After nearly two years of uncertainty and Covid restrictions, the travel industry is starting to ramp up again, with growing UK consumer demand for researching and booking holidays.
According to reader consumption data from The Ozone Project – the digital advertising platform built by the UK’s major news, entertainment and lifestyle publications – over the last 12 months, content related to travel research has generated the highest engagement within the travel category, with 45% of total page views.
As travel marketers plan their spend for 2022, when the spectre of the pandemic will hopefully lift from the sector, we look at some of the key trends emerging from Ozone’s data, giving an insight into how travel brands should best prepare to meet consumer needs in the coming months.
High demand for domestic and short-haul travel
Unsurprisingly, engagement with content relating to short-haul travel has attracted 20% of total page views over the last year, with staycations just behind on 15%. This points to optimism that consumers will be able to start booking quick getaways to nearby destinations such as Europe from the early months of 2022, but also that the interest in holidays within the UK – which was clearly boosted by international travel restrictions – is here to stay.
Brands are seeing this on the ground, as continued domestic demand has prompted UK holiday parks operator Away Resorts, for example, to stick with its plan to invest over £150,000 in the brand.
“This included shooting a new TV advert, TV and radio advertising and connecting with influencers,” says Laura Miller, marketing manager at Away Resorts. “Our brand has seen substantial growth over the last 12 months, achieved through the acquisition of new parks across the UK, as well as accumulating 75% of new customers during this time.”
Similarly, with consumers still retaining some uncertainty about restrictions on long-haul destinations, Abby Penlington, director of Discover Ferries, anticipates a growing demand for short-haul destinations. She says some of the European ferry operators the body represents are already reporting an uplift in bookings for 2022 travel.
“Our marketing will be adapted to support the continued short-haul recovery by highlighting the ease of ferry travel and the desirability of destinations accessible by ferry, while continuing to push opportunities for domestic operators to take advantage of the boom in staycations.”
Ryanair, too, is clearly preparing for a big boost to short-haul travel in the short, medium and long term, using a discounting strategy to drive up passenger numbers over this winter and into next summer. This week (23 November), Ryanair’s director of commercial Jason McGuinness announced that “following two summers of on and off again travel restrictions, our UK customers now have 24 new routes to choose from when booking their long-awaited [summer 2022] holidays”, with flights from £29.99 on some European destinations.
In November, the low-cost airline’s CEO Michael O’Leary also said it expects to benefit from its investment in new planes from Boeing, offering more seats and better fuel consumption – optimism that is matched by the brand having added more than 560 new routes in the past 12 months.
“We see huge growth opportunities, not just in new bases, but also in working with large airports across Europe to replace capacity that has been lost by their incumbent airlines [in the pandemic],” O’Leary said.
As a result, Ryanair has increased targets for its ambitious five-year growth plan, aiming to carry 225 million passengers a year by 2026 – up from 200 million.
Getting ready for the long haul
Recent consumption trends in Ozone’s data also show a resurgence in engagement with long haul-related content, after a long period where it has been lower due to tighter restrictions on destinations and the risk of travellers losing money due to Covid-enforced cancellations.
Lee Thompson, CMO and co-founder at Flash Pack, which specialises in group adventure holidays, has seen increased interest in long-haul destinations over the last four months, with search patterns increasing for holidays outside of the UK and Europe. “People are becoming more familiar and comfortable with the procedures in place and, as many people saved money throughout the pandemic, they are now looking at bucket-list destinations and once-in-a-lifetime trips.”
This is in line with Ozone’s findings that engagement with adventurous travel content is increasing, as consumers search for inspiration. In the last quarter, average weekly ‘adventure travel’ page views increased by over 91% compared to the previous quarter.
Our messaging must reflect those looking for the here and now and those looking ahead to 2022.
Laura Miller, Away Resorts
Thompson says that Flash Pack originally focused on building staycation products to align to the trend towards domestic travel, but it has now pivoted. “We are expecting that destinations that were incredibly popular pre-pandemic, such as Asia, will rapidly pick up in popularity as restrictions in those regions are easing for foreign travellers.”
Government announcements and restrictions have also driven a demand for greater travel preparedness. In the four weeks before the October 2021 half term, Ozone saw a four-fold increase in the consumption of holiday shopping content (versus the prior four weeks).
Zoe Harris, CMO of online travel agent On The Beach, also saw increased traffic for holiday information, as people looked to confirm requirements for holidays already booked, or sought the confidence to book a break. It prompted the company to amend its offering.
“At On the Beach we’re offering free Covid tests to customers, as we saw in our analytics and heard from our customers that confusion around testing requirements as well as the cost of the tests themselves were acting as blockers to bookings.”
Adventure v indulgence
Consumers are still split when it comes to travel desires. The US reopened to travellers on 8 November 2021, and while this was another step towards building confidence in travel further afield, Harris says that factors such as entry testing costs and lower vaccination levels in certain destinations still provoke caution.
“We’re seeing a divide in consumers’ appetite for more adventurous travel – some are ready for something big after two years of not holidaying, while others are looking to do something easy after a tough two years, albeit perhaps a little more luxe than their usual holiday,” says Harris.
Throughout the pandemic, this cautious approach has fuelled a trend towards last-minute bookings, as people watch and wait before committing to a holiday. In the four weeks to October 2020 half term, for example, engagement with Ozone’s last-minute content increased almost 15-fold. Quarter-on-quarter, this figure demonstrates over 184% growth, reflecting the easing of Covid restrictions.
That last-minute habit is probably not going away for now. It is a trend informing Away Resorts’ marketing, as a higher proportion of guests are booking within a four-week window for off-peak dates.
“Our current paid digital strategy is to allocate 50% to last-minute messaging and 50% to looking ahead. Even at this time of year, it allows us to maximise occupancies where we have parks open,” says Miller. Demand for peak weeks is strong, with booking for August summer holiday 2022 already up more than 21%. “Our messaging must reflect those looking for the here and now and those looking ahead to 2022.”
Discover Ferries’ members have also seen a propensity to book later. Penlington says foot-passenger routes such as Uber Boat by Thames Clippers and Hovertravel have adjusted to meet the demand for more spontaneous travel by offering ‘turn-up-and-go’ tickets.
But the organisation has also seen strong advance bookings for next summer: “Contrary to the late booking trend, Brittany Ferries has seen a 48% increase in advance bookings for summer 2022, compared to bookings for the 2020 summer season made by the end of October 2019, indicating renewed confidence in near-European travel in the new year.”
The phasing out of travel restrictions around the world should also herald a return to more normal, pre-pandemic patterns of research and booking behaviour eventually. Ozone’s data shows that, in a typical year, travel research would begin in earnest in January, with bookings made on paydays or around key events like Valentine’s Day.
At the start of January 2020, travel content consumption increased 84% week-on-week, with 30% of the month’s page views in the category occurring in the final week, when most people received their first payslip of the year. Then there was a spike in interest in travel around Valentine’s Day, with page views up 48% week-on-week.
Here comes the sun
With a growing appetite for more adventurous destinations, coupled with many staycation locations selling out quickly for 2022, the travel industry is growing more quietly confident. Thompson says that in the last month of trading, Flash Pack has seen bookings and traffic consistent with a typical January, historically its busiest period. “If this continues then we can expect to be back to high pre-pandemic levels of bookings by the final quarter of 2022 or even earlier.”
Away Resorts is also hopeful that it has tapped into a new audience following the pandemic, with 33% of its guests in 2021 making their first stay in a UK holiday park. “Utopia for us is that they may well go back to their overseas holiday but still continue with shorter stays in the UK after having a taster for the easy and accessible staycation break,” says Miller.
The company’s advertising currently reflects a ‘Something for Everyone’ message, and it attracts a broad demographic. “This year, in particular, we have seen a younger, more affluent visitor that perhaps would have travelled abroad pre-pandemic.”
Data from On the Beach shows that consumers are expecting to return to more typical booking patterns in 2022, and Harris is also anticipating that travellers will upgrade, “whether that be from four-star to five-star, [bed-and-breakfast] to all-inclusive, or one week to 10 nights. It’s too soon to say whether these changes will be for good, but I definitely think people will value their holidays more after two years without them. As nice as Cornwall is, there’s nothing like that blast of hot air as you step off the plane, is there?”
Update 29 November: This article was published before the UK Government banned flights into the country from southern Africa and placed six countries from the region under England’s red list travel restrictions, after the Covid-19 variant Omicron was identified. While it’s still too early to tell what impact the variant will have on future travel bookings, Ozone’s content consumption data shows a 20% increase in engagement with the travel category last week, with more than half of engagement occurring from Friday 26 November and across the weekend.
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