Despite the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to a more than 30 percent decrease in travel throughout America since 2019, a new report from seoClarity – a search engine optimization and content optimization platform – shows that Hattiesburg drivers are taking 25.3 percent more road trips in 2020.
That number is similar throughout America even as social distancing measures and remote work have caused a 70 percent decline in air travel. The report shows that the number of miles logged on long-distance road trips has risen dramatically above last year’s numbers.
“Hattiesburg is known as the Hub City, and we like to say that all roads lead to Hattiesburg, but Hattiesburg is also a central location to New Orleans, Mobile … and all types of places,” said Marlo Dorsey, executive director of Visit Hattiesburg. “We know that getting on the road now is certainly a trend that we’re seeing in the travel and tourism industry for several reasons.
“In a lot of the consumer sentiment models that we’ve been tracking over the last six months, people are extremely apprehensive about COVID-19 and the safety of certain destinations. International trips and trips that would be done domestically – either on a cruise ship or by flight – have definitely plummeted in the last six months.”
That’s backed up by numbers from seoClarity, which show that on average, during the first two weeks of August 2019, approximately 2.5 million people passed through United States airports each day.
This year, that number was approximately 700,000.
However, in the first two weeks of August this year, Americans recorded almost 12 million long-distance road trips – defined as 100 to 500 miles – per day, compared to 8.6 million in 2019. Those numbers represent a 37.6 increase for this year.
“We’ve seen a little bit of increase in that rebounding very recently, within the last 30 days,” Dorsey said. “But by and far, the most popular way to get out the house and avoid that cabin fever that everyone has, is to get on the road and get in your car and travel. So, drive destinations are definitely on the increase, and we’re seeing this really throughout the country.”
A summary of the data for the Hattiesburg metro area is as follows:
• A 25.3 percent increase in long-distance road trips from 2019;
• An average of 8,092 daily long-distance road trips from 2020;
• An average of 6,549 daily long-distance road trips from 2019; and
• A decrease of 29.2 percent in all travel from 2019.
Officials at Visit Hattiesburg have tried to adapt a good bit of their marketing strategies and business models and have tripled their efforts in various drive markets.
“If you think about Interstate 59, and if you think of Highway 98 west, we’re a feeder market for a lot of very popular destinations,” Dorsey said. “So, we’re targeting a lot of people in a three-to-six-hour drive market to come and spend some time in the Hub City – come and stay a night, stay two nights for a girlfriends getaway or a family-fun vacation.
“We’re putting together various itineraries for them to come and do that. So, while a lot of our friends and families that are here in the Hattiesburg area are going on road trips, we’re also adapting our marketing strategies to try to readily attract people in a three-to-six hour drive market so that they can come and experience the Hub City.”
Dorsey said over the last six months, the travel and tourism industry in Mississippi has lost more than $2 billion in visitor spending over last year. In 2019, total visitor spending was $6.7 billion dollars.
“Seeing a slight uptick in people’s travel plans, and them wanting to be able to drive to Hattiesburg and other feeder markets, has really helped us and enhanced our ability to try to continue to recover this significantly-hit industry,” Dorsey said. “If we look at it, from what we’ve seen over the last few months, we are seeing that people are changing their travel plans and not just canceling them.
“It’s really been a benefit to us that they’re either going to postpone and not cancel, or they’re going to drive and not fly. That’s been a certain help for us as we look to fill our restaurants and hotels and a lot of tourism attractions and small businesses, so that we can bring more revenue back into the Hub City.”
The travel sentiment studies, which are done in cooperation with Longwood International and Miles Partnership, survey individuals to gauge what their upcoming travel plans may be. Through those, officials have seen a significant increase in peoples’ desire to travel by car, as well as a significant decrease in canceled trips.
“Taking a look at the last six months, we are at 33 percent of all travelers changing their travel destination to one that they can drive to, as opposed to flying,” Dorsey said. “So, we know for Hattiesburg being the Hub City and having a lot of various roads that can get travelers here for leisure and corporate travel opportunities, this is good news for us.
“This is the highest number that we’ve seen in the last six months, so a third of all people are now doing this. It’s really important for us to say, ‘here we are; we’ve all been weathering this storm for the last six months,’ and now we’re seeing an uptick in people that have to get out and want to get out. They’re finding those drive-to destinations where they can have some vacation time or some downtime, so that’s certainly helpful.”
Although people are slowly starting to re-engage with travel, the surveys show that 49 percent of all people are saying COVID-19 is the main issue that will affect their travel for the next six months.
“While we’ve made some headway in helping our organizations and destinations practice those best safety measures to safely welcome guests, we still have a lot of work to do to help this significant industry recover,” Dorsey said.