Big travel company CEOs hope market turmoil won’t derail summer rebound

Big travel company CEOs hope market turmoil won’t derail summer rebound

As economic pundits raise fears about a recession, the most powerful names in travel and hospitality are pushing back, pointing to bookings that illustrate a positive picture of the American consumer.

“We think this summer is going to be gangbusters for travel,” Marriott CEO Tony Capuano told last week.

Marriott saw an 81% rise in first quarter revenue compared to the same quarter a year ago as more leisure and business travelers got back on the road as Covid restrictions eased.

Despite concerns around inflation, Expedia CEO Peter Kern said he does not see travelers cancelling plans because there’s so much pent up demand following the pandemic.

That demand has driven the average daily rate at U.S. hotels up 40% compared to a year ago, according to hospitality analytics firm Smith Travel Research.

“We haven’t seen any signs of consumers being impacted in terms of travel spend. We all know there were pent up savings and underspend during Covid,” said Kern to CNBC.

Expedia saw its gross bookings jump 58% in the first quarter compared to a year ago, a significant jump but slightly below Wall Street estimates.

As travel rebounds, publicly listed travel giants are starting to spend more on marketing and advertising – setting the stage for a competitive summer.

Kern hosted a travel conference last week in Las Vegas, where the online travel operator unveiled a number of new technology updates that empower travelers with new data they can use to make smarter choices when booking a trip. Those enhancements include a price tracking tool and customized hotel scores based on guest reviews.

Booking Holdings CEO Glenn Fogel not only joined the chorus of hospitality executives reinforcing the pick-up in travel as restrictions ease, but also shared an eye-popping number: Gross bookings for this summer are tracking 15% above 2019 levels, before Covid shutdown the world.

“Travel is coming back, we are all pleased. We went through a hard time for two and half years of people not being able to travel the way they wanted to,” Fogel told CNBC.

Could market, economy play spoiler?

The question now is if summer 2022 will be as strong as CEOs are envisioning — or, if consumers rethink travel due to economic constraints or the prolonged volatility in the stock market.

The market turmoil could eventually hurt the “wealth effect,” Truist Securities lodging and leisure analyst Patrick Scholes told CNBC. “Basically if we see a sustained bear market, people feel more conservative about their ability to spend.”

Things aren’t that bad yet, thanks in part to the strength in the housing market, he said. “For example, personally while my stock portfolio may be down this year, it’s probably balanced out by appreciating in the value of my home,” he added.

Prior economic slowdowns have led to a drop in travel bookings. Data from STR shows that following every economic recession, Americans held back on travel leading to a decline in bookings.

Pebblebrook Hotel Trust Chairman and CEO Jon Bortz doesn’t think history will repeat itself. “There is so much emotion attached to travel right now… [that] people are not going to cancel a trip to see their family for the first time in two years,” he argued.

While higher interest rates could push consumers to opt for cheaper options, executives are not seeing any evidence of that right now.

Some industry experts disagree, saying they’re starting to see concern to peak through.

Looking beyond bookings, construction of new hotels has fallen in recent months. Over 154,000 rooms were in construction in March, which was down 15.7% from a year ago, according to STR.

“Construction costs have gone up substantially due in part to wage inflation, supply constraints and higher interest rates,” Jan Freitag, national director at the real estate research CoStar group, told CNBC.