US vacation rental recovery: a snapshot of 6 key cities

As US vacation rentals continue on the road to recovery, digital strategy and brand marketing agency Dune7 analyze the data trends from 6 key markets.

If there has been one consistent bright spot in the travel industry these last 12 months, short term rentals is it. While traditional hotels experienced sharp declines in RevPAR and occupancy, short term rentals seem to have fared much better. Below, we dive into the data to analyze market trends for US short term vacation rental recovery in six key cities. 

We chose geographically variant markets and intentionally included a mix of both urban and outdoor/nature-oriented cities.

  1. Aspen, Colorado
  2. Panama City, Florida
  3. Atlanta, Georgia
  4. New York, New York
  5. Hot Springs, Arkansas
  6. Scottsdale, Arizona

Analyzing US vacation rental recovery

Armed with real-time market insights from our partners at Transparent, we’ve looked at current on the books occupancy for 2021, and contrasted that with occupancy on the books at the same point in both 2020 and 2019. This sheds some light on current confidence and desire to travel relative to the dawn of the pandemic and a ‘normal’ year.

Furthermore, to get an idea of general consumer interest by market in parallel, we pulled recent and historical Google search volumes. In each market, we chose the keyword with the highest average monthly search over the time period analyzed. The 2 insights combined give us an idea of US vacation rental recovery in a nutshell.

US vacation rental recovery in 6 city snapshots

1. Aspen, Colorado

Aspen is a bucolic ski town in the Rocky Mountains and is a seasonal market during ‘normal’ times. 

Overall, Aspen as a destination has weathered the downturn, although it was not immune to the pandemic’s effects. 

As of mid February 2021, occupancy was down a massive 64% vs. same period 2019. Traditionally, February is peak ski season for Aspen’s many mountains. However, the volume restrictions in place at most ski resorts could be dragging down overall occupancy. 

Looking ahead to the end of 2021’s winter season, the booked occupancy gap vs 2019 shrinks to a loss of only 8%. By early April, the curve shoots aggressively upward with growth continuing through the spring and summer. 

Travelers are perhaps hoping for an easing of current restrictions or were shifted into off-peak travel windows due to lift ticket supply and demand dynamics at ski resorts. 

Google search data for “aspen rentals” supports Aspen’s popularity during this past year. From April to December, 2020, monthly search volume increased an average of 79% vs. 2019. This could be attributed to either last-minute summer bookings, as quarantines started to lift, or forward bookings for the 2021 winter season. 

Google search data for “aspen rentals” supports Aspen’s popularity during this past year. From April to December, 2020, monthly search volume increased an average of 79% vs. 2019. This could be attributed to either last-minute summer bookings, as quarantines started to lift, or forward bookings for the 2021 winter season. 

2. Panama City Beach, Florida 

Panama City Beach is a coastal community on the Florida Panhandle. It’s popular during the winter and with spring breakers seeking relatively uncrowded beaches. 

Panama City Beach’s STR sector is experiencing significant growth and has more than recovered to 2019 occupancy levels.  

From February to mid August 2021, occupancy grows an average of 72% vs 2019. The strongest 4-week average growth occurs from the end of April to the end of May (+111%), as sun-seekers flock to the area beaches before summer sets in. 

Google search volumes mostly support the growth in occupancy. From May through October 2020, monthly searches for “panama city beach condos,” increased an average of 53%. This rise in interest likely produced last minute summer bookings, as well as fueled forward bookings for the fall and winter. 

3. Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is not as seasonal as mountain or beach towns, with its fairly temperate climate year-round and no specific natural attractions. 

As a large metro area, Atlanta’s short term rental market has suffered overall.

Occupancy through Q1 2021 is down 28% vs. 2019. Comparing that period to 2020 tells only a slightly better story, with declines of 23%. 

However, a recovery is very much in sight, and just in time for the summer travel season. Towards the end of May, Atlanta’s occupancy rates progressively increase, averaging 16% growth vs 2019 through August 2021. Looking at Spring 2021, the numbers are even stronger when compared to 2020 (+17%). Trips to see friends and family that were put on hold in 2020 are being put on the books in 2021.

Google search data tells a similar story. During the first three months of the pandemic, 2020 search volume underperformed vs. 2019 anywhere from 18-74%. The summer months of June, July, and August saw a modest recovery, likely due to last-minute bookings. 

Steady interest in Atlanta returned in September/ While some of this search intent likely resulted in ill-advised holiday travel, it is expected that a portion also resulted in forward bookings for the Spring and Summer.

4. New York, New York

New York is of course a bucket list destination for most travelers, whether domestic or international. ‘The city’ is also the most popular U.S. destination on Airbnb. 

New York was the first major U.S. city to get hit full force with the pandemic, which resulted in an early shutdown of the tourism industry. While some bright spots exist, the overall picture regarding both interest and bookings in short-term rentals is grim.

Not surprisingly, the impact to 2021 occupancy rates is the most pronounced for New York than any other city we analyzed. For Q1 of this year, occupancy rates are down 72% vs. 2019. This negative trend is almost mirrored exactly vs. 2020 (down 56%), where the city’s rentals began to be occupied by front-line workers.

While a full recovery to 2019 levels does not seem imminent, there are positive signs. From April 2021 through the end of August, forward occupancy rates average 5% higher than 2020. Most of this growth is likely from domestic travelers, as international air travel remains mostly off limits. 

New York was the only city we looked at that did not have a single month in 2020 with higher search volume than 2019. In fact, after reaching 67% of 2019’s total searches in July, the interest gap only widens. Tourism will certainly return to New York, but it will likely not be a V-shaped recovery that many hoped for.

5. Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs is a beautiful vacation destination in the mountains of Arkansas. And yes, the area is known for its hot springs scattered around Hot Springs National Park. 

Although occupancy was inconsistent during the pandemic, overall, Hot Springs emerged fairly unscathed.

Looking at the full year 2021 beginning in February, occupancy rates remain fairly consistent vs. 2019, with a decrease of less than 4%. Growth recedes as July and August approach, with an average decrease of nearly 20%. This could be due to more regional competition from other destinations. 

From a search perspective, Hot Spring’s data story tells the overall tale of pandemic travel behaviors. Starting in Spring 2020, an emphasis was placed on drive-to destinations that afforded access to outdoors and nature.  

From May 2020 right on through year’s end, search volume for “hot springs arkansas cabins” was on a tear. On average, searches grew by 147% vs. 2019. For the most part, it seems as if occupancy rates and inventory has kept up with the rapid increase in interest for Hot Springs vacation rentals. 

6. Scottsdale, Arizona 

Scottsdale is an upscale enclave in the Arizona desert. It’s popular with ‘snow birds’ who often escape to Scottsdale’s warmer climes as temperatures drop further north. While winters are ideal, summer heat can make Scottsdale unbearable. 

As a wellness and outdoor-oriented destination, Scottsdale’s STR market looks to be on the road to recovery, although not without a few bumps on the way. 

February and March 2021, typically peak season in Scottsdale, looks very soft. Occupancy rates for those two months average 29% less than 2019 levels. Perhaps this is due to the elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 among the city’s older traveler demographic. 

Starting in April, the picture brightens substantially, with average occupancy rates on par with 2019. Rising consumer confidence could play a factor in this resurgence of bookings. 

Google search tells a similar story. Other than March 2020, every month following experienced an increase in search volumes vs. 2019 levels. Surprisingly, May and June saw the biggest increases year over year, perhaps from people looking to squeeze in a last minute visit before the heat of the summer. 

The overall picture for US vacation rental recovery

Overall, the short-term rental industry in the United States looks to be bouncing back nicely. Of course, regional variation will be the norm as travelers continue to flock to the great outdoors and away from most urban areas. 

Dune7 is a digital strategy and brand marketing agency for travel and technology clients, including short term rental companies. Dune7 provides organic fundamentals that power scalable, sustainable growth through services such as Digital Marketing Strategy, Content Marketing, SEO, Digital PR, and Brand Strategy. Dune7 is located in New York City.

Transparent provide property managers, destinations, hotels and investors with insight into vacation rental supply & demand. Click to learn more or to search our free global dashboard. You can also track US vacation rental recovery with our COVID-19 recovery tracker.