We looked at hotel search trends. Here is what we found.

This is a first in a series of travel industry deep dives into changing organic search behaviors as a result of COVID-19. The focus here will be on traditional hospitality and hotels.
NASA photo from space of United States
Photo courtesy of NASA

No sector within travel was left unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That much is sure. 

But, less clear are the resulting shifts in consumer behavior and the impact on organic search intent.

Seeing as SEO is at the core of our offering here at Wildebeest, we were curious to analyze the data a bit more to see what insights could be gleaned. The goal is to highlight the current areas of opportunity from an SEO perspective, and provide some direction as to overall movement of travelers as the recovery takes shape. 

Armed with this data, companies can better understand the landscape to plan future product pivots and/or marketing campaigns.

Our Methodology

First, we looked at the top 10 U.S. markets by hotel revenue in 2019, according to Lodging Magazine. We did not differentiate between business and leisure. 

These were, in order:

  1. New York
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Washington D.C.
  4. Orlando
  5. Chicago
  6. San Francisco
  7. Boston
  8. Miami
  9. San Diego
  10. Atlanta

Next we pulled historical organic search volume for the top search term during the six-month period March 2019 – August 2019 and compared that to the same period in 2020. For this exercise, we looked only at ‘fathead’ keywords and not ‘long tail’ (e.g. ‘hotels in Orlando’ instead of ‘family friendly hotel near Sea World in March).

The Wildebeest team analyzed both recovery trends within any single given market and also an aggregate of the data across all markets above.

Finally, we used Google Trends to get a gauge of currently trending search terms related to hotels across the United States. 

2019 vs. 2020 – search trends

Every market experienced some degree of decline in search volume in 2020 compared to 2019.

Those cities that saw the largest drop year over year were: Boston (-68%), San Francisco (-67%), Washington D.C. (-64%), and New York (-63%). Cities faring better include: Miami (-21%) and Atlanta (-31%).

These figures are in line with the spread of the pandemic across the country as well as local lockdown laws and regulations. 

Boston was one of the first cities affected by COVID-19 after the Biogen conference in late February was linked to nearly 3% of total U.S. cases. San Francisco, and much of California, went into early lockdown and stayed that way until the summer. New York, of course, was hard hit early on and currently has the most total cases of any U.S. metro area. 

On the flip side, many tourists continued to flock to Miami beaches during the spring break season, despite warnings from health officials.

Recovery has also been uneven across markets. 

On the positive side, as of August 2020, Atlanta is only 4% off in search volume from its 2019 6-month average volume. Search intent in San Diego is also performing nicely, down only 6%. 

However, Washington D.C (-58%) and Boston (-51%) still have a lot to claw back before returning to 2019 levels. 

This makes intuitive sense, in that travelers were searching for outdoor and beach destinations as summer weather started to approach. While Washington D.C. is popular among leisure travelers, it’s also heavy with government business travelers, who are now home-bound. Plus, indoor attractions like the Smithsonian just started to open towards the end of July, and even then, at reduced capacity. 

Research from Tourism Economics, further supports these recovery trends. According to data presented at the 2020 Skift Global Forum, both Atlanta and San Diego are rated as ‘more resilient.’ Thus, these cities are projected to recover faster due to their relative share of domestic room demand vs. out of state tourists. 

Cities like New York and San Francisco are deemed ‘least resilient’ as most hotel room nights are booked by inbound travelers.  

Let’s look at some micro insights within specific cities:

New York

After experiencing the lowest total monthly search volume of any city analyzed in April (8,100), New York has slowly regained interest. However, as urban centers fall out of favor with travelers, it is projected to be some time until NYC’s hotels are once again teeming with tourists.

Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. has seen a very modest recovery, which has seemingly stalled out at about 60,000 searches per month. Politics aside, it will be interesting to see if the city hosts an in-person inauguration event come January, which could bode well for tourism to the city.

Orlando

An uneven recovery has emerged in Orlando. Searches increased in June with the announcement of Disney World reopening in July. However, July witnessed an overall decrease, potentially on the back of a spike of COVID cases in Florida and elsewhere in the country. 

Miami

For better or worse, Miami displays the most interesting data trends of all markets studied. It was the only city that showed a net increase in search volume in any month of 2020 vs. 2019. March’s spike can be attributed to spring breakers. As lockdowns eased and summer began, interest returned to 2019 levels in June, but like Orlando, volumes fell off in July. 

Forward-looking trends

Looking at the past 30 day period (August 30 – September 30), here are some of the top hotel-focused search terms in the U.S., according to Google Trends:

  1. “Local hotels near me” +170%
  2. “Hotels in Gatlinburg tn” +90%
  3. “Moab hotels” +80%
  4. “Hotels in Pigeon Forge” (TN) +80%
  5. “Hotels in South Padre island” +80%
  6. “Sedona hotels” +70%

These current search trends are in line with an overall shift away from urban centers to local, small-town, and nature-based travel.

Intent behind a search like “local hotels near me” is likely mixed. With road trips as popular as ever, it could be travelers on the road looking to make a last-minute booking. Equally possible are searches from locals looking for staycation options to escape their house lockdown.

The other trending search terms all have something in common: proximity to mountains or the beach. The uptick in local, outdoor tourism should continue well into the winter season in most areas, as travelers look to fulfill their pent up demand for travel in a safe manner.

Stay tuned for the next part in our search trend deep dive where we’ll look at short term rentals.


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