domestic travel
Covid-19, Travel Trends

Domestic travel in a Covid-19 world: Self-Drives

Six months on from lockdown, the situation for global travel and tourism is far more promising. Restrictions have eased, consumer confidence has returned and the industry has reopened. But it’s not business as usual. The outlook for international travel is still unclear. Travellers, for example, have concern about the risks of air travel, as well as the potential logistical hurdles of travelling overseas, such as quarantining when returning home. In contrast, interest in domestic travel has surged, with many, including the OECD, confident that more local and regional travel will offset some of the losses of international travel – and drive recovery.

And it’s here where travel businesses devastated by Covid-19 can find real opportunities, especially over the short- to medium-term. Our new series of articles explores this critically important trend with a deep dive into key aspects of domestic travel. To kick things off, we’re going to look at self-drives. Here’s everything you need to know.

Domestic travel in a Covid-19 world: Self-Drives

Domestic breaks: A smarter and safer way to travel – for now

The challenge for many governments post ‘peak Covid-19’ is rebuilding while keeping people safe and the virus in check. It’s a mammoth task. Even in countries like New Zealand that took a robust response to the pandemic, Covid-19 is proving to be a serious problem. Which it is, as shown by infection-rate spikes in countries where the virus seemed under control.

Unsurprisingly, against such a backdrop, enthusiasm for international travel has stalled, as MMGY Global’s August edition of its Travel Intentions Pulse Survey revealed – only 17% of travellers said they were ‘likely to take an international trip’ over the next six months, down from 20% in July’s report. For many, the hassle and risks aren’t worth it.

Travellers have, in turn, shifted their attention to domestic travel self-drives. For example, Expedia’s 2020 Summer Travel Report found that 85% of US travellers were likely to take a road trip this summer, while in the UK, the RAC found that 68% of respondents whose original travel plans were no longer possible, still want to travel – with 58% favouring a ‘staycation by car’.

It’s no surprise. A self-drive domestic holiday is one of the smartest and safest ways of travelling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Consider wellbeing. Being in a car drastically reduces your contact with other people. It also allows you to travel further, to ‘domestically far-flung destinations’ away from tourist hotspots. And then there’s the practical aspect. Domestic getaways are easier to organise and manage, with fewer major hurdles to contend with, such as being stranded in a foreign country. And, generally, passport-free holidays are much cheaper, too. Collectively, domestic travel self-drives make a pretty convincing business case.

Domestic self-drives: The certainty of travel in an uncertain environment

“The reality is there exists no reference case for the Covid-19 crisis in living memory,” explained the authors of a paper from Deloitte. As a crisis, they continued, its impact is unprecedented – “more global in scope” and far more complex than anything before it. The result? Every day brings with it a fresh set of unexpected challenges. Navigating a world reshaped and defined by Covid-19 is not easy.

Needless to say, travellers want certainty in such uncertain times. The catch, though, for both travellers and travel businesses, is that travel during the pandemic is intrinsically risky, less so domestically than internationally. As McKinsey & Company highlighted in its analysis of China’s rebound ‘post-Covid-19’, the “key thing for rebuilding demand for travel is to reassure customers that it’s safe”.

With domestic travel, what’s essential is the messaging that travel brands construct around self-drives. A car, hired or owned, is more than just a means to an end (getting from A to B). It’s actually more nuanced and empowering: self-drives offer more control, flexibility, opportunity and, crucially, safety.

With control, it’s as simple as travellers determining where they go and when they go. With flexibility, it’s about being able to change plans when they want and when they have to, without being penalised (e.g. cancellation fees). With opportunity, self-drives open travellers up to more destinations and experiences (the benefits speak for themselves). And, with safety, social distancing is a lot easier to achieve with a car, whether it’s by virtue of the remoteness of a destination reached by car or because travellers are less likely to come into contact with others for prolonged periods compared to alternative forms of transport.

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With confidence comes conditions: Evolving domestic traveller expectations

Everyone has had to adapt to the new normal – and that’s true of the travel and tourism industry. As it bounces back from arguably its lowest point in living memory, it does so in an environment that’s not just different, but ever-changing and somewhat hard to predict.

And that’s not all. Yesterday’s traveller – pre-2020 – is not the traveller of today. Covid-19 has reframed holiday preferences, with road trips and last-minute breaks currently proving most popular with eager travellers. In parallel, traveller expectations have also evolved. While these are more immediately a response to the pandemic, they’re also part of a wider megatrend in travel, namely the disruptive impact of digital technologies on the industry. Covid-19 has simply accelerated this – and travellers are increasingly onboard with this seismic shift in travel.

As they should be – technology is allowing for an improved travel experience. So, specific to domestic travel self-drives, expect more emphasis on personalisation, with access to a car allowing for even more tailored travel itineraries. We’ll also see more attention given to flexibility with, for example, the ability to seamlessly amend bookings viewed not just as an important add-on, but a necessary part of travel.

Likewise, after the ‘panic’ revealed shortfalls in customer service, the demand for better, more responsive support has become fundamental to travel. And the more real-time it is, the better. Finally, the key characteristic underpinning much of this is digital-first … at every touchpoint. Think booking a self-drive holiday via an app; accessing contactless petrol pumps during a road trip and keyless entry to hotel rooms. It’s that blurring between the digital world and real-world that travel brands have to deliver on if they’re going to succeed going forward.

Final Thoughts

As Skift’s travel reopening timeline demonstrates, the industry is slowly but positively recovering from a catastrophic total shutdown. Nevertheless, it’s a very different picture to the booming and international pre-Covid-19 industry. Everything has now been scaled back.

The upshot is that the intent to travel remains undimmed. Instead, the focus has simply shifted to more local and intimate experiences – powered by new technologies. As such, pivotal to travel’s revival over the next few months, if not years, will be domestic getaways with road trips at the heart of it – all organised and managed safely and remotely with just a smartphone. Travel brands would be wise to understand this new reality, governments too. The industry’s survival depends on it.

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