Booking trends for UK consumers continue to be affected by a mix of ever-changing world events – including the burgeoning cost-of-living crisis, and the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Firebird director Chris Thompson, who works closely with a range of travel companies, shares his expert views on booking trends now, and for the next few years.
Thinking back just a few seasons ago, who among us could have predicted where we’d be by September 2022?
It’s been a surprising and uncertain ride, to put it mildly – with the sector repeatedly impacted by worldwide lockdowns, Brexit-related changes, disruptions at airports and train stations, the unfolding of the cost-of-living crisis, and with it the unprecedented rise of the energy price cap, potentially nudging the £6k mark next year.
"In many areas of the industry, business is most definitely on the up"
Discretionary spending surely has to take a hit. Yet, in many areas of the industry, business is most definitely on the up. Anecdotally, my peers and I have had the sense that while plenty of people have wanted to go abroad for some time now, a large proportion have been deterred by thoughts of viruses, travel confusion and so on, long after the third lockdown. But as far as 2023 goes, consumers have been looking at and booking getaways, assuming that those situations will have improved in a few months’ time, and perhaps being as yet undeterred by the prospect of weighty winter bills.
One contact’s cruise client is blazing ahead at the moment; a nugget of info I heard just this week. Similarly, luxury travel companies have seen a huge boost in sales, as recently reflected in Travel Weekly, with one high-end business reporting “Future travel sales for 2023 [that] are pacing 47% higher versus 2019 – a year described as a ‘high water-mark’ for the company.”
There is a seam of affluent customers out there, who maintained a steady income throughout the pandemic, found themselves spending less thanks to lockdown restrictions, and feel eager to make up for lost time, and lost vacations. These customers will be broadly unaffected by energy cap rises too; well off enough to absorb all increases without issue.
On a related note, we have also seen the return of older holidaymakers to the booking scene. These are the people with homes and stable finances who want to resume their globetrotting habits and – frankly – seize the day, now Covid is causing fewer fears and travel headaches internationally.
"For many, it's all systems go"
In the coming months, a slice of this market may well adapt their booking habits once more, with some older travellers tending towards conservative expenditure, even when they have plenty of money to spare. In the meantime, for many, it’s all systems go. My own mother is one of the customers raring to dive back in – the first person I knew to book for the next ski season, and take advantage of her free senior ski pass. Which brings me neatly on to another trend…
To the surprise of a fair few punters, ski bookings have been strong so far this year, with the 2023 calendar filling up fast for all my contacts in this area of the industry. Though we all heard prophecies that, given the wallet-tightening state of the UK, families would choose to skip skiing season in favour of retaining their summer holidays, the companies I know are enjoying customer bookings in healthy numbers; attracting those who have dearly missed the slopes, and can’t wait to return to them.
Of course, those tightening wallets have had an impact, and low-budget holidays are proving to be a boon for travel companies – a trend that is likely to last for a while yet.
So who, in travel and leisure, might find the next few months and years harder to weather? My money is on the mid-market providers – i.e. those falling between the low- and high-end, and whose products do not appeal to niche consumers. For them, the market already looks shaky: these providers need to attract significant quantities of consumers to make a profit, and attempting to drive up volume brings with it the need to compete on price.
Some trend-trackers, like those shown on the TravelPerk website’s 2022 round-up, are reporting a growing interest in the realm of sustainable travel – though I’m currently unconvinced that this aspect is driving significant changes in booking habits at this point. Sustainability may be at the back of many a traveller’s mind, and rightly so. But, so far, I’ve yet to witness any consumer-led calls to make this an industry standard. Thankfully, a good number of companies – such as Intrepid, Much Better Adventures and Green Traveller – are nevertheless doing positive things to align their business with the green agenda.
Conversely, I have seen a reduction in business travel generally, post-pandemic. Why waste time, money and carbon emissions on jetting across the world for regular meetings, when videoconferencing tools can unite people in just a few clicks? Instead, I’ve observed more corporate customers using travel to bring remote workers together from time to time, to create a sense of unity, and strengthen social bonds.
Looking ahead, how confidently can we predict the shape of 2023, 2024 and the years that follow for travel? That, I’m afraid, is a tough one. What I can say for certain is that the future looks… uncertain.
"Consumer behaviour still isn't back to normal. It's fragile and fluctuating"
As important as it is to consider travel trends, there is a danger of reading too much into how this year is playing out. Consumer behaviour still isn’t back to normal. It’s fragile and fluctuating. My guess is that it won’t be until 2024, or possibly even later than this, that reliable booking patterns begin to emerge; a process that is sure to be slowed in the meantime by the economic downturn.
Which is not to say operators should throw up their hands and stumble on blindly: there are plenty of things we can do to progress through this period, and come out thriving. The advice I’m giving to my clients right now is to prioritise margins over increasing volume. There will be opportunities to grow for those who have a tightly defined niche, and who genuinely understand the spending power and wants/needs of their client base.
"It's crucial to focus on resilience and flexibility"
It's also crucial to focus on resilience and flexibility. Company owners need to keep a close eye on their models and forecasts; to stay adaptable; to accept that this period of worldwide change and fragility is ongoing.
Are you a business leader looking to drive growth, raise investment, or sell your company in today’s market? Get in touch with the team at Firebird, and start the journey there.
Learn more about Firebird’s services at www.firebirdpartnership.com
Chris Thompson is a Director of the Firebird Partnership, with almost 20 years’ experience of leading and growing businesses in the travel and tech sectors. His focus is on creating strategy, building teams, and devising processes that are both efficient and value-building.
Also by Chris Thompson: