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U.S. Search Trends Part 1: Destination Demand Diverging

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Got a question? A worry? Something on your mind? Chances are, you would turn to Google to get some answers. As Americans have navigated the pandemic, Google searches have catalogued their ever-changing struggles and desires. From toilet paper and face masks to vaccines and re-openings, fluctuations in search interest over time provide insight into how people’s thoughts are evolving. Sorting out which changes are here for the long haul – and which will be as fleeting as the homemade bread craze – will be key to navigating the recovery. This is the first in a series of posts that feature Google Trends data (methodology below) to explore travel searching behavior.

The End Is in Sight

Interest in COVID-related searches has varied by location depending on the local conditions of the pandemic at any given time. In the U.S., searches including the phrase “during COVID” are waning as cases fall and attitudes become more hopeful. As recent CDC guidance now indicates that those who have been fully vaccinated can return to living their best pre-pandemic life, this topic will likely continue to fade from people’s thoughts.

Over the past year, the most popular search queries related to the phrase “during COVID” illustrate a dominant theme: travel remained top of mind during COVID. Among 25 top related queries, more than half are related to travel. Searches like “travel during covid,” “traveling during covid,” “vacation during covid” and “flying during covid” are explicit, but top searches also focus on places to go and things to do. Though many considered the risks too high to take a trip, it is clear our minds wandered even while we could not.

Cities Face a Much Slower Recovery

Not all types of trips capture the imagination the same way. As one would expect, great outdoors destinations did relatively well during the pandemic. Travel search trends show a substantially stronger interest in a sample of popular park areas (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Zion) for much of 2020 compared to 2019. The trend in 2021 compared to 2019 shows a more modest growth trend than 2020, likely due to other vacation options being viewed as feasible again. A sample of city trends (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and DC) showed little recovery in 2020 from its lowest point in April. While it is improving in 2021, the growth trajectory for cities remains slow and search interest remains substantially below 2019 levels.

Resort areas are clearly leading the recovery as pale, socially starved, would-be vacationers long to bathe themselves in sun, surf and perhaps a bit of sin. A sample of resort destinations (Las Vegas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Miami and Orlando) show search trends began to surpass 2019 levels in March 2021. In the past month, the trend has hovered around 25% above 2019, signaling a strong, steady level of heightened interest.

Pre-Pandemic Strategy No Longer Works for Anyone

Despite the divergent trends for various destination types, one thing is clear: things are not going to snap back to the way they were. If they haven’t already, resort destinations must establish meaningful considerations for over-tourism into their strategic planning, as the flood of demand could quickly degrade the experience for both travelers and locals. Popular parks have certainly had to grapple with this issue for some time. In contrast, cities must put renewed focus on attracting leisure travelers as they contend with the loss of corporate and group business as well as difficult competitive positioning against resort areas.

Unfortunately, the signature cultural attractions of most cities often involve placing people in relatively close quarters and enclosed spaces (e.g., entertainment, shopping, indoor dining, nightlife). It will take some time for even fully vaccinated people to feel completely comfortable in a crowd once restrictions have been lifted. Emphasizing outdoor and "off the beaten track" experiences may therefore be a good bet in the current environment. Additionally, while price cutting is never a preferred tactic, value may be an effective vehicle for city hotels to balance the scales with sky high resort prices in the near term.

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.

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