Welcome to the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

We hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, at home or visiting loved ones. Last week, holiday travel surged back to levels just shy of our 2019 pre-COVID benchmark. Compared to 2020 people were more likely to travel, traveled significantly further, and returned to airports en masse.

Today, we’ll break down the pilgrimage for you all. But first, let’s touch on the big topic of the hour: the potential of the Omicron variant. There’s still so much we don’t know, but there’s some scenario planning we think is valuable for marketers as we stare down the idea of a new COVID wave.

Thanks for your time with us today. If you’d like to review the macro trends, do check out our free live Retail, Travel and Dining dashboards. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments.

We are gratified to see our analyses being included in various reports, since it is our goal to contribute to the #dataforgood effort. If you choose to re-use one of our analysis, all we ask is that you attribute the analysis or content to PlaceIQ. Thank you!

A Word on Omicron

Everywhere you turn, there’s talk of the Omicron variant. With a scary amount of mutations on the key spike protein, we’re all waiting with bated breath to learn how much more transmissive it is, whether or not it can effectively evade vaccines, and the severity of its symptoms. Insight into these issues is frustratingly slow — cases progress and labs analyze more slowly than the immediacy of our news media — but for now I want to discuss what marketers should do if another wave of cases similar to Delta ripples through the United States.

We cannot predict how Omicron might spread, but we can predict how consumers will likely react to an uptick in cases. The one upside of this pandemic’s longevity is that we’ve now accrued enough data that we can see patterns repeat. And this is the pattern we’ve seen twice now:

  1. When cases are high then go low, traffic grows rapidly:The two best examples of this dynamic is in April 2020 and March 2021.
  2. When cases are low then go high, traffic remains stable: Twice now we’ve watched case rates rise dramatically following a significant lull, in July of 2020 and 2021. Both times we anticipated a decline in traffic. And both times: traffic remained stable. It appears that growing cases stop foot traffic growth but don’t reduce foot traffic volumes. People take the same risks, but stop taking new ones.
  3. When cases are high then get higher, traffic declines: With enough growth, the number of people we personally know that are impacted increases, creating an empirical weight which dials up our caution. With more cases, hospitals are more likely to reach capacity (though thankfully less so these days!) which becomes a local story that encourages us to think twice before we head out the door. At this point, the ‘trouble at the hospital’ moment, traffic begins to decline. The local nature of this effect makes it harder to see in our macro graphs, but if you scroll to the dining chart and watch casual dining and nightlife (regarded as two of the higher risk, non-essential activities) you’ll see a quick decline in December of 2020 and August of 2021.

We’ve even prepared a nice graphic summing up this pattern for you to print out and tape to the wall of your cubicle, office, basement, or wherever it is you work these days:

Cases are High, then Low:
TRAFFIC SURGES

Cases are Low, then High:
TRAFFIC IS STABLE

Cases are High then Higher:
TRAFFIC DELCLINES

We’ve seen this before and we expect this pattern to occur again. When we consider Omicron or any other winter surge, we encourage you to especially keep the second tenet in mind: when cases are low then go high, traffic remains stable. In the last 18 months we’ve watched many teams take their media spend to zero, then regret it later when traffic didn’t miss a beat and they lost market share. 

But if you are wary — and there’s plenty to be wary about, with so many unknowns — we do have a hack to let you have your cake and eat it too: our Social Distancing audiences, specifically our Reemerged and Cautiously Reemerging segments. By limiting your targeting to audiences with higher risk tolerances, who continue to be active, you can tune your campaign to those people you know will continue to shop, dine out, or travel…given the current conditions on the ground. Capture the customers who are already venturing out. If you must cut back, do so by not targeting those who chose to remain home.

Thanksgiving Travel Returns to Form

Speaking of leaving home: we did so in droves last week. TSA screening volumes registered highs of over 95% of 2019 norms, hitting highs it hasn’t reached since before COVID:

Last year people traveled, but they kept closer and eschewed airports. Look at those TSA figures again: traffic more than doubled last week compared to 2020. Relatedly, they went much further from home than last year. Trips taken more than 250 miles away from home are about 95% of 2019 volumes:
And the enthusiasm spread to hotels, which came within one point of its high, compared to 2019:
Thanksgiving travel was ripe to come back: it doesn’t require hitting big cities or visiting crowded venues. It’s gathering in residential places with people you know. And it happened to occur at a time when cases were at their lowest in nearly 6 months. The level of return to airports shocked us, though.

Interestingly, the gains were pretty uniform across the nation. Looking at the top 100 counties, even the lowest performing counties compared to 2019 were all close to 90%:

The unified rebound in travel distances and a surging return to airports indicates a decline in travel hesitancy. People are visiting relatives they haven’t seen in years and reviving postponed plans. This gives strong license to hotels, airlines, and the rest of the travel industry to be more forward and optimistic with messaging.

One tactic well suited to this strategy is our Recapture Travel Audience: we identify devices which used to visit hotels and airports often but then abruptly stopped around 18 months ago. Reaching out to this segment and reminding them about the pleasures of travel is a conversation worth kicking off.

As always, reach out with any questions or comments. We’ll be sending out another update shortly regarding what we saw on Black Friday (spoiler: big box stores hit a new high!) so stay tuned and stay safe.

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