The future of travel may have just pulled out of Sheri Fuller’s parking lot.
It was a father with three of his kids and their dog, taking to the road to reunite with his adult daughter in California in a rented RV.
“They’re bringing their own sheets. They’re bringing their own supplies,” said Fuller, co-owner with her husband of Fuller RV Rentals and Sales in Boylston. They don’t have to get on buses, trains, or planes. And they don’t have to stay in hotels.
Essentially taking your house on the road with you means “you have more control over your environment,” said Fuller. “That’s going to be huge over the next year.”
An explosion in popularity of RVs is one of several surprising predictions about how travel will rebound from the paralyzing disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.
The recovery will affect who travels, where they go, how they get there, how much it will cost, and what they’ll experience on the way.
“It will look very different, but travel will come back,” said Cheryl Golden, director of marketing for Rhode Island-based InsureMyTrip. “People are nervous, but they do want to travel.”
There’s already evidence of that beyond the obvious conclusion that Americans all need a break from being cooped up in their houses or interacting with the public in essential jobs: 69 percent in a survey by the consulting firm Destination Analysts say they can’t wait to travel again, and 53 percent that they expect to travel in the fall.
“This innate sense within us to connect with other people — I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” said Matthew Lerner, founder of the vacation rental management company Makomi. “People are going to want to see their families and friends and go out and reschedule that trip they got credit for from the airline or hotel.”
The most hesitant to do this will be older travelers, a hugely important market for the industry, who take an average of five leisure trips per year, according to the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, but who rank health concerns second only to cost as barriers to going places.
InsureMyTrip has already seen a big drop in policies sold to older travelers, said Golden. “The seniors were the people who were pulling back first.”
But younger travelers, she said, are still planning travel.
At first, they’ll head out on the road by car, for day trips or to rural destinations away from cities. In addition to lingering paranoia — half of likely travelers in that Destination Analysts survey said they plan to avoid crowds — that’s because of two other things that are happening in the world: cheaper gas and the widening recession.
Bookings for fall are already being driven by what Omer Rabin, managing director of the short-term rental management company Guesty, describes as “city escapers” heading to rural and suburban destinations and staying longer.
Once they get there, they’ll continue to keep some distance. Since coronavirus first began to spread, the tour booking company GetYourGuide has seen demand shift from bus tours and cruises to open-air day trips and walking tours, away from the masses.
This means travel providers will have to balance the need to make up for the massive losses they’ve sustained with the imperative that they reduce capacity when they reopen. Popular attractions that usually have long lines are planning to place limits on the number of guests admitted, and stagger entry with pre-paid, time-specific tickets. How hard this will be is evident to anyone who has ever visited a theme park. There, “being in close proximity to your fellow guests is part of the experience,” said David Erickson, creator of Fresh Baked Disney, a website and YouTube video series about all things Disneyland.
Erickson expects that theme parks will impose entry limits and expand their use of virtual queues, as the reopened Shanghai Disneyland has already done, instead of making people stand in line. And popular parades and fireworks may not resume for a while. People also may avoid big hotels in favor of vacation rentals, small hotels, and B&Bs. “They’re easier to control,” said Matt Landau, founder of the Vacation Rental Marketing Blog. “Put bluntly, fewer germs to avoid.”
That’s true even overseas. Ashley Bartner, owner of La Tavola Marche farm, inn, and cooking school in the remote Italian countryside, said she’s had a surge of inquiries from families and groups of friends who want to rent out the entire farmhouse instead of just a room or two.
To compete, hotels are going contact-free. They’ll add automatic sliding doors, motion-sensor lights, virtual reception desks, touchless faucets, and similar technology. And housekeeping everywhere will be a lot more visible. Some hotels in China are already live-streaming their rooms being cleaned.
“It will be important to make it visible that we are providing this level of hygiene,” said Zoran Pejovic, CEO of the hotel development company Paradox Hospitality, whose newest hotel will be his first to have a designated health and safety manager.
Review sites will scrutinize the cleanliness of hotels, which may make that a subject of their marketing. Makomi, for example, has already put a banner on its website about its cleanliness standards.
“It will become common practice for travelers to pick certain brands, hotels, or flights based on how thoroughly they’re cleaned,” said Charles Steiner, CEO of the personal finance guide Crediful. “I can even see hotels or restaurants competing with each other on who has the cleanest facilities.”
Cleaning protocols on planes will stay at a high level. Delta Air Lines has announced that its stepped-up cleaning will remain in place for the long term. Even if it didn’t, a group of teenage South Florida entrepreneurs has created a line of products called GermGenie that includes airplane tray table coverings and headrest covers.
The rest of the journey by air will get complex.
There’s talk of expanding the international certificate of vaccination, issued by the World Health Organization and now required only to enter countries where travelers face higher health risks. Immigration lines may be slowed by thermal temperature checks, now being required by some Asian countries.
“Cameras that check heat signatures will be as prevalent as security cameras,” said Nikolas Badminton, a futurist who advises the travel industry. Boston-based charter carrier Magellan Jets is already requiring its passengers to fill out health affidavits.
Much of what happens in airports will be touch-free, too. Face ID will displace fingerprint scanners, and there will be automated passport screenings.
“Buy stock in sneeze guards. They will be everywhere,” joked Steven Polunsky, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at the University of Alabama.
Eventually, however, all of this “is going to be the new normal, where we don’t even think of it,” just as most travelers don’t remember the largely superfluous pre-9/11 airport security, said Sara Garibaldi in charge of travel at the public relations firm Ketchum.
The crisis may eliminate some longtime travel aggravations. Industry experts say it will encourage more flexible change and cancellation policies, considering the backlash felt by companies that were initially slow to offer those.
Advocates are pushing for passengers to at least be allowed stay home if they get sick close to their departure date, without a change fee, to protect everybody else.
Either way, consumers who learned the hard way that “refunds” in most cases were really credits for future travel are likely to opt in the future for levels of service that let them make changes without that hassle, even if it’s more expensive, said Silke Wolf, a vacation concierge.
And while many were equally frustrated to learn that travel insurance doesn’t cover pandemics, more are already buying it, InsureMyTrip reports. Among the factors travelers now say would most persuade them to book a vacation is the availability of an insurance policy, the Global Web Index research firm found; the previous top motivation was “gaining unforgettable experiences.”
Travelers are also expected to change how far in advance they book, either waiting until the last minute out of fear of an unanticipated crisis, or planning much further ahead in the hope that this pandemic will have run its course. The average reservation tracked by InsureMyTrip has gone from 84 days ahead to nearly seven months.
However long it takes them, people will go out into the world again, said Catherine Chaulet, Boston-based president and CEO of the destination management company Global DMC Partners.
The pandemic “has given us a visibility to how fragile our lives can be,” Chaulet said. “People want to live to the fullest. And traveling is part of living to the fullest.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.