Updated: Jun 22, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic brought global travel to a near-total halt in March 2020. When travelers cautiously started venturing out again a few months later, many did so with a whole new approach to lodging. With offices and schools closed, Americans quickly realized that Zoom meetings and online learning could happen anywhere – the more private and picturesque the better. Interest in urban travel and shared spaces plummeted in favor of rentals and the great outdoors.
Fast-forward to summer 2021: a growing share of Americans is vaccinated and eager to enjoy life. For lodging companies focused on recovery, one big question looms large: will travelers return to their old habits, or will the lodging sector be permanently transformed? Google Trends (methodology below) provides a snapshot of how traveler attitudes towards lodging have evolved during the pandemic – and offers clues to what might happen next.
In the summer of 2020, search interest in campsites and recreational vehicles surged, with many trying camping and RV travel for the first time. While these alternative lodging options are poised to remain popular for another summer season, once COVID fears wane, most travelers will likely opt for more comfortable digs. A surge of interest in short-term rentals, however, has the potential to alter the lodging landscape long term – with major implications for destinations, hoteliers and distribution channels.
Short-Term Rentals: The COVID-Era Trend with Staying Power
Search interest in Airbnb plummeted in March 2020, along with the rest of the travel industry. Summer brought only mild relief for hoteliers, but searches for Airbnb peaked in June 2020, as a lockdown-weary public sought to salvage summer travel plans. Hotels, and especially larger properties in urban areas, sparked safety fears for many. But short-term rentals offered privacy, control over one’s space and more room to spread out, a boon for families and groups who planned to limit their activities. As a result, short-term rental websites experienced a much more rapid recovery compared to hoteliers and OTAs.
While hotel brands have regained a good portion of their pre-pandemic search interest, it has not come at the cost of short-term rentals. Search interest in Airbnb has continued to surge in 2021, narrowing the gap between rental and hotel brands. While rentals were already mainstream, their appeal during the pandemic inspired more travelers to try the option. Now, many of those travelers initiated to the rental experience are sticking with it. This phenomenon – paired with a larger remote workforce – may be the catalyst needed for the segment to accelerate its growth.
Hotel Rebound in Sight
Search interest in short-term rentals remains strong in May 2021, but hotel searches are also increasing as traveler attitudes shift. By midsummer, most U.S. adults who want to be vaccinated will be. Falling case counts and a greater understanding of COVID transmission and safety precautions are further reducing fears. The result is more travelers considering the possibility of staying in a hotel. In contrast to Airbnb, searches for Marriott remain far below their 2019 peak, but search interest has been on a steady upward trajectory in 2021 to date.
With travel restrictions remaining in place in many destinations globally, domestic travel will dominate in the short term. Travelers continue to seek out lodging “close to home.” Searches for “Airbnb near me” peaked in summer 2020, but have remained elevated. By comparison, search interest in “Hotels near me” has been similar to historical patterns (ticking upward slightly in spring-spring 2021).
Hotels, however, have made great strides in adapting to the pandemic, with many promoting safety and cleanliness protocols and implementing contactless technology. U.S. travelers also have grown more confident in their ability to protect themselves in shared spaces. Searches for the phrase “are hotels safe” peaked in March 2020, as travelers contemplated whether to cancel existing travel plans. In May 2021, interest in searches related to hotel safety has approached pre-pandemic levels (low to non-existent).
The safety fears that dominated during the peaks of the pandemic will hopefully fade away as global vaccination rates climb. But the work-from-home lifestyle Americans adopted out of necessity is likely to have a lingering impact. Employees who enjoyed the flexibility of working away from the office – and skipping the commute – are unlikely to want to return to business as usual. Employers who matched or exceeded typical productivity despite a remote workforce are more likely than ever before to embrace remote or flexible work options.
While short-term rental providers are well-positioned to appeal to workers no longer tethered to the office, hotel brands are getting into the game as well. Marriott Bonvoy, for example, in March announced plans to add to its portfolio of extended-stay hotel brands (e.g., Elements Hotels, Residence Inn and TownePlace Suites) in response to increased traveler demand for longer stays, larger spaces and added amenities. Lodging providers and destinations alike will need to prepare for a workforce that is permanently more mobile.
A Refresh for OTAs
Search interest in Expedia in early May 2021 is on par with 2019, putting the OTA on track for a stronger summer season. The brand in April launched a major repositioning with the tagline “It matters who you travel with,” with a focus on supporting travelers throughout the travel process. While Expedia’s lodging revenue in 1Q21 was down 41% versus the same period last year, short-term rental subsidiary Vrbo is thriving. As Expedia looks to expand on Vrbo’s success, Booking.com is hoping to boost its short-term rental footprint in the U.S. to match its performance in Europe.
Search interest suggests that there is tremendous pent-up demand for travel in the U.S. In contrast to summer 2020, travelers are less fearful, more confident and more likely to consider booking a hotel. In the near term, short-term rentals continue to outperform compared to other lodging options.
While the overarching trend in U.S. travel searches points to a rebounding travel market, like everything else in the pandemic, the recovery will be varied. COVID surges in India and elsewhere are a reminder that the global crisis is far from over, even as those in the U.S. resume pre-pandemic activities. Younger people eager to cut loose will pack popular resort areas this summer, while families with unvaccinated young children, for example, may opt for a rental closer to home, or forego travel altogether. Lodging near national parks and beaches is sold out, while hotels in major cities with plenty of availability pitch travelers on a return to urban destinations. Some Americans are ready to jump on the first international flight, while others will remain wary of crossing borders.
Many pandemic-era travel patterns will fade, but increased interest in short-term rentals is here to stay. A return to in-person work and school may eliminate the flexibility that drove some rental bookings over the past year, but travelers newly exposed to the rental experience are likely to return. And for workers who keep working away from the office part or all of the time, added flexibility could spur an uptick in long-weekend rentals, extended-stay hotel bookings or a complete embrace of the digital nomad lifestyle.
For destinations navigating the recovery, the prospect of increased demand for rentals should be part of the conversation when planning for the future. A further shift in lodging share from hotels to short-term rentals has implications for over-tourism and, in some locations, DMO funding. But short-term rentals could also be a tool for promoting off-the-beaten-path destinations that travelers might historically have skipped over in favor of tourism hotspots. While Americans have a wide range of ideas about what lodging should look like in summer 2021, travel marketers have an audience eager – and grateful – to travel.
Google Trends provides access to a largely unfiltered sample of actual search requests made to Google. It’s anonymized (no one is personally identified), categorized (determining the topic for a search query) and aggregated (grouped together). This allows us to display interest in a particular topic from around the globe or down to city-level geography.
Google Trends normalizes search data to make comparisons between terms easier. Search results are normalized to the time and location of a query by the following process:
● Each data point is divided by the total searches of the geography and time range it represents to compare relative popularity. Otherwise, places with the most search volume would always be ranked highest.
● The resulting numbers are then scaled on a range of 0 to 100 based on a topic’s proportion to all searches on all topics.
● Different regions that show the same search interest for a term don't always have the same total search volumes.