The travel sector still faces an uncertain 2021 but the pandemic is already shaping booking patterns and new brochure offerings.

When travel returns it will come back with a bang. At least that’s the hope of the trade, with signs that pent-up demand will lead to both higher spirits and consumer spends. 

After the turmoil of 2020, the vaccine roll-out should herald a greater normality – perhaps from the summer on – but uncertainty is the watchword. Meanwhile, new product from operators reflects both pandemic trends and longer-term hopes.

New product

Villas, the perfect accommodation for ‘bubble holidays’, have been among easier recent sells and specialist Oliver’s Travels has launched a Maldives collection featuring some of the destination’s largest. 

By contrast, it is also debuting more Scottish castles for staycations and has launched chic French island Il de Re and foodie favourite Piedmont in Italy. 

Agents will receive new offers from Planet Holidays for Athens and islands’ twin-centres with September departures. The operator has added smaller Greek islands such as Leros and boosted accommodation, particularly on Santorini. Domes of Corfu is among the new-launch hotels for 2021. 

Madeira and Malta are new for Sovereign and the operator has expanded across the UAE, Caribbean and Thailand. Among its highlight properties is the new IKOS Andalusia. Other big-name hotels opening in 2021 include Bvlgari Hotel Paris; Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid; Kempinski Palace Engelberg in the Swiss Alps and Six Senses in Rome and Ibiza. 

Intrepid Travel is running its first season of Antarctica expedition cruises in winter 2021/22 on-board Ocean Endeavour. 

Elsewhere it’s playing safe with new UK and Ireland experiences like trekking the Wicklow Mountains, hiking the Cairngorms with reindeer and exploring Hadrian’s Wall. 

“The trips are designed to support local communities impacted by the pandemic and help travellers uncover the hidden spots away from the tourist trail,” says Zina Bencheikh, Managing Director EMEA. 

UK and Europe cycling itineraries are also seeing healthy demand. “For the safety conscious, cycling offers natural social distancing and lots of time outdoors. It’s also one of the most eco-friendly ways to see the world,” says Bencheikh. “Some of the most popular choices for next year are Cycle the Lake District and, booking further ahead, Vietnam, Jordan and Morocco.” 

Upgrades and bucket lists

While numerous jobs and businesses have been lost to the pandemic, financially stable clients may have saved on commuting costs, nights out and 2020 holidays and be looking to splash this extra cash on so-called ‘revenge travel’ to make up for a year of missed travel opportunities. 

In the wake of the vaccine roll-out announcement, Saga launched a Once in a Lifetime collection following a spike in website searches for the likes of the Trans-Siberian Railway, India and New Zealand.

‘Saving and upgrading’ is very much the trend, agrees Kuoni, which has seen bookings a year or more ahead for bucket list safaris and holidays with extra luxuries such as business class tickets, helicopter transfers and hot air balloon flights. 

Upgrades are also trending for Sovereign, but in line with ongoing Covid concerns.

 Head of Trade Partnerships, Simon Garrido, explains: “Families are booking suites to have more space and their own pool facilities. All-inclusives mean guests can be confident of the resort’s food and hygiene standards. They can also monitor social distancing better than when eating out and they can choose to eat meals in their room if there’s space to do so.”

Sovereign’s clients are also extending from seven to 10 nights and others to 21 days. Also, thanks to ‘workation’ opportunities, the operator is offering long-stay packages in the Maldives, Mauritius, the Mediterranean and Caribbean, discounted by up to 60%. 

Oliver’s Travels is also experiencing workation demand, particularly for the shoulder seasons. “As a result, phone signal and strong wifi connection in properties is regularly enquired about and is important to customers when they are deciding where to book,” points out Co-Founder, Oliver Bell. 

Villas and small properties are trending for Planet Holidays, with most requests for August onwards. 

Managing Director, Mathilde Robert expects 2021 to be a game of extremes. “There are two types of clients: the ones who have little disposable income but still want a holiday and will be looking for very cheap deals, which will be hard to find, especially in high season, and the top- end-of-the-market clients who did not have a holiday in 2020 and will want to spend more and upgrade,” she said.

Space and family

Bucket list ambitions are being coupled with a desire for space in Intrepid’s forward bookings, with Vietnam, Nepal and Peru best-sellers and polar trips, including its new Antarctica cruises, drawing interest. 

“We’re seeing strong demand for all types of wilderness travel as people want to spend more time outdoors, from the Galapagos to Costa Rica,” explains Bencheikh.

In a similar vein, PATA’s 2021 Travel Patterns Report notes increasing demand for off-grid hotels and community-based experiences in Asia Pacific, plus ‘slow travel’ immersive holidays in one location. 

Chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) UK & Ireland, Chris Crampton, said: “Our tour operator members have reported huge amounts of excitement from clients that now have the confidence to rebook their 2020 travel plans for 2021. Chic Locations’ bookings in November were really strong, their best month since April, largely dominated by the Maldives. Mid-haul destinations such as Oman and Dubai are proving favourable as the flight time is manageable and they offer relaxing beach holidays with a mix of culture and adventure. There is pent-up demand for Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bali, all excellent value-for-money holidays, and villa holidays.”

Oliver’s Travels is not expecting a sudden shift from last year’s habits, with the UK and France still driving bookings. 

“I think seclusion will continue to be a key trend, with people looking for places they can disconnect and relax in privacy away from as many other people as possible,” says Bell. “For many, this will mean staying local and visiting places that are easily accessible by car.”

Clients are also keen to make up for lost family time. A quarter of Intrepid’s top 25 itineraries booked during the second half of 2020 were for family-themed tours (notably in Africa and Asia) compared to 12% during the same period in 2019. Bencheikh adds: “We’re also seeing appetite for multi-generational or extended family groups as families want to reunite after time apart.”  

Big events in 2021

The summer Olympics in Japan tops the list of major events still hoping to run but by mid-January hopes were fading. 

Meanwhile, Greece hopes to celebrate its bicentenary of independence with (Covid-permitting) outdoor events this summer. In France fingers are firmly crossed for the bi-annual Semaine du Golfe regatta in Brittany and the Le Mans classic car race. In December, a rare total eclipse should be visible from Antarctica and South Africa. 

While this year is still something of a guessing game, some themes are more certain. With restrictions remaining, staycations and European corridor hops (when possible) will dominate. Families will be looking to reconnect, so expect multi-generational holidays later in the year. And financially unscathed clients will be looking at bucket list destinations and add-ons.