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California travel will look different this year. Here’s what to expect

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/23/2021 By Gregory Thomas

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After a brutal year in which California’s tourism industry was cut in half, travel and hospitality experts are seeing signs of a rebound in 2021.

A variety of elements may help spur pandemic-fatigued people to take long-delayed vacations, like the coronavirus vaccine rollout, a proposed federal stimulus plan and widespread adoption of new health protocols. Recent consumer surveys and market research indicate that Americans are sitting on caches of unused vacation days and anticipate planning bucket-list trips later this year, while also buying motor homes and visiting parks in record numbers. According to a recent report from the U.S. Travel Association, about half of Americans are feeling optimistic about planning a trip in the next 12 months.

But after nearly a year of shutdown orders and travel restrictions, and with vaccination programs faltering around the country, a return to vacationing normally is not guaranteed. Here are six predictions from industry insiders and travel experts on how leisure travel will develop this year, from flights and hotels to road trips and vacation rentals.

Touchless tech takes over: The shift toward routing boarding passes and movie tickets through smartphones ratcheted up last year as physical contact became taboo. Now, more companies and activity venues like ski resorts and theme parks are rolling out apps that allow users to order food, scan tickets and check into reservations. It’s a hard turn away from the brand of in-person interactions the hospitality industry is built on.

“The shift we’re going to see is in empowering the guest to get the experience that they want — whether they want to go through the app or they’re OK with contact,” said Kirk Pederson, president of Sightline Hospitality, a San Francisco property manager that operates 14 hotels.

Pederson mentioned a recent trip he took to Las Vegas, in which he checked into his hotel, keyed into his room and ordered a room service drop-off — all through his phone. “I didn’t have to talk to one person,” he said. “Some would argue, where’s the hospitality in that? And I get it. I’m old-school. But it was pretty efficient.”

Airports too have invested in new touchless infrastructure during the pandemic, and some insiders believe it’s here to stay. Last fall, for instance, San Francisco International Airport joined about a dozen airports around the world that have installed biometric scanners that use facial recognition to verify an international traveler’s identity.

“These have been talked about for years but the pandemic sped up their adoption,” said Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director at air travel website the Points Guy.

Previously, consumers may have once prioritized protecting their personal information, but the pandemic has changed the equation, Mayerowitz said. “People are more likely to make those privacy trade-offs in order to not be within 6 feet of another human,” he said. “Those changes are here to stay.”

Air travel slow to take off: The volume of air travelers in the U.S. is nowhere near what it was before the pandemic, but consumer surveys and experts are cautiously optimistic that people will start flying again in large numbers in 2021.

The International Air Transport Association expects the number of fliers to pick up during the second half of the year as vaccinations become accessible and widespread. In a recent survey of 5,700 travelers by the online booking tool Scott’s Cheap Flights, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they were planning on taking at least one international trip this year.

“One of the sentiments I’ve heard over and over again is how much people are looking to make up for lost time,” said Scott Keyes, the company’s founder and chief flight expert. “I think people are drawing up big plans in their minds.”

He anticipates a run on urban, bucket-list destinations like Paris and Tokyo once a vaccine is widely dispersed — which, he acknowledged, could take several months and push a return to normalcy into the second half of the year.

To entice fliers to return, airlines have done away with ticket change fees, a development Keyes said he never expected. “That’s a big sea change and it’s one they’ve all said is going to be permanent,” he said.

However, this doesn’t mean the airline industry will recover quickly. It could continue hemorrhaging tens of billions of dollars next year as it reels from cost-cutting measures taken in 2020, like reducing flights and furloughing and laying off workers, according to a recent International Air Transport Association report.

Opting for the outdoors: The drop in air travel last year coincided with an uptick in visits to local and state parks across Northern California as people sheltering in place sought easy escapes from life indoors. In the Bay Area, campground operators and park managers have reported record visitation and usage in the region’s hundreds of outdoor areas.

Companies that connect people with nature are in a great position going into 2021, said Tom Hale, founder and president of Backroads, an adventure tour operator in Berkeley that organizes small group trips across the world for tens of thousands of clients each year. His company suffered an 85% downturn in bookings last year compared to 2019 after the onset of the pandemic scared people away from group trips. But Hale said about 10,000 people have already booked trips for 2021, and he anticipates gaining back about half of his pre-pandemic bookings this year.

“There’s no question that we’re in the quintessential sweet spot of how people want to travel,” he said. “People are desperate to get outside.”

Hale is already bullish on 2022. “I think there will be even more pent-up demand that releases next year,” he said.

Road trips, RVs stay strong: Apprehensive about packing themselves onto planes, many Americans are leaning towards road trips and weekend getaways.

In California, more than 70% of travel spending came from in-state residents in 2019. Caroline Beteta, CEO and president of Visit California, the state’s tourism bureau, told The Chronicle last fall that she expects that proportion to rise substantially for the duration of the pandemic as residents explore their world-class backyard.

To help facilitate, Visit California is setting up a limited-time hotline on Jan. 26 for consultations on road trip planning with local travel experts.

With some campgrounds and parks closing in the early months of the pandemic last year, recreational vehicle rental companies and dealerships reported a surge of interest from families looking for an insular travel experience. They expect the enthusiasm will carry over to this year as well.

About 115 California wineries, breweries, farms and other venues have signed up to host RVers for free through the platform Harvest Hosts, with the implied agreement that visitors will patronize those businesses during their stays. Joel Holland, CEO of Harvest Hosts, said he doesn’t see the road-trip trend slowing down, even after widespread vaccinations.

“I think there will be a carry-over effect for people who have fallen back in love with the great American road trip,” he said.

Hotel struggles continue: Nationwide, the hotel industry “experienced the most devastating year on record in 2020,” according to a new report from the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Occupancy rates hovered in the low double-digits on average, layoffs were widespread and many hotels closed permanently.

“Travel is not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024,” the report said.

The good news is that leisure travel is expected to bounce back as the vaccine rollout ramps up. Business travel, however, “remains nearly nonexistent, though it is expected to begin its slow return in the second half of the year,” the report said.

Pederson, of Sightline Hospitality, is more optimistic even though six of the 20 hotels his company managed at the beginning of 2020 closed. He believes his company is “geared up for a second-half explosion” in 2021 and thinks a return to normalcy at hotels could arrive in 2022.

“It really depends on the market,” he said. Pederson believes that drive-to outdoor destinations, such as Lake Tahoe, are primed for early and sustained success. Urban markets, however, which are more dependent on corporate conventions and business travelers, could be in for another rough year.

“It’s really going to be a story of winners and losers,” Pederson said.

Short-term rentals tick up: As hotels have been forced to shut down due to pandemic restrictions or opted to close due to lagging travelers, people have turned to short-term vacation rentals.

Bookings at Vacasa, which manages more than 25,000 rental properties around the country, have spiked in the past three weeks for dates in 2021, according to Natalia Sutin, the company’s vice president of revenue management. “That tells us there’s confidence,” she said.

In California, where municipalities have passed regulations on short-term rentals in recent years, the trends show people booking places within reasonable driving distance of their homes and making last-minute reservations to places like Lake Tahoe, Sutin said. Listings in natural settings — like ski cabins and beachfront homes — have been especially popular.

“We fully expect that to continue in 2021,” she said.

Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle and outdoors. Email: gthomas@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @GregRThomas

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