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How Do You Talk People Into Traveling in the Middle of a Pandemic?

A passenger wearing a protective mask walks through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on June 13. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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“Your outdoor adventure awaits,” according to a recent promotion on the front page of the Delta Air Lines website. “Enjoy the fresh air and open space of one of our secluded destinations this fall.”

This promotion isn’t explicitly about the coronavirus, but of course that’s what it’s implicitly addressing. Outdoor. Fresh air. Open space. Secluded. The message is: We can get you far away from your cramped home to a place where nobody will breathe the coronavirus in your face. And even though the promotion bears a picture of hikers above Crescent Lake in Washington’s Olympic National Park on what looks to be a beautiful summer day, Delta is suggesting you might go in the fall — a few months from now, when things have maybe calmed down a little.

Photo: Screencap/Delta Airlines website

Delta, like many companies in the travel and tourism industry, faces a problem: How do you sell people a product they’re afraid to buy right now and whose value proposition is seriously diminished by the closure of many of the amenities that make travel fun or useful? One obvious possibility is to suggest that people go outside, where coronavirus transmission risks are reduced and indoor amenities are less important to the experience.

Normally, the way an airline might promote travel at a time of low demand is through deals and discounting. Inflation data showed that airfares were 29 percent lower this May than last May, so we do know that airlines have been cutting prices. And you are seeing some of that in the marketing — American Airlines is promoting this summer as “The Summer of Deals,” advertising airfares as low as $51 round-trip. (Though to get that low price, you have to be traveling from Dallas to Miami, Orlando, or Las Vegas in the middle of August — not exactly auspicious choices for outdoor recreation.) American is also offering double reward miles on trips taken this summer, up to 10,000 miles. Southwest has an unlimited double-points promotion.

But even more prominent in airlines’ current marketing are messages about what they are doing to reduce the risk of the coronavirus. They all want you to know how often they’re cleaning their airplanes and how they’re modifying service procedures to reduce interpersonal contact. The recent announcements from several airlines that they are tightening their mask policies — and the eagerness of airlines to tell the world they’re banning customers who flout coronavirus-related rules — show the importance of convincing customers that travel is being made as safe as it can be. Hertz is even slapping temporary seals on rental car doors, so you know nobody has been inside your car since it was sanitized.

The hotel business has been recovering somewhat faster than the airline business — air travel volumes in the U.S. remain about 75 percent below normal, but hotel occupancy was only 44 percent below normal for the week ending June 13, according to data from hotel-industry research firm STR. Carter Wilson, a senior vice-president at STR, noted in a recent presentation that Americans are traveling “mostly by road” to hotels and that occupancy continues to be strongest at no-frills properties. Luxury hotels, which are especially dependent on air travelers and cannot offer many of the amenities that make customers willing to pay for them, were only 28 percent occupied last week, while economy hotels had 51 percent occupancy.

Hotels have been discounting, but not as aggressively as the airlines. STR reports that the average nightly rate at U.S. hotels last week was just $89, a third lower than the same week a year earlier, but that only partly reflects discounting.

The average rate paid is also lower because on average travelers are staying in less fancy hotels. Inflation data shows the price of “other lodging away from home,” the category that includes hotels and motels, was down 17 percent in May from a year earlier. So hotels are offering “deals,” but whether a “deal” is a deal depends on whether you can make a discounted hotel stay useful or enjoyable.

Hyatt Hotels is making what should be a very compelling offer to its most frequent customers — in addition to the already-discounted published rates for hotel rooms, Hyatt will give 2,500 bonus points for the first hotel stay between now and September 15 and triple points for each stay thereafter. This amounts to a big rebate — roughly, for every $200 hotel night purchased, Hyatt will give customers an additional $36 worth of points to use for future stays. You might find this sort of offer especially appealing for business travel, where you don’t even pay for the hotel stay but you get to keep the points for your own personal travel.

And yet. I’m not traveling for business. I see no reason to take a weekend break in another city, where the restaurants and bars are just as closed as they are in New York. I don’t want to get on an airplane. The sort of hotel stay I might be interested in right now — at a sprawling resort with lots of outdoor food and beverage service and few people around — is not available in the Hyatt network within my driving distance. (And who wouldn’t want to stay at that sort of place right now? If it existed, it wouldn’t be inexpensive in the way a city hotel would be.)

So I looked at the Hyatt offer and concluded that I probably have no way to use it. The discounting does not affect my willingness to buy. This is the big challenge in the travel and tourism sector right now: So many of the usual customers are not currently interested in the product at any price. It helps explain why Delta is asking if you want to take an outdoor vacation in the fall.

How Do You Talk People Into Traveling During a Pandemic?