(By Warren Miller) As we begin the second half of 2010, the outlook for the travel and leisure economy is a bit more tenuous, as most indicators have reached pre-recession levels but are no longer on a strong upward trajectory.
Where Are We Now?
Consumer confidence is one of the most important leading indicators for the travel industry, and we gauge it using the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index. Although the index has shown consistent year-over-year growth since May of 2009, the rate of growth has been slowing ever since March of this year, indicating that most of the gains in consumer discretionary spending are behind us. Still, confidence has reached pre-recession levels.
When consumers become more confident, it shows up in two ways. First, they tend to spend more. It's no secret that feeling safer about one's job reduces one's willingness to save and increases the desire to consume. But an often overlooked behavior that gives a nice boost to travel and leisure companies in times of increasing confidence is that consumers plan their travel and leisure purchasing decisions further in advance. That is, it feels safer to book a Caribbean cruise six months in advance when your job is secure than when you may be laid off in a week. This effect boosts cash flow for travel and leisure companies even though they can't recognize the revenue until the travel and leisure services are complete. For any travel and leisure companies in precarious debt situations--and there are many--this can be a lifesaver. In addition, earlier bookings give travel and leisure companies greater visibility into future demand, allowing them to plan purchasing decisions and operational expenses with more information.
It's also important to note why people feel more confident so we can be sure that the rug won't be pulled out from under the positive sentiment with a dip of the financial markets. Household net worth increased 2% sequentially from the fourth quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2010, and grew 13% from the first quarter of 2009 to the first quarter of 2010. This was the fourth quarterly sequential gain in a row. In addition, while unemployment levels remain at very high levels, the employment situation seems to have improved over the last several months.
So how have these underlying economic improvements affected travel so far? First, vehicle miles driven has significantly improved. According to the Federal Highway Administration, vehicle miles driven had increased 6% by May 2010 since the low in May 2009 (a marked improvement compared to the near free-fall this series saw in 2008). In addition, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics cites a near 10% improvement in air passenger enplanements worldwide since the low in February 2009.