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How Do Consumers Feel About the Travel Industry?

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Managing Director David VanAmburg joins 7Investing Lead Advisor Dan Kline to look at how the American public feels about the travel industry, based on their responses to the ACSI’s latest report which focuses on the period where travel has been greatly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

January 19, 2021 – By Samantha Bailey

American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)  Managing Director David VanAmburg joins 7Investing Lead Advisor Dan Kline to look at how the American public feels about the travel industry, based on their responses to the ACSI’s latest report which focuses on the period where travel has been greatly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic saw ratings for travel — hotels, airlines, and travel websites — fall pretty much across the board. Travel, of course, has looked a lot different since COVID-19 hit and that has actually made some parts of travel more pleasant. Consumers see the lower crowds when it comes to air travel as a positive, but that’s really the only thing about the industry they like right now.

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Investing in airlines specifically has largely been a risky proposition. During the pandemic all of these companies have struggled to some degree with most airlines cutting staff and doing what they can to cut expenses. Airlines, however, saw a small improvement in customer satisfaction which has actually been a long-term trend. This does not mean that you should be investing in airlines.

Hotels and travel website were not as highly rated losing ground during the pandemic. That makes sense for hotels as some of their amenities can’t operate normally while the travel websites may be hurt by there being fewer choices for consumers. This makes these parts of the travel industry a challenging proposition for investors (and one that may take years to recover).


0:00 Introduction and welcome

1:15 What is the ACSI?

2:10 How does the ACSI ratings system work?

3:55 Let’s talk travel

7:08 Looking at airlines

15:18 How do consumers feel about hotels?

21:05 How will consumers feel about hotels and airlines post-pandemic?

23:22 Internet travel websites

26:47 Final takeaways on the travel industry

28:35 Closing discussion on future travel plans


Dan Kline  0:01

Hey there, everybody. Welcome to the 7investing podcast. I’m Dan Kline, and I’m being joined by a familiar face – at least for me. David VanAmburg , he is the managing director, I always get that wrong. He is the managing director, not the executive director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index. David, did you build the ship that’s behind you? Or did it come with the house?

David VanAmberg  0:22

I did. I built it. I think 20 some years ago, but I will admit that I built the niche for it to go in, or rather I had the builders create the niche that it sits in. That was part of the the demand of building the house was okay, I’ve got this beautiful ship that I cried over for nearly two decades finally finishing and it’s got to have a cool home. So you got to build me a niche and the walls when I can actually put it in

Dan Kline  0:48

Our previous home had three different – we thought of them as art nooks. One of them  is where my grill accessories lived. The other was where the Stop and Shop bags that we use here at Publix lived. The third one we used to joke we’d catch one of our cats in it and I take pictures and I posted they each took shifts standing in the art nook, and people would message me. They would be like, “how’d you train them to do that” which is of course not what happened. But we’re gonna be talking, of course, about your travel survey. Before we do that. I know what the ACSI is, many of our viewers know what the ACSI is, but not everyone does. Why don’t you share a little bit what your organization does, and if you’ve had to make any changes during the pandemic?

David VanAmberg  1:28

Sure, Dan. Very briefly, it is a very large syndicated research project that measures customer satisfaction for almost the entire household consumer economy. Few industries that we don’t measure, but we measure about four dozen industries. Everything you can imagine from athletic shoes and cars to banks to retail to health care, all manner of goods and services that we that we purchase and consume. And we have about 400 individual companies that we’re tracking on an annual basis.

Dan Kline  2:05

And you’re using a scale of one to 100. And to simplify this a little bit does it sort of work like school that like if you’re getting in the 80s, you’re doing okay, if you’re in the 70s, it’s not so good. Anything below that it starts to get really bad.

David VanAmberg  2:19

Yeah, school, as you remember. Probably college more than than grade school, except maybe sometimes in high school school where it’s all graded on a curve, right? Because 100 is really theoretically possible in a study like this, but not something any company is going to achieve. So companies that are in the 80s, and low 90s, those are those are your A grades, if you will. Then you get down into the high 70s, low 80s, those are the B’s, and the low 70s are the C’s. And then if you’re in the 50s, you better be taking the  ACSI class pass fail.

Dan Kline  2:53

So we’re looking at you, Comcast, and boy do I have some stories I would love to share. We talked about me moving before this. Just getting my cable hooked up was – I feel like I should get a gold medal or something. It isn’t impossible. There’s a reason they don’t do well on your surveys. And I have lived that reason.

David VanAmberg  3:12

Were you a new customer? Or were you just moving?

Dan Kline  3:15

I was a new customer. My landlord had the service in his name. And because I wanted to upgrade the internet, it made sense to switch it to my name. That just to whet the appetite. I’ve told this story on our livestream. I called up and I said one of the things I need is I need you to bring a TiVo card. I want to install a TiVo as my DVR. I interviewed the CEO of TiVo, I liked him, I’d rather give him $15 a month then Comcast $15 a month. The technician shows up, and the first thing he says to me is, “says here you need a TiVo card installed. I don’t have those.” Did you not look beforehand?  Did you not….it’s been bad. But we’re gonna talk travel.  I want to set the table a little bit. Before we get to the nitty gritty of your report, I’m someone who as you know, I travel a lot. I’ve lost count a little bit and I’ve stopped booking certain trips, but I’ve had roughly a dozen plane trips, seven or eight cruises, two or three Vegas conferences, all of course canceled. So on the plus side, I’ve got a massive war chest with your top performing airline, which we’ll talk about them later. And I think they’re top performing for a reason. But how has the fact that we’re largely not traveling unless we have to if we’re being responsible? And I’m not saying that getting on a plane is irresponsible, if you have a reason to be to be doing it. But we shouldn’t be, you know, galavanting like I normally would be. Does that impact the survey here? Does it does it affect it one way or the other?

David VanAmberg  4:44

Absolutely. We’re seeing an impact. And for airlines in particular, and we’ll get into the details of it. Of course, it’s actually a positive impact and that’s related to the volume of travel that’s taking place. You know, to, to reference another tragic, very depressing, very problematic moment in our history, we saw the same kind of increase in customer satisfaction for airlines in the months following 9/11. The answer was a very simple one, getting on and off the planes was quick and easy to do. Spacing on the planes was very comfortable. Getting beverage service was very quick, because there simply weren’t very many people availing themselves of air travel at that time. It makes the experience for those who do travel better from their perspective, it’s simply a more efficient and more pleasing experience than we typically have.

Dan Kline  5:45

Do you also think people are are sort of willing to put up with more like, because, in flight beverage service is something that people are not always satisfied with. Right now, that doesn’t exist on short flights. They might hand you like a little pack with some water. But are people just generally going “okay, the goal of air travel is to get me there. And if the experience isn’t that much of a hassle to get there – I’m pretty satisfied.”?

David VanAmberg  6:10

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, Dan. And again, I would draw the comparison with the post 9/11 experience, you know, you had stories, and I was actually on one of these planes I did once things got back to, I won’t say normal, but somewhat routine. And in a couple of months after that, I had some travel to Washington for some government business. You know, the stories of people applauding when the plane would land and there was just kind of this togetherness, this sense of community and purpose. I think it’s the same story now within with all of the travails that we’re experiencing of the pandemic, just the goodwill, the goodwill towards the airlines themselves, towards fellow passengers, towards flight crews, and so on of we’re all in this together. Let’s make the best of a very bad situation. And I think that is also pushing that that positive reaction we’re seeing as well.

Dan Kline  7:07

So we’re gonna share the graphic in a second. Looking at how each individual airline did, but overall, these were some good numbers for airlines. David, why don’t you set the table while I go looking for that graphic?

David VanAmberg  7:18

Sure. This is a an industry that’s been improving now, slowly, but fairly steadily for a number of years. And it actually did improve by a single point. From there, you have the graphic from 74 to 75, between 2019, and 2020. Tthese are numbers that are always published in April by ACSI. So from that 12, month period, April 2019 to April 2020, we saw a small improvement. And then just looking at that six months of data, that would have been entirely impacted by COVID, the April to September period of last year, we saw another small increase. So you know, here’s where we’re seeing that additional little boost or bump, if you will, that is no doubt, in large part driven by some of the things that we’ve just been talking about related to the pandemic.

Dan Kline  8:15

Now, apologies for putting you on the spot here. But I can see the 2019 – it’s been an ongoing trend. Has it been a long term, ongoing trend? Or was it pretty stable, and now it’s starting to tick up?

David VanAmberg  8:26

It’s been a fairly long term trend, the airlines industry, if you want to go back, 15 years or more, that industry was scoring in the mid, sometimes even the low 60s. So we’re talking about scores like 65, 67, 68 for a number of years, and we really have seen some some fairly interesting positive change for this industry now stretching back several years.

Dan Kline  8:57

So I’m gonna do a little bit of a reset for investors here, because it’s something I think it’s important to get out. So all these airlines, people will ask travel is going to come back we have a vaccine, should you invest in airlines and in general, I’m not a big fan of investing in airlines, because I don’t think airlines in general – Southwest is an exception – handle their cash correctly, or treat their customers well. What I think we’re starting to see and David, this is where you could come in, I do think we’re starting to see more airlines. You see how well Delta scored on here. They got a 79, just behind Southwest which has an 80. All above industry average. Same with Alaska and JetBlue. Right at industry average, which surprises me. Do you think maybe some airlines have learned their lesson and they recognize it’s not just about price? It’s not just about you know, how quickly you get people there. It’s also about not hitting people with fees and convenience and some of the some of the lessons learned from Southwest frankly?

David VanAmberg  9:53

I think that’s absolutely right, Dan. I think that the airlines that are – how should I put this – the airlines that are able to learn that lesson, certainly Southwest, Delta, Alaska, United, to some extent American, although it is towards the bottom now, able, meaning that with your two exceptions that I know you want to talk about: Frontier and Spirit, at the bottom when an airline has essentially founded itself on the principle of price, right? We are a budget airline. Our goal is to get you there alive and really not much else. It’s more difficult to imagine those two airlines in particular learning the lesson, because I think they still don’t really believe the lesson needs to be learned. If you follow them, it’s just not part of their business model to go a different direction than what they’ve been succeeding at so far.

Dan Kline  10:56

So we’ve done this, I don’t know, eight or nine times over the course of two different places I’ve worked, and I can always be sure that Comcast is going to be near the bottom in their industries. But I would have bet if you would call me a month ago, and asked me to bet on who was top and who was last, I would have said Southwest is top, Spirit and Frontier are last. So I want to ask a couple of questions related to that Southwest got an 80. I actually don’t feel like that’s that high. For an airline that look, I’ll admit, it’s the only airline I fly on when I possibly have a choice. I flew 32 times last year on Southwest. So I’m a hyper loyalist. Why is that? I think it’s important they let me change whenever I want. As a loyal customer, they let me fly standby on the day of my flight. So if I have a meeting at noon, I can book the nine o’clock but maybe hop the three o’clock if my morning goes quickly. They generally put their customers first. They listen. For example, I have added status. I get to get on the plane quickly. My son, if I’m traveling with him, does not. Well, that’s tricky. Do I get on later? Do I trust he’s gonna get on? Now if you’re a family group, and I buy the tickets, they will put him with me in the boarding even though he’s not a minor. So it’s my wife, it’s my son, that’s convenient. That’s something that’s most loyal customers wanted. But how does an 80 compare to other industries? Other industry leaders, in terms of categories that are maybe better rated than this one?

David VanAmberg  12:19

It’s actually not too bad. Our standard, our stock line is to say that any score of 80 or better in ACSI in any industry is a pretty decent score. And actually nowadays, even if you look at the best internet retailers, for example, the Amazons and other retailers in that category, they’re typically only maybe two or three points higher than that in the low 80s. Maybe an 83, occasionally an 84. So an 80 for an airline, especially being an airline, is actually something worth crowing about if you’re Southwest at this point.

Dan Kline  12:56

For Spirit and Frontier, now they’re at the bottom. But I would argue that it’s actually a feature, that one of their goals is to show you how they’re saving your money. I’ve talked about this before that Frontier actually has a little card that talks about all the places they taken weight out of the seat to make the plane fly more efficiently. You know what else it makes? It makes the seat really uncomfortable. Is this a case where being low rated is actually more of a badge of honor, and it probably doesn’t hurt their business?

David VanAmberg  13:25

That’s right. This is very much a you get what you pay for type of approach. Right? And the whole point and as you just said in a way, it’s a marketing tool, to say, we’re going to get you there, we’re really not going to do much else, but get you there. But you’re going to pay very little for that, and that’s what you want from us. That’s why you’re flying with us if you wanted that. That better in flight experience in particular, than you would go spend more money on another airline and and if you want to do that, go do that. But clearly, they’re not suffering financially in any way, with a business model that essentially says, we’re gonna be dirt cheap, and you’re gonna get there alive. And that’s it, you’re gonna be dirt cheap, right? I mean, that’s kind of the whole point.

Dan Kline  14:18

Let me ask David, have you flown either of those airlines?

David VanAmberg  14:21

I have never personally flown either of those airlines. I have colleagues at ACSI who have flown those airlines. So I know the stories, but I have not personally experienced them.

Dan Kline  14:28

So to quote the great Admiral Akhbar. It’s a trap. And you have as a consumer, you have to be really careful. I have flown Frontier. If you fly Frontier, you don’t even buy, with your base ticket, the right to get a boarding pass until you’re actually in the airport. So I always say fly Frontier if you don’t care about anything, if you don’t need to check your bag. You don’t need anything more than like a laptop bag. So I fly Frontier, if it’s a situation where I’m going to meet a friend for a night in a city to see a concert. I flew it once to Vegas because it was like $800 cheaper than than Southwest, at a really weird convention time. But in general, if you want something like picking your seat and checking your bag, it’s not cheaper. So you’re on an uncomfortable plane where they all hate you, and they don’t even give you a soda. And you’ve still paid the same amount of money. That’s a personal finance corner here on the 7investing podcast. We’re gonna segue to hotels, and I am going to show the graphic, but I actually don’t think hotel brand matters all that much to consumers, I think there’s less loyalty there in some ways. It is more price driven. Dave, why don’t you talk a little bit about sort of how the hotel industry, which is devastated. They’re at very, very low capacities. Many properties have not opened. I’m in South Florida. Most of our hotels are open because people are flocking here just to be out of New York. But in Central Florida, Disney didn’t reopen many of its hotels. How is the hotel industry doing overall?

David VanAmberg  16:16

The hotel side of travel is is suffering. In reality, as you just described, in terms of its business, but also suffering in terms of customer satisfactionas well. Pretty significantly. And you see here, again, an industry like airlines that prior to the pandemic was climbing a bit and and then has taken a drop, if we look at just the data starting in April, when the pandemic was really starting to rage compared to the previous 2020 data. And as clear as the explanation of a positive change for airlines, I think it’s equally clear why we’re seeing a negative change for hotels. Not very crowded on planes, you know, easy on easy off, that sort of thing matters to us and makes us a little happier with our airline experience. Because wherever we’re going, and I say wherever, maybe the exception is if I were flying to Sydney right now, the actual travel part of our vacation, or even our business. Travel is relatively small, isn’t it? I mean, it’s an hour or two at most, for most of our travels here domestically,

Dan Kline  17:42

Even if it’s five hours from east coast or west coast, it’s stil,l and I kind of see where you’re going here. When you get to the hotel, it being half occupied doesn’t benefit you the way

David VanAmberg  17:55

Exactly.  The plane is such a tiny slice of your total experience on a given trip. Your hotel is your destination. Your hotel is where you’re going to be. Now maybe your goal is to take the kids to Disney World, a lot of the time you’re in Florida, for example. And so you’re not at the hotel, but we rely on the hotel much more for the bulk of our travel experience. It’s where we sleep, obviously, it’s where we probably get some dinner, certainly breakfast. a lot of the time. It’s where we hope to swim in the pool, it’s where we hope to use the exercise room, right? A lot of these kinds of amenities and elements to the hotel experience are important to us when we travel. And those are the very kinds of things that have taken a hit. You go to the hotel, and they’ve shut down the pool. They’ve shut down the exercise room. They’ve maybe shut down the restaurants. Room service isn’t the white glove service that maybe you would typically expect. Instead, it’s your foods outside the door, go get it off the floor kind of a thing. So the very fact of the very nature of how the hotel itself works into our travel experiences meant that the pandemic was likely to have a negative effect on our experiences with hotels versus the positive effect that we saw with airlines.

Dan Kline  19:20

I’ll give a person example. I spent a night in a Central Florida hotel where I like to go. It’s  a place I’ve been before on the route to someplace else. And normally they have a really lively bar restaurant, the food’s pretty good, there’s usually a game on. It’s kind of a nice place to grab your computer, go do some work. The restaurant was still open, but you could order food and pick it up from a table. None of the experience. Now I’d like to think I wouldn’t hold that against the hotel, but it was a less satisfying experience. David, is that why the higher end hotels, which all tend to be better rated than sort of your cheaper chains – the cheaper chains actually didn’t fall as much. Is that because when I go stay at a Best Western, I’m really just hanging out in my room at the Best Western. I’m not there for the many amenities such as free brochures to area. But I don’t know, what other amenities?  The vending machines? Like there’s just not much at a Best Western.

David VanAmberg  20:11

That’s exactly right. The Motel 6 chain, for example, which is part of G6 hospitality at the bottom of the industry, and well below the rest of these chains that we’re measuring, you’re absolutely right, Dan. A lot of these low end, low price hotels don’t even have pools. I mean, that’s not their game, right? That’s not their business model. They have don’t have their own restaurant. They might have that breakfast buffet in a small room where you can get a bowl of cereal and some coffee, or, you know, biscuits and gravy, or whatever. So the fact that there isn’t much to them to eliminate in the first place meant there really wasn’t as much for them to fall versus the chains that you might go to because you really do want the kids to enjoy the luxurious pool and some of the other amenities that, you know, a game room and other kinds of amenities with these chains would have. Exactly.

Dan Kline  21:08

So does this revert to normal when they’re allowed to take the plexiglas down. Pools have been open here, but there’s distancing rules. Part of the fun of being in a pool is that there’s other people in a pool and you’re chatting, and maybe you’re sitting with a drink. Now, it’s like, okay, only 10 people could be in the pool, you have to be distance you can’t eat or drink. It’s the only place where you don’t have to wear a mask, because that’s really dangerous. But do you think this reverts like almost the second we can say, hey, all clear the pandemic is over?

David VanAmberg  21:35

I think for both industries, I don’t see airlines taking a big dip, but possibly leveling off, or maybe even declining by a point or two. When this is over, and hotels, conversely, seeing a boost to their experience. Once the bars are open, and the liquors flowing freely, and the kids are screaming and swimming in the pool and laughing and having a great time, I think we’re gonna see both kind of move in a little bit of the opposite direction. And let’s face it. This is just me speaking anecdotally, but I think when we see the daylight here, when we really are at the end of this, people are going to go a little crazy. And I don’t necessarily mean in a bad way. I mean, I think a lot of folks are just going to pile on the planes, right? And book those reservations. You’re going to be “oh, my God, we can actually do these things.” Again, let us get out of the house and do them. And so you’re going to see a lot of really full planes, and full hotels and other full restaurants, other kinds of destinations as Americans just look to the various pleasures and entertainments that we have been so long without as a way to get us out of this terrible, terrible mood that we’ve been stuck in for a long time.

Dan Kline  22:56

Now I have a stunning amount of travel planned starting in whatever it is March, April, whenever it is. I can get vaccinated and the world starts to reopen, at least for me. I’ve been a few places during this very carefully. But as someone who travels a lot, I’ll tell you, you don’t have to ask me if I’m going to be at the trade show. Don’t care which one it is, I’m probably going to be there. Really excited for that. I wasn’t going to talk about this last category, but you also did a survey of internet travel sites, and we’re going to talk about it only because I think the results are shocking. David, why don’t you give the overview again?

David VanAmberg  23:33

This is a category among all of the travel categories that we measured that just launched. Not a slight drop of a point or two, but a very, very steep decline. Not just for the biggest travel site, or a couple of the biggest travel sites, but pretty pretty uniformly across the board we’ve seen a drop for these travel sites.

Dan Kline  23:59

So I did not prep that graphic correctly. But the leader here is Travelocity, which dropped from a 79 in 2020 to a 77. That’s followed by Expedia at a 76, followed by Orbitz, which is also owned by Expedia at 75, TripAdvisor also a 75, and Priceline at 74. Just like we talked about how certain I was that Southwest would win for the airline. I would have bet you a car that Priceline would be the winner here because it’s the only one of these that actually gives you deals and values. I live on Priceline. Why exactly?Explain these results to me. They make no sense to me.

David VanAmberg  24:38

I think in this case, when it comes to booking travel, it is especially in the midst of a pandemic. Prices not the big word here. It’s not the big driver of cost of the customer experience. These sites are generally speaking all about the same in terms of the way they’re set up. I’m sure as you have seen, many, if not all of these websites, they’re cookie cutter. They’re almost indistinguishable in terms of the navigation, the way their homepages look, and so on. They’re almost like, search engines of travel, right? And so it’s not so much price. It’s really about all of the other bells and whistles that that these companies invest in and present and market themselves as versus other sites that are the differentiators here.

Dan Kline  25:40

So essentially what you’re saying is that Priceline had one advantage, and that was price. And that advantage, and you’re right, because right now I have a – not a business thing, but I’m meeting my landlord later this week, and outside just quickly, but it’s kind of far away. So I’m toying with the idea of getting a hotel room and driving back the next morning. And hotel rooms are so cheap, I didn’t even have to make the decision and that’s here in South Florida, where, as I mentioned, we are at capacity. There are no rentals to be had. A lot of hotels are filled with people who are just here avoiding New York or crowded cities. And even with that, there’s so little regular tourism outside of whatever the heck is going on in Miami. There’s so so little of it that rooms are really, really cheap. I’m gonna be really curious to see if there’s a rebound there. And I wonder if some of this is marketing and Priceline has done a bad job differentiating, and maybe I know that they’re the cheap site, and maybe people don’t. But as we close this up, David, what’s your takeaway here?

David VanAmberg  26:47

The big takeaway, and it’s a takeaway, as you and I probably have conversations in the in the next six months or so about some other industries ,is that nothing is normal right now. And that we will probably be waiting a year to see for an industry like airlines, like hotels, like travel sites, what normal looks like, again, both in terms of the reality of our experiences, and in terms of what ACSI data is likely to look like. We’re just in such unprecedented times, whether you’re talking about restaurants or satisfaction with retailers or satisfaction even with the banks, and the changes they’ve had to make. The world is upside down in so many ways now. And we really, I won’t say you don’t trust our data. It’s still very sound, it’s still very confident if you want to look at the rankings of these industries. Who’s doing as you said, with a Southwest versus a Spirit, who’s providing more satisfying experience versus who’s not. That’s all completely legitimate. But tthe levels of the industries themselves and the kinds of changes we’ve seen in the past year over these industries, I don’t expect that to hold as we move into 2021 / 2022 and beyond, because it’s just been such an an unprecedented time for us to be to be holding these companies accountable in some ways, if you will, for the satisfaction of their customers.

Dan Kline  28:14

It does feel like a decade from now, when you’re talking about results and trends, you’re always gonna have to call this timeout and explain why it kind of didn’t count. And in some ways, it’s been a positive. We’re more forgiving. In some ways we’ve had enough and we’re less forgiving. But final question, I’m going to answer it too. Where are you most excited to go when all of this is over?

David VanAmberg  28:36

Oh, my goodness. We talked about taking our two sons – we have a 14 year old and 12 year old, taking them to Hawaii. Both my wife and I have been several times but they have never been, and that would be amazing. And then the other big place for us again, driven probably mostly by our kids being the ages they are is to take them to Europe again, either Italy or the UK or France or anywhere in Europe where my wife and I have also traveled extensively in our lives, but have not yet been able to expose our children to those to those places.

Dan Kline  29:09

I’m very eager to get to Europe. I have a couple of friends over there who I would love to see right now. I have a 16 year old so I’d happily take him to Hawaii. I’m just not bringing him back. So you know, it’s been close quarters for seven – eight months. For me, Vegas is calling and the idea of someday getting onto a cruise ship and being in the Bahamas and sort of just the camaraderie of that.  I’ve done things like drive to Key West and sit alone in a pool, and alone at a bar, but that’s not even a bar. Like a restaurant that has drinks. It’s not the same. Yeah. David VanAmburg, thank you for doing this. I look forward to doing it again in a couple of months. I also look forward to doing it in person at some point.

David VanAmberg  29:54

Exactly. Me too. It’s a pleasure as always, Dan and I look forward to many more of these.

Dan Kline  29:59

We thank you for listening to the 7investing podcast. That’s all for today.

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