By Richard Kocher
Expedia Group Media Solutions recently published the Travel Recovery Trend Report for Q4, which details many of the latest insights on the industry’s continued recovery from the pandemic, as identified in Expedia Group’s exclusive first-party data. Here, Richard Kocher, who leads Media Solutions’ data insights and planning team, gives his expert take on these latest findings for 2022 and beyond.
Experience is Everything
That is the thought-provoking message delivered by Ewan McGregor in Expedia’s recent high-profile Super Bowl ad. Having recently returned from a family ski trip in France—making memories with my children in the mountains under blue skies—I couldn’t agree more. We’ve accumulated plenty of stuff over the past two years, but like many we have been lacking that key element in creating memorable experiences: the opportunity to travel freely, when and where we want.
The findings from our Q4 2021 Travel Recovery Trends Report indicate a resilience in global travelers who continued to travel, particularly over the holiday period, despite the challenges posed by the Omicron variant. Early Q1 has also seen great momentum in search volume for both domestic and international travel. For example: global searches for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) destinations for January 2022 were almost 60% up over December and over 170% year-over-year. North American (NORAM), Latin America (LATAM), and Asia Pacific (APAC) destinations also saw strong Januarys: up year-over-year by around 50%, 80%, and more than 30%, respectively.
In combination, Q4 resilience and Q1 momentum and optimism for the year ahead both suggest that I am not alone in agreeing with the “experiences over stuff” message, and much of the world is ready for the memorable adventures only travel can provide.
Adapted for and Committed to Travel
While restrictions have limited travelers over the past two years, our data has shown that many have learned to live with COVID and continued creating experiences. Restrictions have only encouraged committed travelers to adapt: through domestic trips, seeking rural escapes, or swapping hotels for vacation rentals. They have also been inspired by and attracted to destinations open during the pandemic they might not have previously considered, foregoing those places they wanted to visit but which were closed to tourism.
Q4 was in many ways the epitome of this resilience. Despite the Omicron challenge, overall search volume remained flat quarter-over-quarter compared to Q3, and was up 70% year-over-year. In our Traveler Value Index research, we also heard that 81% are planning a leisure trip in the next six months, and 1 in 5 plan on taking three or more trips.
In our Q3 report, we saw how advanced holiday bookings were surging, with triple-digit year-over-year bookings for Thanksgiving and the Christmas period. Despite Omicron challenges, resilient travelers saw their advance holiday plans through and remained committed to travel. For example, Expedia Group cancellations were flat during Q4, and according to STR, Christmas Day occupancy in the U.S. was the highest on record, at 47.4%. We also saw our travelers respond well to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Tuesday events, sparking a 10% week-over-week lift in U.S. domestic searches.
In fact, the Traveler Value Index revealed that more than 50% of cruise travelers said border openings and government-led initiatives have a strong impact on their likelihood to travel, illustrating just how influential restrictions and changes are on traveler decision-making. As with previous reports, we saw our travelers respond immediately to border reopenings and news of reopenings. The reopening of U.S. borders to 33 countries worldwide led to increasing inbound and outbound travel and represented what could be considered a landmark in the travel industry’s recovery from COVID-19 after almost 20 months closed to the world.
Looking specifically at search volume from German travelers into the U.S., we saw a 300% increase from October to December, and the U.S. jumped from the 43rd most-searched destination to 13th during Q4. Cruise travel, too—which has experienced ups and downs during the past two years—increased 55% week-over-week the week of November 22. Overall, in Q4 2021, cruise searches increased 50% year-over-year and bookings were up an impressive 500% compared to 2020.
The APAC region finally saw good news, too. Overall search volumes were up nearly 35% over Q3, driven by additional travel green lanes and international border reopenings in various countries, including Australia, Singapore, and Fiji. Australia’s reopening, which was announced in early October, proved significant to the wider region, and led to a 25% week-over-week increase in international searches for APAC.
Looking Ahead to Long-Haul Travel in 2022
The U.S. reopening has inevitably led to growing confidence in Americans to travel further afield. Our Traveler Value Index discovered that 68% of Americans are planning to go big on their next trip, and many are eyeing intercontinental destinations like Rome, Bali, London, and Paris in 2022.
This sentiment was reflected in lengthening search windows detected in Q4. This is a data point we’ve reviewed throughout the pandemic to understand traveler confidence. We have seen travelers switch to making their plans on a more short-term basis—typically in the 0- to 21-day search window—as they’ve responded to ever-changing pandemic conditions.
However, in Q4, we saw the share of searches in this short-term window decrease, while searches for 31+ days increased by 15% to 40% of total searches. This indicates, following a trend we initially saw in Q2 2021, that travelers were feeling more confident to travel internationally, and with loosening international restrictions, starting to dream about or plan trips further out – often to long-haul or bucket-list destinations.
Vacation Rentals: Places for Togetherness
The rising popularity of vacation-rental properties has been a bright spot of the industry and EG’s Vrbo brand in the past 2-years, as travelers looked for spacious, often non-urban properties for their families. Looking across the Vrbo platform’s global network of sites—based in Canada, the U.S., France, Germany, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand—many months during 2021 saw not only triple-digit growth against 2020, but also saw growth over pre-pandemic times in 2019.
During Q4, domestic travel continued to dominate the vacation rental space, with most top destinations reflecting their respective regions. Destinations within Australia, France, and Brazil largely made up the top 10 Vrbo-booked destinations list in APAC, EMEA, and LATAM, respectively.
Although domestic demand was dominant, we did see some strong international demand during the quarter, as the Canadian market saw non-domestic bookings jump over 600% year-over-year in both October and November. The U.S. market, too, saw strong year-over-year growth during these months: 120% and nearly 150%, respectively.
To Travel Is to Live
Looking back at our Q1 report, we reported on the importance travelers placed on cleanliness and hygiene. This was reflected in Expedia Group guest reviews, which saw a steep spike in the percentage of mentions related to cleanliness. While not at the level of peak pandemic times—an average 40% of reviews featured a mention at the end of 2020—we’re still seeing a prevalence of mentions compared to 2019. In Q4 of last year we saw an average of 25% of reviews, compared to a Q4 2019 average of 12%.
It is evident that traveler expectations have changed over the past two years, and as mentioned we’re adapting to new ways of traveling. However, at the beginning of 2022, and reflecting on a stable Q4 of 2021, our data points to an optimism and a resilience in committed travelers who are more than ready to get back to seeing the world and creating memorable experiences. Building on this momentum, the year ahead, and the future of the travel industry, has the potential to build back better than ever.
To find out about the trends covered here in more detail, download the Q4 2021 Travel Recovery Trend Report. This in-depth report is based on over 300 petabytes of first-party Expedia Group data plus the latest custom research.