most consumers express positive attitudes toward sustainable offerings, they often seem unwilling to follow through with their wallets. To overcome the sustainability paradox, tourism and hospitality practitioners should design sustainable initiatives to be fun, engaging and beneficial to tourists.
Adopting gamification, communicating the measurable impact of tourists’ sustainable behavior, and offering incentives to encourage sustainable habits may help develop more sustainable tourist engagement and improve brand image. Lastly, encourage your customers to boast about the outcomes of their sustainable endeavors to their Instagram and TikTok followers.
For the travel and hospitality industry, 2023 should be the year of transformation. Tourism and hospitality practitioners should focus on the quality of demand rather than the quantity of demand. Hoteliers should not focus on increasing room occupancy but on developing new experience offers that can maximize Total Revenue per Occupied Room (TRevPOR) and Gross Operating Profit per Available Room (GopPAR).