RALEIGH — Add travel to the activities vaccinated Americans can safely enjoy again, according to new U.S. guidance issued last week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward.
Locally, North Carolina’s travel industry has suffered tremendous losses over the course of the last year and many experts believe it will be 2024 before the lodging sectors experience a full recovery. “The hospitality industry has been especially hard hit during the pandemic,” says Lynn Minges, President and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. According to NCRLA area hotels saw a sales decline of $1.4 billion during the period between March and December 2020. “That represents a decrease in revenues of 28.5%,” Minges notes. “Hotel occupancy continues to lag and ran at 39% in January 2021 compared to 50.9% in January 2020. The road to recovery for hotels is likely to be a long one.”
Minges points to a combination of factors that continue to take a devastating toll on hotels across our state. These include capacity restrictions for meetings, event venues, sporting events, live performance venues, and outdoor gatherings coupled with the decline in transient business travel.
In addition to losses in the hotel industry, total travel spending in North Carolina reached drastic new lows from the period March 1-December 21, 2020. According to Marlise Moody Taylor, the director of Tourism Research for VisitNC.com total losses were $10.3 billion, a decline of about 37%. This figure includes not just lodging, but overall visitor spending on things such as food/dining, transportation, retail, entertainment and any other miscellaneous spending. Taylor also says that the state’s sample of commercial (primarily chain hotels/motels) revenues were down about $1.7 billion, but this does not include all other types of lodging like boutique/independently owned hotels.
Nationally travel leaders are requesting further aid from Congress through the Paycheck Protection Program and tax incentives to help travel-dependent businesses keep their doors open and spur individual travel demand to help travel demand. “Travel is a central pillar of the U.S. economy, so an overall recovery will only be possible if Washington moves quickly to keep the industry on its feet,” said USTA President and CEO Roger Dow.
Meanwhile, various hotel chains and airline companies are doing all they can to entice customers through promotions and discounts of their own. For instance Marriott brands, which includes Westin, St. Regis and JW Marriott, is making it easier to earn elite status in 2021 by announcing changes to its Marriott Bonvoy rewards program. The points aren’t just good for award stays at their hotels but can also transfer to dozens of airline partners, including American Airlines, Delta and United. On Jan. 11 Marriott Bonvoy also announced a new opportunity to earn extra points and reduce the rates of some redemptions made this year.
Furthermore, the company is depositing bonus elite-night credits for current elites and launching a global promotion. Experts say there are major benefits to the Bonvoy program such as Platinum Elite status, which guarantees a 4 p.m. checkout and free breakfast at many brands. In a non-COVID year this status normally requires 50 nights, but will now be possible after just 18 nights by taking advantage of Marriott’s global promotion and having a cobranded card — or just 10 nights if members have both a personal and business version.
On a smaller scale, boutique hotels have also dropped rates significantly and workers say an uptick in occupancy rates are a sign of good things to come. Raleigh’s Longleaf Hotel is currently offering a standard king room for as low as $122 before tax. The new hotel actually first opened its doors just a few weeks before the pandemic shut the entire state down and for the past couple weekends, has been sold out. It’s the first time the hotel has been fully occupied since the pandemic took hold. “We have reached capacity a couple of weekends in a row,” Longleaf general manager Tim Rogers told WRAL News. “Most recently, this past weekend we were able to reach 100 percent.”
For now, airlines are also doing what they can to offer cheap tickets but industry experts anticipate a rebound in summer travel demand along with a spike in ticket prices. According to The Wall Street Journal’s travel expert Scott McCartney, JetBlue had round trips for $211 between New York and Los Angeles on certain dates in February, March and April but by May these jumped to $386 which he says is a more normal fare for advance bookings.
Many major airlines have altered the prerequisites for customers to obtain and cash in on frequent flier points making it easier to qualify for rewards and maintain elite status by rolling in the past two years of points into this year’s tally. Both American and United have taken steps to reduce their qualification requirements for their elite tiers for 2022 and Delta is allowing members to roll over their elite qualification miles earned in 2020 and count them towards a 2022 qualification. Alaska says it will count any elite-qualifying miles earned in the first four months of 2020 toward the 2021 earning requirements. This comes on the heels of all major airlines announcing back in August it would permanently scrap most domestic change fees allowing passengers to more easily rebook flights.