Leisure travel rebounds as delta variant fades
Travel and leisure companies are reporting strong sales gains and interest from tourists
Vacationers are returning to the roads and sky in the U.S. after an earlier pullback caused by the Delta variant, setting expectations for a busy holiday travel season.
After nearly two years of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, travel and leisure companies are reporting strong sales gains and interest from tourists. Bookings are rising. Rooms are filling up. Shows are being added.
Uncertainties still remain. Business travel is returning more slowly, recovery in some parts of the world is choppy and another rise in Covid-19 cases is a threat. But executives say the disruption from the Delta variant in late summer has mostly passed.
"The travel rebound is here despite the continued pandemic," Airbnb Inc. Chief Executive Brian Chesky said Thursday. Shares of Airbnb rose 13% Friday following the home-sharing company’s earnings update.
The Delta wave of the Covid-19 pandemic appears past its peak, with new cases, hospitalizations and deaths declining in most U.S. states. Public-health experts say factors driving the decline likely include an incremental uptake in vaccines and the return of precautions like mask-wearing in certain areas.
Investors picked up on the recent optimism expressed by travel and leisure companies and the prospects of a reopening economy. Shares of many airliners, cruise operators, casino operators and travel companies rose more than 5%. Overall, the Dow Jones U.S. Travel & Leisure Index jumped 4.6% Friday and is up 17% so far this year.
The U.S. is set to lift border restrictions on Monday, adding to the travel demand. "When the U.S. announced that international visitors could come starting Nov. 8 if they’re vaccinated, that increased our bookings immediately," Glenn Fogel, chief executive of online travel agency Booking Holdings Inc., said in an interview this week. Booking shares rose 7.5% Friday.
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Hyatt Hotels Corp. , which turned a profit for the third quarter, expects revenue from short leisure stays at its Americas resorts to track 25% ahead of 2019 levels for the last weeks of December, CEO Mark Hoplamazian said. "At this pace, we anticipate the festive season could be one of the strongest we’ve ever experienced," Mr. Hoplamazian said. Hyatt shares rose 3% on Friday.
A survey of about 6,500 people in September by Deloitte LLP found about four in 10 Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and early January.
Some leisure companies said they are seeing strong demand well into 2022. Live Nation Entertainment Inc. said it has more shows booked for next year than it did at this point in 2019 for 2020. Cruise operators Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. , both of which suffered from more than yearlong hiatus in the U.S. before resuming sailings, said they expect to be profitable at some point in 2022.
"As cases have come down, demand has come surging back," Royal Caribbean Group finance chief Jason Liberty said last week.
Candy Delgado, 64, said she and her husband went on a Disney cruise in the Caribbean this week. Ms. Delgado said she felt comfortable going on a cruise despite Covid-19 risks, as she had been vaccinated and the ship was operating at a lower occupancy.
"We’re pretty good at social distancing and practicing safe processes," Ms. Delgado said.
Travel recovery, however, remains uneven across the world. Booking Holdings, which operates websites such as Priceline and Kayak, saw some improvement in the level of lodging bookings from international travel, but international room nights remain below 2019 levels, Mr. Fogel said.
Travel-search platform Trivago NV said it doesn’t expect a full rebound in travel over the winter because of uncertainty about the Covid-19 pandemic, and travel restrictions in Asia and Australia have hurt traffic volumes in its segment that covers the rest of the world.
But Trivago said it expects travel demand and behavior to approach pre-pandemic levels in the Americas and Europe in spring and early summer 2022, with a strong rebound in city and international travel. Trivago shares rose more than 15% Friday.
In China, recovery for hotel chain Marriott International Inc. has been choppier because of the country’s Covid-zero policy, CEO Anthony Capuano said. China is adhering to its playbook of neighborhood lockdowns, location tracking, weekslong quarantines and indefinitely delayed visas, in an effort to eradicate every single case of the virus.
|H||HYATT HOTELS CORP.||106.43||-2.20||-2.03%|
|LYV||LIVE NATION ENTERTAINMENT INC.||65.34||-0.90||-1.36%|
|RCL||ROYAL CARIBBEAN GROUP||61.75||+1.01||+1.66%|
|DIS||THE WALT DISNEY CO.||95.83||+0.93||+0.98%|
|BKNG||BOOKING HOLDINGS INC.||2,538.76||-19.48||-0.76%|
|MAR||MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL INC.||159.98||-3.23||-1.98%|
"Demand then fell significantly in August after the government imposed strict lockdowns in response to small regional Covid outbreaks," Mr. Capuano said. "Demand then swiftly rose again in September as soon as those restrictions were lifted." Marriott shares added 2.1% on Friday.
Companies said leisure travel has been the main force of recovery as the Delta variant weighed on business travel and companies’ return-to-office plans. Marriott said continuing demand for leisure travel propelled gains in its recent quarter, while the spread of the Delta variant hurt parts of its business involving corporate travelers.
Some companies are seeing signs of business travel’s return. The number of rides with Lyft Inc. to the airport nearly tripled in the third quarter from last year. Finance chief Brian Roberts said some of those airport rides could signal the beginning of corporate travel.
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"We’re beginning to see an uptick in business travel, but it’s early," Mr. Roberts said. "And we expect that this will become more pronounced as more companies return to the office."
Amid rising demand, travel-related companies are looking to add staff. Hiring in the leisure and hospitality industries, which includes restaurants, drove U.S. job gains in October.
Hyatt is still working to fill thousands of open positions across the country, Mr. Hoplamazian said. And like other businesses, hotels are also absorbing the effects of inflation. Anecdotally, Hyatt has seen wage rates going up 10% to 20% depending on the location and category of labor, its CEO said.
"The labor market remains really tight," Mr. Hoplamazian said.