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Airbnb Sees Regional Travel Boom in 2021, Less ‘Mass Travel’

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(Bloomberg) -- Even as countries are beginning to roll out vaccines against Covid-19, travel in 2021 will be focused on regional destinations rather than international tourist meccas, according to a report released by Airbnb Inc. on Thursday.

Major cities like Toronto, New York, and London were some of Airbnb’s biggest destinations in the second half of 2019. But the pandemic swooped in and shut down travel for months last year. As restrictions eased over the summer, smaller, low-profile destinations were in high demand, a trend Airbnb sees continuing this year. So far, the biggest increase in searches for booking include destinations like Rodanthe, on the outer banks of North Carolina, and Muskoka Lakes, a few hours’ drive from Toronto.

Exactly when people will feel ready to travel is hard to predict but vaccine distribution will determine traveler behavior, Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky said. People “want to travel to places that are private -- not around a lot of people -- or, in cities and communities where most people have been vaccinated,” Chesky said in an interview at the Bloomberg Year Ahead conference Thursday.

The U.S. travel report derides the “long lines” and “shuttles” of mass tourism, saying that people are eager to travel again to see loved ones, not landmarks. In the midst of the pandemic, Airbnb saw record bookings for family travel, or groups of five or more.

According to the report, 54% of people surveyed said they have already booked travel or expect to travel this year. A strong majority, 56%, say the prefer a domestic or local destination versus 21% who are keen to visit someplace international and far away.

To predict travel trends for 2021, the report cites a public opinion poll conducted by ClearPath Strategies and internal Airbnb data through the third quarter of 2020.

Since April, travelers have most often opted for bookings 50-500 miles from their home. Of those surveyed, 55% reported being “very” or “extremely” interested in taking a trip within driving distance. Pre-pandemic, most Airbnb bookings were more than 500 miles from home. With shorter distances comes quicker decisions. Airbnb said travelers have become more spontaneous, booking closer to their travel dates. And flexibility with work and school schedules means trips will be more spread out over time, which would also help reduce crowds.

“I don’t think you’re going to have this flood of everyone going on the same week to Las Vegas or Miami or L.A.,” Chesky said.

Highlighting the pandemic’s unequal impact, Americans planning to travel in 2021 skew younger and wealthier. Three fourths of people making more than $100,000 a year plan to travel in 2021, while only 58% of those earning less than $50,000 say the same. A majority of Americans under 50 plan to travel in 2021, compared with 45% over that age.

Luxury travel will likely outperform other sectors in 2021, due to increased savings rates among wealthy Americans, according to a report from AllianceBernstein Holding LP dated Jan. 27.

Business travel is unlikely to return to the way it was pre-pandemic, as technology has proven that it’s often expendable. It’s also Americans’ least-missed out-of-home activity anyway, according to the report. While Airbnb has pushed for more share of the business travel market in recent years, it’s not as dependent on it as other companies in the industry. Marriott International Inc. and Expedia Group Inc., reported a 57% and 58% drop in sales in the third quarter of 2020, respectively, compared with an 18% drop for Airbnb.

Last May, Airbnb cut 1,900 employees, or 25% of its workforce, in what Chesky says was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. Since then, the company has hired “a handful” of employees back, and is optimistic about being able to do more down the road, but for now is still “fairly cautious about the pace of bringing people back.”

Now that Airbnb is a public company, after listing on the stock market in December, Chesky said he feels a greater sense of responsibility -- for his shareholders, the hosts and also for content on the platform. That sentiment figured into the company’s decision to cancel reservations at Airbnb’ in the Washington area ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration in the aftermath of riots at the Capitol. The responsibility of being a CEO today is different than it was decades ago, he said. “The people are watching. Our responsibility is to everyone.”

(Updates with comments from CEO from third paragraph.)

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