February 1, 2021

A Different Way to Get Away

2021 Tourism Trends Can Benefit Kentucky Cities 

Are you looking forward to getting out of the house and going somewhere? After a year of living through a pandemic, people are more than eager to get out. It’s a good time to think about what this means for your city’s tourism and local businesses. City branding expert and past KLC conference speaker Roger Brooks of Destination Development Association (DDA) has identified “The Five Fastest Growing Tourism Trends for 2021.” Brooks said we’ve all learned that travel is not a luxury but a necessity to our well-being. While the pandemic is still a reality, people are beginning to make plans for spring, summer and fall. The travel and tourism industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 and has continuously monitored the market. Recent surveys from groups including the U.S. Travel Association, Airbnb, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Forbes, booking.com and others have asked travelers to identify their priorities for post-pandemic travel. The results are encouraging for Kentucky cities. One of the big takeaways is that people consistently say they want outdoor experiences. Fresh air, free range, not confined by four walls…you get the picture! Brooks said rural locations and small cities are poised to take advantage of this move away from big attractions and crowds. Not surprisingly, the other priority for travelers is to reconnect with family and close friends. People plan to travel with their “pods” and are looking for more intimate experiences. Kentucky, with its natural beauty, outdoor assets and small city charms, provides a number of perfect destinations for families and friends. As you consider how your city can benefit, think about these five trends:

Trend #1 – Go Big

Longwood International is a travel industry research and marketing firm. Respondents to one of its recent surveys said they are looking for more than a weekend getaway. For the first time in nearly 20 years, over half of those surveyed said they plan to take longer vacations, up to two to three weeks, and most people plan to travel domestically. Many plan to stay much closer to home. Travelers will be looking to do things they haven’t done before- but can still do it at a distance from other people. Brooks said many people have come to terms with their own mortality this year and they want to get out and enjoy themselves in a safe environment. An increased number of travelers plan to drive instead of fly to their destinations so they can enjoy the trip, including side stops and off-the-beaten-path experiences. This trend toward longer, more leisurely trips is great for Kentucky cities.

Trend #2 – Off the Grid and Rise in Rural 

Visiting outdoor landmarks, challenging outdoor and adventure activities top many travel lists. People are looking for immersive and “bucket list” challenges they haven’t gotten around to – bike trips, caving, family paddle boarding. Of those surveyed, 50% said they want locations with clean, fresh air, 44% want to experience nature and wildlife and 33% want to relax. In fact, this trend began in 2020 with more than 62 million visits to state and national parks. Since last fall, there has already been a 33% increase in searches on rural travel. With this “rise in rural” the most popular activity in 2021 could be hiking. So, if your city offers outdoor and natural experiences, this could be a good year for tourism, particularly this summer and fall as people get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Trend #3 - Pod Travel 

In many cases, families and friends haven’t been together in months, even missing Thanksgiving and Christmas. People desperately want to reconnect with the most important people in their lives. While immediate families have been cooped up during the pandemic, 2021 will bring a sharp rise in multi-generational family and friend group travel. Cities can market their charm and experiences that groups can do together. And that’s another important aspect to travel. People want to do something special. Don’t just market your city’s attractions, but market what you can do there. Instead of using words like “visit,” use “experience.”

Trend #4 - Cabins, Yurts, Cottages, Glamping and RVs 

It makes sense that people want to stay to themselves when travelling. Individual units such as cabins will be in demand. But that’s not to say that local inns, bed and breakfasts, hotels and motels can’t benefit. Your city’s tourism team can help hotels and motels by encouraging them to cater to togetherness. Offer free bikes to explore your city, provide corn hole and other family-friendly activities on property. Another unique aspect that the hospitality industry is seeing is a desire by travelers to support local wherever they go. Promote your city’s small shops, restaurants and “mom and pop-owned” activities. These businesses add to your local flavor and visitor experiences. 

Trend #5 – Digital Nomads 

One discovery during the pandemic is that some types of work can be done from anywhere. Many people have taken advantage of this, becoming “digital nomads.” Why wouldn’t you rent a western Kentucky lake house or an eastern Kentucky mountain cabin and work from there? Statistics show an uptick in professionals selling their urban and suburban homes and heading off. This trend is a marketing opportunity for cities, as places to play, relax and work. The key is to make sure your city offers reliable internet and at least some long-term rental options. Brooks noted that some places in the Caribbean have started issuing one-year work visas instead of 30-day visas allowing people to work from the islands! Experts say this is a trend that will continue well after COVID-19.

For any type of travel this year, price and flexibility are important. The realities of last year’s mass job losses and business closings have made most people cautious about travel spending. And the pandemic is still a big consideration. It’s important that travelers feel comfortable wherever they go that properties and businesses are adhering to the current COVID-19 guidelines, and that they have flexibility on cancellations if necessary. Make sure to include and update COVID-related requirements online for your attractions and encourage local businesses to do the same. Visitors will look for this information. Finally, if your city’s tourism depends on business travelers, it is starting to pick up. Meetings, incentive travel, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) travel is expected to rebound substantially by the third quarter of 2021.

Cities of any size can benefit from the changing needs of travelers. Places in Kentucky offer authentic experiences for families and friends, outdoor assets and a friendly local atmosphere, and those are the most desired destinations for 2021. Take advantage, as people are ready to safely and affordably get out and get going.

Sources: Destination Development Association, Longwood International