Work from home to permanently change the way we travel; check out the ‘great untethering'
Some say it’s the most transformative thing to happen to the travel industry since commercial flights took off. Here’s why.
It was the first glimmer of hope for the beleaguered travel industry in 2020 when locked-down citizens started doing something new amid the pandemic: not working from home, but working from anywhere. Off they'd go for weeks or months at a time, to any locale with good surf and better Wi-Fi, to show off a new Zoom background after early morning swims. Today the era of decamping from your hometown might seem as far in the rear view mirror as a five-day, in-person workweek might appear on the horizon. But a new version of the trend is emerging—and it could prove a serious boon for the travel industry.
The ability to work from home is profoundly, and permanently, changing the way we travel. More lenient office policies mean many workers can travel anytime, even during busy workweeks, as long as they can hit deadlines from far afield. That, in turn, has made it easier for people to travel more frequently and for longer amounts of time, sometimes unlocking farther-flung destinations. The mixing of work and play, which some industry insiders (annoyingly) refer to as “bleisure” (business + leisure) travel, has greatly helped airlines make up for lost traffic.
“The ‘great untethering' isn't a trend, it's permanent,” says Chris Lehane, global head of policy and communications for Airbnb Inc. “It's a durable and enduring pattern that would have ultimately happened as society moved forward, even without the pandemic.”
“When you think about the technologies that have transformed travel, what we're doing now, communicating and working on Zoom, is maybe even bigger than the advent of steam trains or commercial flight,” Lehane continues. “The entire construct of travel is in the midst of a change right now.”
That's why companies as wide-ranging as Airbnb, Deloitte, and travel trade publication Skift have called the continuation of remote work the greatest change maker in travel for 2022. Here's how it will affect your own experiences on the road well beyond the pandemic's end.
You'll Take More Trips
According to a 2022 travel industry outlook from Deloitte, people with the intent to fit work into their journeys also planned to travel twice as often as those who sought time to unplug. “Laptop luggers,” as Deloitte refers to them, will take two to four trips a year, compared with one to two for “disconnectors,” and 75% of them will add extra time to their vacation. (Only 6% will extend by several weeks, but a majority—38%—will add from three to six days.)
“It's a benefit for the industry,” says Eileen Crowley, Deloitte's travel leader. “These work-from-home travelers are spending more. There's more potential there. They also fared a bit better financially during the pandemic, so they can increase their travel budgets as well.”
Kayak Chief Executive Officer Steve Hafner agrees. At a Skift conference previewing the megatrends that will shape travel in 2022, he said, “When you work from anywhere, that means more leisure travel. If you're liberated from an office, you can go to a lot of other places.”
Airbnb's Lehane says the ability to take work where your family wants to go means that “now you can organize your work life with your family at the center, as opposed to working your family around your job.”
And that also benefits hotels and destinations, as they become less reliant on excessively busy peak periods that have traditionally been deemed convenient times to travel—say, school vacation weeks.
Stays are getting longer, too. In a trends report for the year ahead, Airbnb shared that in the third quarter of 2021 (for which the most recent data were available), almost half of the nights booked on its platform were for stays of at least seven days, up from 44% in 2019. One out of every five gross nights booked in the quarter were for stays of 28 days or longer.
And data from vacation property management platform Guesty suggest the trend of extended stays has continued to grow during the pandemic. In 2021, 14-plus-day bookings grew 33% from a year earlier, with a cumulative rise of 121% since 2019.
Business Travel Will Have to Be More Fun
Don't count out pure business travel—it's still a thing. But it's also evolving. “Work culture is really being stymied by distributed teams,” says Evan Konwiser, executive vice president for product and strategy at American Express Global Business Travel. “We didn't realize how much we relied on offices for that. But now travel is emerging as a great way to de-commoditize your work experience.”
Gathering the team in a fun way, he says, has become a popular approach for 2022, even if a majority of companies are still opting to hold team-building events at their headquarters or in hybrid ways. But outliers—companies that are planning these retreats at, say, dude ranches—are increasing in popularity, spurring hope that vacation vibes can spill into business travel in the same way business has spilled into leisure trips.
Some are calling this a push for the “great reconnection.” Retreat-planning companies such as Troop and NextRetreat are among the travel industry startups that closed seed-funding rounds in 2021. And according to Skift, Salesforce.com Inc.'s Marc Benioff has even floated the possibility of building a “ranch-style resort for employees, where they can spend time team-building, take training sessions or even holiday with their families.”
Much of that is still sorting itself out. But expect more work trips in 2022, even if it's just to head back to the office on a quarterly basis to check in with the team.
“Wild and crazy off-sites in cool venues will become part of the mix, 100%,” Konwiser says. “But right now people are coming away saying it was so nice to be with my colleagues for a day.” And companies are going to go a greater distance to make sure the travel experience is a positive one, he adds. “I may have this one week to make you, team member, feel the power of our culture. Am I going to put you up at a highway motel or a cool boutique hotel in the heart of the city?”
Your Hotel May Look a Little Different
Because remote workers represent a whole new market for the travel industry to capture, accommodations providers will be racing to meet their needs—if they haven't done so already. For laptop luggers, home rentals have the upper hand, says Deloitte's Crowley, because they offer space to spread out and to separate work from play. And upstart companies like Landing, which charges users $199 per year to access a global portfolio of monthlong rental options, have sprung up to meet the demand of digital nomads.
Hotel companies are trying to muscle back into that territory, too. Citizen M, for instance, created a membership program that provides fixed nightly rates and discounts on food and beverage offerings when digital nomads commit to a monthlong stay; it typically works out to $1,500 a month even in pricey real estate markets such as New York, Amsterdam, or Paris. Hoxton hotels has announced special rates for commuters who need an overnight near the office, while Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., is among the hotels offering day rates for at-home workers in pursuit of extra space. More will surely follow. In other places, hotels are rethinking the old business center; some are transforming pool cabanas into indoor-outdoor workstations, or adding a wider array of office supplies (and printing services) to the standard in-room desk.
Resorts in luxury destinations, meanwhile, are moving to include home offices and other flexible spaces that can be outfitted with, say, fitness equipment or nursery gear. New constructions are being designed to feature fewer boxy rooms and more spacious suites. And never have general managers been so concerned with the strength and reliability of their Wi-Fi networks, either; that's a far cry from the days when free Wi-Fi was considered a luxury at all. (Remember: That wasn't too long ago.)
You May Not Get as Much R&R
One possible downside of blended travel is that people will forget the value of truly disconnecting. And the pressures of being “always on” may follow us wherever we go.
And don't count on getting a reservation wherever you want to go. Between pent-up demand and the ability to travel anytime, anywhere, availability at top resorts remains at an all-time low.
“We've had record-breaking years at several of our resorts,” says Craig Read, CEO of Auberge Resorts Collection. “The demand is just so high at some of our properties that even when I've asked if the reservations team can squeeze me in with my family for spring break, they shake their heads and say no way.”
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