COVID-19 has changed vacations for good, according to a group of travel booking platform leaders. Executives from five of the top online vacation booking and research platforms — VRBO, RVshare, Campendium, Hipcamp, and Viator — came together for a digital roundtable discussion Thursday (Dec. 3) to discuss the effects of the coronavirus on the future of travel.

Their message was unanimous: “the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.”

Changes to the American workplace, a consciousness of contagious diseases, and the return of the great outdoors into the zeitgeist are converging to affect virtually every aspect of how people spend recreational time. The future of vacationing will involve longer stays, shorter lead time and shorter distances traveled, they said, and accommodations that don’t jump on the connectivity bandwagon will be left behind.

Jon Gray

The webinar was organized by Jon Gray, CEO of peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace RVshare, just as the company released its 2021 Travel Trend Report. RVshare’s business tripled this year, and Gray doesn’t envision much of a slowdown, saying that many of the new characteristics of travel that have emerged in 2020 will be hard for consumers to let go of. “The future of travel is more flexible.” RVshare’s research shows that 75% of Americans won’t book without the ability to change plans easily.

Accommodation rental platform VRBO is observing a similar trend. CEO Jeff Hurst added that clear cancellation policies, including the ability to request low-hassle refunds and credits for future bookings, have become essential, noting that marketplaces are built on trust. The inability of many companies in the travel sector to quickly provide refunds for canceled vacations last spring led consumers to become more careful about spending money well in advance.

Alyssa Ravasio, CEO of Hipcamp, described how the company’s initial refund challenge when the pandemic first hit ended up going better than expected. Hipcamp asked customers if they’d be willing to donate back their bookings to help keep their thousands of landowners afloat, and about 25% agreed. Ravasio believes the trust that decisive action garnered will be rewarded.

After several tough weeks, the fate of many of these companies quickly turned as offices across the country closed down and workers realized work-from-home could mean work-from-anywhere. Campendium’s Leigh Wetzel saw a drastic increase in website visits in July as campgrounds started to book back up, followed by an 800% shift from web-based visits to mobile app visits. Most of those users were looking for places to camp with good cell service or Wi-Fi. “Connectivity is now the main booking driver,” Wetzel said. “People stay longer & spend more money when connectivity is good. They stay the workweek, not just the weekend.”

Only about 20% of America’s white-collar workers have returned to regular office life. Ben Drew, president of Viator (Tripadvisor’s tour booking arm), doesn’t see some of them ever going back, which will lead to longer vacations. “It’s an employer-led trend. Traditional offices are under a high level of scrutiny,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by the panel’s moderator, superstar travel influencer Brian Kelly, who has been helping people accumulate airline miles and credit card rewards as “The Points Guy” for the past decade. Kelly recently opened a new New York headquarters for his mini-empire and doesn’t see himself returning to it.

For 2021 and on, the experts are beginning to expect an increase in the number of days booked, and they think their platforms are going to reap the benefits. People will go back to airplanes and hotels, they agree, but travel has fundamentally shifted for good. “We just had a five-year fast forward on outdoor and experiential travel,” said Gray.

RVshare’s whirlwind year has resulted in high satisfaction ratings for bookings: 93% of user reviews of consumer’s rentals are 5-star. He finds it difficult to believe that he hasn’t banked some new lifelong customers who tried RVing for the first time. He also expects that many in the glut of new RV owners will be looking for ways to recoup their investment. Half of all RV owners on RVshare cover 100% of their loan payments, and new owners will be able to supply lots of late-model quality units to renters.

“Travel evolves at inflection points,” Gray noted. Such as the 1978 airline deregulation that allowed Southwest to rapidly grow the discount airfare model. Or the 2008 financial crisis that drove homeowners to find ways to pay mortgages through rent-from-owner platforms like VRBO and Airbnb. “This type of travel is no longer niche,” Gray declared. “RVing is mainstream.”

There’s lots of evidence to support the idea that travel will increase dramatically in 2021. RVshare’s trend analysis found that 40% of regular travelers didn’t travel at all this year. That means there’s pent-up demand. Hurst said that many plan on “do-over” vacations to make up for the ones they canceled and are ready to book without a planning phase as soon as there’s reduced COVID infections or widespread vaccinations. Hurst also pointed toward the massive value stored in the system: all of those credits that were issued by hotels, campgrounds, airlines and tour operators will get cashed as soon as people feel comfortable enough to travel. VRBO’s data shows that 82% of people have travel plans for 2021, most of which will be to more rural, isolated locations. Hurst said that popular summer destinations are already getting close to selling out.

Those vacations will be more last-minute and more local than ever before. Gray said the overwhelming majority of bookings are only 30 days out, a window that’s about halved since 2019. He doesn’t have complete clarity over what will happen even during the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Working from home allows people to make decisions on a whim, dropping their laptop into their suitcase without requesting vacation time. 2020 saw a dramatic shift in popular RVshare booking locations, away from some of the better-known RV markets to the outskirts of big cities like Chicago and New York. Hipcamp bookings were mostly within a day’s drive of population centers. Breakout destinations included upstate New York, Maryland and Delaware.

Drew also believes that the focus on customer health and safety is here to stay. When the pandemic began, Viator quickly realized the need for clarity surrounding the safety measures its suppliers were implementing, and painstakingly began to collect that information from each one to display it on the platform. “Health & Safety is now one of the most important pieces of the sales proposition,” he said.

It’s clear that campgrounds, hotels and tour operators need to pay close attention to the changes in consumer behaviors and needs in order to succeed in an already changed marketplace. These tourism tech leaders agree: accommodations will find success through no-hassle cancellation policies, increased connectivity, and clear communication about health and safety protocols in advance of the sale. Wetzel said much of this is very new to campground owners, only a small percentage of whom have been able to provide robust wifi networks. And for those that want to get away from the crowds next year, Wetzel has just one piece of advice: “Camp where there’s no cell service.”

This article was written by Jason Epperson.