Prices up, service & satisfaction down at hotels

We’re writing this post from a hotel where we’re paying more than we’d planned to and getting way less comfort and service than we expect.

And that seems to be the travel experience many others are having in this easing-out-of-the-pandemic season.

According to the recent J.D. Power 2022 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, while demand for hotel rooms is on the rise, and prices for hotel rooms are way up, there is no improvement in amenities or service.

The study found that overall hotel guest satisfaction declines 8 points – on a 1,000-point scale – from 2021, driven primarily by dissatisfaction with cost and fees, and guest rooms.

“During the period of the study—June 2021 through May 2022—the average daily rate for branded hotels has risen 34.8%,” said Andrea Stokes, hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. “Many hotel owners and operators are using this post-pandemic surge in travel to get back on a steady financial footing, yet they held back on investing in upgrades and improvements during the pandemic.

Here are some other findings from the 2022 study:

Does that sound like what you’re experiencing with your recent hotel stays?

• The single biggest factor driving the decline in overall satisfaction is hotel cost and fees.
• While hotels still get relatively high satisfaction scores for guest room cleanliness, scores for décor and furnishings, in-room amenities, and quality of bathrooms have declined from a year ago.
• More guests are paying for internet access.
• Fewer staff interactions: frontline hotel staff are spread thinner this year due to the industry labor shortage.

Image courtesy Joel Ross – Room 28

Where to stay?

Hoping to stack the deck in terms of satisfaction with your next hotel stay?

Here are the hotel brands that rank highest in the J.D. Power study for guest satisfaction in their respective segments:

Luxury: The Ritz-Carlton (885) (for a second consecutive year)
Upper Upscale: Hard Rock Hotels (883) (for a second consecutive year)
Upscale: Hilton Garden Inn (868)

Upscale Extended Stay: Hyatt House (857)
Upper Midscale: Drury Hotels (877) (for the 17th consecutive year)

Upper Midscale/Midscale Extended Stay: Sonesta Simply Suites (852)
Midscale: Wingate by Wyndham (849)
Economy: WoodSpring Suites (798)

Extended Stay hotels playing the long game

[This is a story we wrote for, and which first appeared on NBC News in a slightly different form]

Courtesy Home2 Suites by Hilton

Extended Hotels are having a moment

As travel picks up and the phenomenon of remote work continues to blur the lines between business and leisure, extended-stay hotels are having a moment.

Last year, the average occupancy rate for extended-stay properties climbed to 73% percent, compared to just 56 percent for hotels in general, according to data from STR, a research firm. Now, big hotel operators and real estate developers are investing heavily to make that moment last.

 “There is a definite blurring of business and leisure that includes longer stays since employees can work from anywhere,” says Daniel Finkel, chief commercial officer for TripActions, a corporate travel service.

 That blur has turned Airbnb and some other vacation rental companies into money-minting machines. During an earnings call last week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told investors that 2021 was the company’s “best year in history.” He also described the changing landscape: Over the past two years, the average stay increased by 15 percent. Stays of a week or more now represent half of all nights booked, and long-term stays of 28 nights, or more, have become Airbnb’s fastest-growing type of booking.

 The hotel industry has heard the message

 Although extended-stay hotels still account for less than 10 percent of the total lodging market, their share has been growing, according to STR. And nearly every major hotel brand is adding, or has announced plans to add, properties that cater to travelers looking to stay awhile. Chains such as Extended Stay America, Homewood Suites by Hilton, and Residence Inn by Marriott, for instance, are light on amenities, but typically offer more space, full kitchens or kitchenettes, and lower rates than full-service hotels. 

 Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, which already operates the mid-priced Hawthorn Suites chain, plans to launch its first economy-level, extended-stay brand this spring. CEO Geoff Ballotti announced the launch last week during an earnings call with investors, where he described the extended-stay market as “recession and pandemic proof.”

 “I see it (extended stay) as one of the fastest-growing and one of the most exciting segments in the hospitality business,” said Kevin Davis, Americas CEO for the hotels and hospitality division of JLL, a commercial real estate service company.  “The sector has attracted a tremendous amount of investor interest.” 

 In January, real estate heavyweights, Blackstone Inc. and Starwood Capital Group, which includes nearly a dozen hotels brands, together ponied up $1.5 billion for more than 100 properties from WoodSpring Suites. That deal came just a couple of months after the pair paid more than $6 billion for Extended Stay America, with more than 650 locations across the country.

What’s the attraction?

 What’s the attraction? For 2019, the last ‘normal’ year for the industry, the average profitability for all full-service U.S. hotels was 27 percent, according to Carter Wilson, senior vice president of consulting for STR. “But it is not uncommon to see extended-stay properties putting 40 percent to 50 percent to the bottom line,” he said, even though prices are low.

A five-night stay at Extended Stay in Minneapolis, for instance, starts at about $75 a night. Marriott’s Residence Inn, one of the higher-priced, extended-stay options, costs $111 a night.

But fewer amenities and longer stays mean operating costs are lower, too. Housekeeping is typically offered once a week, rather than every day. Room service, if available at all, is limited. No one is restocking the minibar or replacing the coffee pods, and with fewer guests coming and going, the front desk requires fewer workers.

Peter Caputo, a senior hospitality executive with Deloitte, thinks the luxury equation could change, as the market expands, and new players come in. Even full-service hotels have been seeing more travelers who stay for a week. “People are used to having more space at home and now that they’re back traveling, road warriors will want more space and more upscale amenities wherever they are staying. Much like boutique hotels might offer,” Caputo said.

WhyHotel, for instance, turns apartments that are yet to be leased into temporary hotel rooms available for extended stays. The start-up has properties in a handful of cities, including Nashville, Tennessee, where a two-week stay starts at $160 per night for a studio. Prices are higher in New York City and Miami.

Pets getting the extended stay treatment too

Some hotel operators are looking to cash in by appealing to the needs of a different type of traveler altogether: one that often has four legs. Hilton WorldWide Holdings, for instance, recently made its extended-stay properties 100 percent pet-friendly. Pet fees at the company’s Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites start at $50 per stay. Hilton has also partnered with the pet food giant Mars Petcare to offer on-call pet experts who can answer guests’ questions on pet health, wellness, and behavior.

That could be a selling point for millions of pet owners, who have yet to road-test the new companions who entered their lives during the pandemic.

Airlines, tourist hot spots ready for return of International Travelers

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News)

Starting Nov. 8, the United States will begin welcming welcoming fully vaccinated international air travelers, under a new less restrictive set of Covid-19 regulations.

The new rules require that, with very limited exceptions, non-U.S. citizens flying to the U.S. from more than 30 countries must be fully vaccinated and test negative for the coronavirus three days before they board their flight.

“For passengers who are not fully vaccinated, the rules will tighten to require a test taken no more than one day before departing to the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

The CDC is also requiring airlines to collect contract tracing information from passengers boarding flights to the United States.

The relaxed restrictions are good news for a U.S. travel industry that has been hammered by the pandemic — and (mostly) good news for international travelers hoping to visit the U.S. for business or leisure. 

Already, airline searches — and sales — for flights to the U.S. have spiked.

“We have seen an increase in ticket sales for international travel over the past weeks, and are eager to begin safely reuniting the countless families, friends and colleagues who have not seen each other in nearly two years, if not longer,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of airline trade association Airlines for America, said in a statement.

Along with increased tickets sales, though, come increased prices. The cost of an international flight is up by an average of 12 percent from last month, Adit Damodaran, economist for travel booking app Hopper.

“We expect international prices to rise another 15 percent from now until the holidays,” he said. 

Travelers heading to the U.S. are likely to find crowded airports and long check-in lines.

Many airlines are still struggling with staffing and retraining issues, said Daniel Burnham, senior member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights. And because airline personnel will now be tasked with verifying vaccine records and Covid-19 test results at the check-in counter and collecting contact tracing information, “this will likely cause crowding in the early days of implementing these new rules at many European airports.”

What will happen to airfares and hotel rates?

“Travel searches on Expedia and have been simmering in anticipation of the borders reopening and came to a full boil the moment the U.S. pinpointed November 8,” said Melanie Fish of Expedia Brands. “Increased demand in 2022 is likely going to mean fewer travel bargains are out there.”

The bargains are likely to fade first at hotels in popular U.S. cities. “It’s expected that city hotels in the U.S. will be in high demand — a reverse in trend over the past 18 months,” says Misty Belles, vice president for global public relations at Virtuoso travel network. “So, say goodbye to low rates and flexible cancellation policies.”Cities such as Orlando, New York, and Seattle are excited to welcome back international visitors, who contributed significantly to local economies in typical, pre-pandemic years.

Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, notes that the new requirements for vaccinated international travelers visiting the U.S are “especially valuable for families traveling with children under age 18, who will be exempt from the vaccination requirement and allowed entry as long as they meet the negative testing requirements.” That’s a plus for the theme-park-rich Orlando area.

Kauilani Robinson, director of public relations for Visit Seattle, said “we hope to see our international visitations climb back to pre-pandemic levels, but know it will take some time to get there since travel booked right now is largely cautionary travel and booked at the last minute. But we’re expecting to see that increase as we get into November.”

In New York City, international travel typically generates 50 percent of tourism spending and 50 percent of hotel room nights. “International visitors stay longer and spend more,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO at NYC & Company, the city’s visitors bureau. “The decision to open international borders safely is the news we have been waiting for and the shot in the arm for our industry.”

There is not yet a universally recognized mobile travel pass or travel passport for vaccine and COVID-19 test results. But there are tools, to help travelers figure out what will be required of them at the check-in counter. These include Delta FlyReady, United Airlines’ Travel-Ready Center, and Verifly, which is used by American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and others. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has developed a Travel Pass currently recognized by more than 50 international airlines. 

Bonus: Here’s a short spot we did for NBC News Now based on this story.

Ready for July 4th travel adventures?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Swimsuit packed? How about your patience?

If you are heading out of town for the July 4th holiday weekend, you will likely need both.

More than 47.7 million Americans will on the nation’s roadways and in the skies during this Independence Day holiday, July 1–5, says the American Automobile Association (AAA).

That will be very close to pre-pandemic levels and the second-highest Independence Day travel volume on record.

In normal times holiday travel can be frustrating. But as the nation makes its way out of the pandemic, there is a lot more than usual riding on this weekend.  

Road Trips Still Rule

Despite the shortage of rental cars and the highest gas prices in seven years, AAA expects more than 91% of holiday travel will be by car. An expected 43.6 million Americans will drive to their destinations, says AAA. That the highest on record for this holiday and 5% more than the previous record set in 2019. 

All those cars hitting the road means congested highways.

“With travelers eager to hit the road this summer, we’re expecting nationwide traffic volumes to increase about 15% over normal this holiday weekend,” says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX. “Drivers around major metro areas must be prepared for significantly more delays.”

In addition to loading up tunes and travel apps, experts suggest holiday road trippers do a refresh on safe following distances and remember that many motor home drivers are still getting used to maneuvering their new RVs.

Advice for Air Travelers

3.5 million people are planning to fly over the July 4th holiday, and air travel volumes are expected to reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels. That is an increase of 164% compared to last year, says AAA.

Earlier this month, analysts at travel site Hopper said a good deal on domestic airfare for July 4th was around $302 round-trip and $775 round-trip for international travel, on par with 2019’s July 4th prices. Prices will, of course, spike closer to holiday weekend, when Hopper expects average domestic round-trip prices to be closer to $500.  

If you do not have tickets yet and are determined to fly somewhere, Hopper economist Adit Damodaran suggests checking with low cost/budget carriers, such as Southwest and Spirit, especially on their new routes. Newcomers Breeze and Avelo, serving secondary airports, may still have good fares as well.

Getting through airports during holiday weekends was frustrating before the pandemic. This year, it could be much worse, due to a temporary shortage of TSA officers, airline staff, and airport shop and restaurants workers. Add to that new airport protocols, the rash of unruly travelers, and passengers who show up at the security checkpoint with everything from oversized liquids to guns and other prohibited items because they’re forgotten how to pack.  

“The challenge will be to keep things moving smoothly,” says Sherry Stein, Head of Technology for SITA, an air transport technology company. But “mobile-enabled technology such as self-service bag tag kiosks that limit contact while improving efficiency” will help.

What about buses and trains?

Southwest Chief near Fishers Peak, Colorado.

AAA expects 620,000 Americans to travel by bus, train, and other modes this holiday weekend, an increase of over 72% compared to last year.  

While overall ridership on Amtrak is running at about 55% of pre-pandemic levels, says Doug Duval, an Amtrak spokesman, “We are currently showing riders down 14% compared to FY19. This is trending to be the best holiday since the pandemic started.”

Bus ridership is on the rise too, says Jan Jones, program coordinator for the Hospitality and Management program at the University of New Haven.  

But staffing is a problem here too. “During the pandemic, bus lines furloughed and laid off many employees, “Drivers aren’t rushing back,” says Jones, “So, July 4th travelers may be limited in terms of where they can go by bus.”

Hotels and campsites

TripIt trip planning company reports that lodging reservations are well above the reservation volume for last year, at 163% of 2020 bookings. 

Many travelers have already booked their July 4th hotel stays and desirable properties in popular destinations, such as Hawaii, Florida and beach destinations in Maryland and South Carolina may already be filled up or showing high prices.

But late planners are not totally out of luck. “If you know the hotel or hotel brand you want to stay with, try their mobile apps or websites because they usually offer a best rate guarantee,” says Paul Barron, EVP Marketing, Hospitality at Amadeus. Loyalty program members booking directly on a hotel website often receive personalized offers not available on other sites, he added.

Campgrounds and RV resort operators are reporting higher than usual bookings for this July 4th holiday too. But not all spots are taken; websites for camping enthusiasts, such as, are reporting plenty of vacancies still available.

Too daunting? Ditch the drama.

While you may be itching to get back to big cities and popular tourist locales, for this July 4 holiday, “You will likely find more availability for flights and hotels or vacation rentals near smaller towns,” says Jen Moyse, Senior Director of Product for TripIt.

Or do a pivot and “don’t travel at all,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Jessica Scot, of Denver’s J. Scott Travel. “Instead, spend the long weekend penciling out your travel schedule for the future. If there is anything the pandemic taught us, it is not to wait to take that dream trip, or to visit a far-away friend or family member.”

Time to hit the road

Topiary Dinosaur in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood getting a spring refresh

Overnight car trips. Visits to roadside attractions. Airport hang-out time. It all seems possible now that the weather is getting nice and so many people are vaccinated and honoring all the stay-healthy rules.

When we go. We won’t be out there alone.

Our email is filled with studies, surveys, and proclamations about the travel rebound already underway.

AAA Travel expects more than 37 million people to travel 50 miles or more away from home over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. That is an increase of 60% over last year when a record low 23 million people traveled.

Are there deals to be had at hotels and attractions and on planes? Don’t count on it

“Travel inflation is real and deals are hard to come by for summer and out months,” says Clayton Reid, CEO of global travel, tourism, and marketing company MMGY Global. “While we do expect deals in city centers to some degree, where the recovery of urban hotels and attractions is lagging, demand is so high that prices are actually going up in many places. Even airfares are on the rise because demand is outweighing airlines’ reduced schedules.”

Deals may not matter

This colorful Tripit chart shows that vaccinated Americans are ready to get out on the road as soon as they can. What about you?

We’re ready. Our suitcase has been patiently waiting by the door.