Running in the Smokies

What the Future of Travel Looks Like—for Me At Least

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If I’ve learned anything from this period of us all staying home and people being on their phones nonstop, it’s that I’m not the only Type A among us. It seems that the most trying part of this pandemic, at least among those with whom I interact most, is the fear of the unknown; the inability to plan for the future. This season has helped me evolve both mentally and emotionally as I’ve learned to let go and that I, in fact, control nothing. It’s freeing when you start approaching life like that—but, of course, like everyone else I’m both anxious and morbidly curious to see what the future of travel looks like. 

Will we all live on Zoom? Is VR actually the future after all? Who knows. Definitely not me.

I’ve given three webinars to tourism professionals in the past week and have been on too many Zoom brainstorms with DMOs and fellow travel writers and editors to count, but there are some recurring themes that we all seem to agree on. And while—and this must be said—I am not a psychic nor a fortune teller nor God, this is how I see the future of travel going for me, at least for the time being.

Traveling to Sweden

Air travel isn’t going to be back for a long while—and it will never be what it once was

I don’t care if you’re considering flying this summer—that’s a personal decision you must make, and who am I to judge what’s best for you?—but for the safety of those around me, including my parents who are 68 and 70, my immunocompromised sister and my soon-to-be-newborn nephew, I’m staying grounded (not to mention, air travel doesn’t seem exactly pleasant at present). Any travels I’m planning in the coming six months will be by car.

Tailgating at NASCAR with Sugarlands Distilling

While you can argue that it’s probably safer to travel now than ever with all of the extra precautions in place, I see a hike in prices and a decline in airlift on the horizon with just an average of 23 passengers on each flight, not to mention an increase in the hassle air travel already was. Four hours to go through the airport just to catch a two-hour flight? No thanks. 

Many experts are predicting RV travel will be at an all-time high, and I fully expect both RV and tent campers to flood my state, the Smokies and nearby national parks this summer, so if you’re a DMO or a city government, I hope you’re preparing your facilities to accommodate all these road-trippers.

Little Arrow Resort in Townsend, Tennessee

But destinations’ drive markets are going to expand immensely

Prior to this outbreak, if I was traveling more than five hours by car, I’d usually fly—whether it was to surrounding states like South Carolina or down to the Florida Panhandle. Thanks to Nashville being a Southwest hub, I could usually get to Southern cities for $250 round-trip or less, and that was always worth the price for me to not sit in a car (and Atlanta traffic).

Shot from the airplane

Now, things look a little different. Depending on a second wave of outbreaks, we are loosely looking at doing a road trip up to visit friends who have been secluded in their Catskills house for months at the end of summer or early fall. That’s a trip that will be about 14 hours each way—so with SVV driving, more like 20—and one we plan to break up by visiting cities like Philadelphia and Richmond to check out their public art scenes (only if it’s safe to do so by then, mind you).

Where to Stay in Sweden: Lådfabriken on the western coast

Like most, we feel safer being in our own car and in control of the elements, and with gas prices dipping as low as $1.39 a gallon at points in our area, I really foresee a lot more people driving further by car than they ever would have considered before. If you’re in destination marketing, this absolutely means you should expand what you previously considered your drive market in your targeting efforts.

Local travel is going to make a big resurgence

I’m lucky to live in a state with so many outdoor offerings, from 56 state parks and thousands of caves and waterfalls to the Great Smoky Mountains; now that parks have reopened, it’s easy to get outside and not be around other humans. I see a lot of hikes to and dips in waterfalls in our summer plans. I know not everyone is so fortunate.

Spring Break: Burgess Falls in Tennessee

Still, no matter where you live, this is how I see the immediate future playing out: Those in rural areas will flock to the closest big cities when it’s safe to do so (and in many cases when it’s perhaps unsafe…), and those in cities will be craving outdoor experiences. It’s funny how, when I was asked to give 2020 travel predictions back in January, I said that travelers are going to be looking for more drivable, immersive, experiential travel. And wow, who knew that was going to be more the case than ever?

Small cities would be smart to direct their marketing efforts at advertising to the closest metro area for the duration of this year, and every city and tourism board everywhere should make sure they are serving their local residents in addition to catering to inbound travelers, the latter of which will be reduced for a long while.

Small towns will thrive in the new normal

Most businesses will reduce manpower (if they haven’t already)

Is 50% capacity the new normal? Maybe; and for the time being, if I’m eating outside the home, it’s via curbside pickup. It’s a fine balance between supporting small businesses and the economy while also staying safely isolated for the health of those around me.

So many of my friends in tourism marketing have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, and the sad thing is that I don’t necessarily think all those jobs will come back when things “get better.” Rather, I feel like tourism and hospitality entities will fine-tune how to run a tight ship on reduced manpower and budgets. Hopefully, this means the resurgence in the need for contractors like us. But maybe not. Regardless, we will shift, pivot and adapt.

As a side tangent, it’s been interesting to observe companies like Twitter shift to a model that allows employees the option to work from home permanently. I only see this as a growing trend the longer we’re stuck inside and companies realize that employees are just as, if not more, productive working from their own homes. Now’s as good a time as any to rework your home office into a space that’s conducive for, you know, productivity.

Others will team up and form alliances

We’ve been working with the Natchez Trace Compact, which is an amalgamation of state DMOs, CVBs and attractions along the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, for the past year. This is a great model of how organizations can pool their budgets and resources to still accomplish marketing projects. I foresee a lot more of these alliances cropping up in regions, at least in the South, where many cities already help each other out on the marketing front, and I hope we get to be a part of this collaborative tourism future.

Fall Colors on the Natchez Trace Parkway

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That said, while the future of travel is both unknown and will be different for all of us no matter your approach to things, the news coming out isn’t all bad. The environment is benefitting from less people traveling, we’ve seen so much creative ingenuity result from people being forced to reset, and I personally look forward to experiencing what new inventions and technology comes out of this. And who knows, maybe there’s actually some underlying, greater good to this whole tragedy that will be revealed in time.

I was reading on Twitter how one writer equates being stuck in the “infinite present,” and that’s exactly what this period feels like: watching Groundhog’s Day on a loop. There’s “no future plans, no anticipation of travel or shows or events or celebrations,” she says. “It’s an endless today, never tomorrow.”

Until we reach some level of the new normal, I’m going to continue to not let the “what ifs” guide my fear. And as for this blog, I’ll be resuming writing about travel to what are the drive-market destinations for us when I feel it’s safe to do so, as well as many of you fellow Southerners who read the blog. I also have a well of past travels from which to draw, so if Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, etc. are not within easy reach for you and you’re in another market where you’d love day- or drive-trip ideas, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.

What the Future of Travel Looks Like

What are your predictions on the future of travel in the coming months and year? And how will travel look differently for you?


 

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COMMENTS
  • May 13, 2020

    My little family of four is thinking along similar lines of relatively close travel. We are currently living in Vermont, so I’d love to know if you have interesting places to explore in New England. Smaller towns, beautiful state parks, and off-the-beaten path adventures are more our thing. Thanks!

    • May 25, 2020

      I so wish I knew New England better, Jill, but my years living in NYC, I was too broke (and working seven days a week) so didn’t get to travel much, outside of the major cities!

  • May 13, 2020

    I appreciate the thoughts you shared here. As a current full-time RVer, I am curious to see how quickly the surge in RV travel occurs… will it be this summer, or will folks wait until the coast seems more clear? Either way, I agree with you that it’s a great time for USA destinations to think about their infrastructure for roadtripppers. Maybe a silver lining is that more people will discover that there’s so much to see and explore, right in their own backyards.

    • May 25, 2020

      Sarah, we were doing an outdoor photography project a couple weeks ago in rural Tennessee, and all the RV campgrounds there were already full, whereas the owner told us that’s usually not the case until after Memorial Day! So I’d say we’re already there—and I’ve seen many, many friends invest in campers or fifth wheels this spring.

      And I agree with you—this is a good time to reconnect with nature!

  • May 13, 2020
    Noelle Brahimi

    Great post. I agree, I can’t imagine flying right now. I still have a trip to Iceland booked for July (booked it before coronavirus) and I’m not sure that it can or will happen (or if I feel comfortable enough to even go). The first trip I was thinking to do once it’s safe to is to go camping and hiking near Shenandoah National Park – so I think your predictions are pretty spot on (at least for me!). I do hope that things become more normal eventually, though.

  • May 13, 2020
    Erica

    Thanks for this timely post. I work for the Tourism Services here in Melbourne ( Australia) Naturally,with no tourists, we are not operating at present and trying to rethink the future model of our services. Situation very similar here to the US and with no travel encouraged at present, and our borders closed it’ll be a long road out. Lots of interesting times ahead of us all!

    • May 25, 2020

      We have 50 different states and, thus, 50 different ways of reopening services here, so I can imagine how tough it is for anyone in your service to figure out the safest way forward for everyone!

  • May 13, 2020
    Giselle Auger

    I already had a campsite booked by the beach in RI for a few nights in early July because I do that with my daughter every year. So glad I did so before the pandemic because it is always a busy campground and likely to be more so now. Usually we head to NH or ME and stay in hotels for a few nights in August but this year we’ll be camping if we go at all. I even thought about buying a small trailer RV but I am expecting the cost of those to rise as people want to travel but not stay in hotels.

    • May 25, 2020

      Good for you, Giselle! I think camping is going to be all the rage this summer, even among those who weren’t necessarily outdoorsy before.

  • May 14, 2020
    Susan D Gulley

    Thanks Kristen for your thoughts and insight. None of us know what’s going to happen, but we can’t stay in perpetual static living. I plan on shifting my “perception” of my norm, finding new opportunities I never noticed before and finding something to celebrate every day. Otherwise, we could dwindle away unknowingly into despair and always waiting.

  • May 15, 2020

    Great insights! As a content creator, I’m curious to serve a wider drive market, so: what do you think is the % expansion in the drive market? Is it 50% for most travelers? (So if they were open to a 4-hour drive before, now they’re open to a 6-hour drive?) I’d just love a guess if you have any insights from your work with destinations!

    • May 25, 2020

      I think it will be completely location dependent. For example, for us, we’re within four hours’ drive of Knoxville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, Louisville and Lexington. So that might be plenty for most Tennesseans for the meantime (other than lacking a beach in that lineup of destinations). But if you’re in, say, Montana where everything is so spread out, you suddenly might not think anything of driving six to eight hours to the next biggest city for a long weekend.

      For us, personally, we’re doing eight-hour drives now like it’s nothing—I’d say that’s about my max unless it’s a really special situation—and even considering a 14-hour one this fall, broken up with stops along the way.

  • May 19, 2020

    I agree with your thoughts. There are so many unknowns at this time and I don’t think any of us have any idea what the new norm is going to look like.

    • May 25, 2020

      It’s just not even worth worrying about things we can’t control at the moment, you know? We should all be focused on controlling the things we can—keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy—and let all the rest of it go.

  • May 24, 2020
    nadya Kotik

    We’re still going to Maine as Airbnb owner accepted us and won’t require us to quarantine. We’re just going to be at Acadia park so we’re not going to quarantine ourselves for 14 days as we will be away from people anyway and are coming from low infection area. Their governor is way too strict and they will lose money as vacation time is when a lot of businesses make their money for the rest of the year to support themselves.
    I feel that it’s up to the airbnb owners to choose if they want to accept people. I’m sure more people will visit nature this yer since other things are closed. It’s still possible to travel and have fun, just have to be creative and choose places.

    • May 25, 2020

      I hope more people get outdoors as a result of all of this! I agree: Travel is going to depend on people being both smart and creative and not going the same places every other person is going.

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