Understanding the Gap: Examining the differences between evolving traveler expectations and industry perceptions

Robert Torres, Senior Vice President Media & Affiliate Solution, Expedia Group; Haley White, Senior Director Global Strategic Accounts, Expedia Group, HSMAI America’s Board Member 

This is the second installment in a series of articles sharing insights from our partners who presented at an HSMAI Chief Marketing Officer Roundtable 

Brief overview of research

The pandemic created more discerning consumers with higher expectations for their travel experience, from booking a place to stay to the taxi ride home. The Traveler Value Index 2023 examines what people value in their travel experience compared to priorities and considerations shaping decisions and investments across industry professionals. Expedia Group partnered with Wakefield Research to conduct the Traveler Value Index: 2022 Gap Analysis research.  The survey included 11,000 consumers and 1,100 industry professionals from 11 markets: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ultimately, consumers weigh a variety of factors when making booking decisions. Today, flexibility and price are top of mind, but other considerations are also at play. 

Biggest takeaways/highlights 

The pandemic caused several shifts in traveler behavior and influenced industry norms. Our research shows that several permanent preferences that will continue to have a prolonged impact on our industry.  One major take away:  the absence made the appetite for travel stronger. Traveler searches for car and vacation rentals on our travel websites were above 2019 search volumes in the first three quarters of 2022. As of the end of September 2022, searches for cruises and activities saw the highest percent growth year-over-year compared to accommodation and other methods of transportation. In addition to the increase in demand, there are other signals that people feel more comfortable booking travel. Consumers are comfortable booking five months in advance on average, up from four months in advance based on Expedia Group research from April 2022. 

Despite increased confidence and less tumultuous travel, consumers continue to demand flexible options. For domestic travel, nearly half of consumers (47%) say they would never book non-refundable lodging, and more than half (51%) would not book transportation they could not change. This need for flexibility intensifies internationally, increasing to 57% and 59% for lodging and transportation respectively.  

Another trend that is expected to remain is that Travelers prefer to book with providers that align with their personal values. Travelers will vote with their values. The 2023 Traveler Value Index found that people are seeking out businesses that are welcoming and accessible to all travelers: 70% of people say they are more likely to choose travel options that are more inclusive, even if that comes at a higher cost.  Industry professionals acknowledge this preference, with 64% indicating that they believe their customers will choose travel options that are more inclusive, even if they are more expensive. 

Conversely there are a few temporary responses to the pandemic that are expected to dissipate throughout the remainder of 2023. For example, travelers’ heightened concern over health and cleanliness is waning. This waning importance is also reflected in our traveler review data. Prior to the pandemic in late 2019, the percentage of reviews that included mentions related to cleanliness was between 5-12%. Review mentions rapidly increased in early 2020, peaking in September 2020 (42%) and then again early 2021 (41%). At the end of 2021, that average dropped to 25% — higher than pre-pandemic but continuing to decrease from peak times.  

Business and international travel is expected to rebound as restrictive policies ease. More than three-fourths (76%) of business travelers plan to extend a work trip for leisure purposes in the next 12 months; and almost a third (28%) plan to take a “flexcation” in the next 12 months to take advantage of remote work combined with leisure travel. Similarly, about half of consumers are likely to book or have already booked an international trip in the next 12 months, up from 12% in mid-2021. and Gen Zers and millennials are even more likely to do so.   

Why is this timely? 

Understanding the conditions impacting travel in the months ahead is critical for travel marketers. Our platform brings together millions of properties, billions of bookable airline seats, and thousands of car rentals, cruises, and activities across 200 booking sites in 70 countries. Every second, thousands of signals – transactions, rate fluctuations, searches, visits, and itinerary changes – flow across our platform and through the interconnected lanes of the global travel ecosystem.  Our extensive 70+ Petabytes of first-party data are backed by this qualitative research to help hoteliers better understand evolving traveler expectations.   

For example, we learned that consumers say inflation is impacting their travel plans more than ongoing pandemic concerns and travel restrictions, particularly those in North and South America and Europe.  In our current economic climate, consumers have expressed price sensitive amid rising inflation. Price sensitivity doesn’t mean consumers are always hunting for the cheapest rate– our research suggests that they want to get their money’s worth. Respondents say feeling that “the experience was worth the cost” was the most important factor for a positive trip experience.  

How will this help marketing professionals? 

Understanding the gap between industry expectations and what people value in their travel experience could uncover accelerated growth for savvy industry professionals. Taking action to stand out and deeply understanding traveler wants and needs can help drive business success:  

  • Maintain your refundable rates and flexible policies. Flexibility continues to be one of the top considerations for travelers, particularly those traveling internationally.  
  • Set realistic expectations with travelers — and have realistic expectations for your staff. Only 15% of industry professionals said their business was currently providing full hours and services. Ensure the information you communicate to travelers pre- and post-booking and during their time with you accurately reflects what their experience will be like. 
  • Be thoughtful about discounts and perks. Your customers may be more price sensitive now than they were a year ago – so consider what types of incentives will be most effective. If you offer a loyalty program, keep in mind that discounts, points, and complementary add-ons are most important to members. Access to specific amenities may be more of a draw for business travelers.  
  • Lean into and showcase your brand values. A third of industry professionals say they are promoting specific company values or priorities, like sustainability efforts, to encourage bookings from their key traveler audiences. Consumers will continue to book based on their personal values and will be loyal to the destinations and travel providers that walk the walk in these key areas.  
  • Keep a pulse on customer feedback to understand how they perceive their experience. Whether through reviews, social media, or your own feedback channels, collecting and acting on feedback is key to optimizing the travel experience you provide. Just over half of the organizations in our research relied on customer reviews to measure the guest experience, and the same amount make changes often due to feedback – meaning there is a big opportunity for more businesses in the travel space to be taking advantage of feedback loops. A positive travel experience attracts loyal customers.  

Links to Research 

Link to Traveler Value Index    

Categories: Marketing
Insight Type: Articles