Shifts in the Southeast: Initial 2020 Insights from Longwoods Travel USA

SETTRA Exclusive – Initial 2020 Insights from Longwood’s Travel USA®
March 15, 2021

Longwoods International’s Travel USA® is the nation’s largest, longest running domestic travel tracking study. Established in 1990, the study collects information quarterly, and each year completes over 100,000 interviews. Our annual trips database contains detailed information on almost 275,000 overnight and day trips annually.

We’re currently conducting our data analyses and modeling to determine total visitation and visitor expenditure estimates for 2020.  However, there are already very clear indications about the dramatic drop in travel – the study’s response rate.  In 2019, the percentage of Americans who had taken a trip during the past three months was 71%.  This fell 19-points to 52% in 2020.  In Q2, the most impacted quarter, there was a 30-point drop, from 73% to 43%. Predicting the challenges to maintain our annual database size, we expanded the number of Americans receiving the survey to maintain the trip counts necessary for high-quality analyses and reliable results.  

Clearly, the number of domestic overnight trips taken by Americans is down, but there were 2020 trips. This post will focus on whether there were share shifts in key overnight travel attributes – primary purpose of trip, accommodations used, and transportation between 2019 and 2020.  We are limiting this analysis to the SETTRA states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia). 

Keep in mind that, year over year, there is a real consistency in the visitor profile data for this large of a geography.  If there is change outside of the study’s margin of error of +/-2.5%, that is notable.

Primary Purpose of Trip - Overall Stability, but Outdoors Makes Gains

Looking at the primary purpose of overnight trips taken in the SETTRA states, there has been no significant changes between 2019 and 2020.  In 2020, the primary purpose of 42% of overnight trips was to visit friends and relatives, 11% were business and 47% were marketable leisure trips.  These are leisure trips where marketing can change the destination selection, such as touring, a city trip, and outdoors vacation, or a cruise. 

There has been movement in the marketable trip subcategories.  Both special event and theme park trips fell 3-points in 2020, to 5% and 4% of total trips respectively. And what gained?  Outdoors – in 2019, this category represented 5% of trips, in 2020 it rose 3-points to 8%.

Remember that many of the SETTRA states had the shortest shutdown times and the least restrictions to travel, as well as specifics such as indoor dining bans and quarantine requirements. So, although theme parks were shut for a while, for example, Florida’s Walt Disney World was closed between March 16 – July 11, 2020 - for the majority of the year the parks were at least partially opened.  Increased availability of attractions and activities in the region means the South, although down in visitation counts, could very much have gained share of trips from other, less available, regions.
Accommodations – Resorts Lose Share as Hotels and Short-Term Rental Websites Make Gains

One of the first findings of note is that staying with friends and relatives remains statistically unchanged, representing the accommodations of 20% of all SETTRA states trips in 2020.  So, what did change? 

Resort hotels.  In 2019, 24% of trips involved these accommodations, and this was cut in half to 12% in 2020.  Interestingly, hotels gained much of that share – rising from being used in 21% of all trips in 2019 to 36% in 2020.  This might be tied to the nature of resort hotels - typically located outside of city centers with on-site amenities such as spas, pools, shopping, etc., many of which were impacted for part of the year by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and capacity limits.

Because of the multiple different types of accommodations that can be booked on Airbnb – spare rooms, whole residents, hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts – Travel USA® asks about the use of such short-term rental websites in our booking question. In 2019, 6% of all overnight trips in SETTRA states involved booking accommodation through a website like Airbnb or VRBO.  In 2020, that rose 4-points to 10%.  

Transportation – Road Trips Win Share

In the SETTRA states, 2020 was definitely the year of the road trip.  Almost three-fourths of trips (73%) had travelers using their own car or truck to get to their destinations. Additionally, 9% drove an RV/camper and 7% a motorcycle.  

In 2019, Longwoods asked the transportation question differently, focusing on the main and secondary forms of transportation on the overall trip, both going to and within the destination. Although a direct comparison isn’t possible, the directional comparison is of interest.  Only 65% of trips in the region were with the traveler’s own car or truck as their main transportation, while 1% of all trips involved a motorcycle and 2% an RV/camper.

The initial analysis of 2020 visitation as revealed by Travel USA® is already yielding valuable insights about what has changed and remained the same in visitor travel choices. We look forward to delving into key findings surrounding visitor volumes and expenditures as our data analyses and modeling moves forward. 

For more information on Travel USA ©️ check out our Visitor Research