Nationwide, mountain towns usually see their first big stream of visitors in December as families with children and skiers hope to take advantage of the holiday break. While this year’s coronavirus outbreak has curbed travel plans for many, agents report that demand for everything from a cabin in a forest to a mansion with mountain views is high.
Towns with a “Christmas feel” — small, full of holiday lights and homes with snowy views — are experiencing success among renters. A high-end ski resort with a median listing price of $1.1 million, Utah’s Park City took the top spot as the most popular city for vacation rentals this year, according to data from TripIt. Other popular winter destinations like Colorado’s Breckenridge and Washington’s Leavenworth also rose into the top six of the year in 2020.
“We continue to see steady reservations come in for the Christmas holiday but guests are reserving their lodging much closer to the arrival date, which is a trend we saw over the summer and continue through fall,” Whitney Ryan, marketing director at Park City Lodging luxury rental company, told Inman. The city falls under a statewide mask mandate and has limitations on the number of people inside restaurants, stores and ski lifts and hills.
A representative from vacation rental company Vacasa told Inman that the number of bookings over Christmas across the country has been comparable to 2019, while demand for family- and pet-friendly properties is on the rise. Nationwide, reservations with children are up 15 percent year over year while New Year’s Eve vacation rentals jumped nearly 20 percent compared to last year.
“Professionally managed vacation rentals in remote, drive-to destinations have become the preferred accommodation choice during the pandemic,” Shaun Greer, Vacasa’s VP of Sales and Marketing, told Inman in a statement. “They allow families to use the entire home, with a kitchen where they can prepare their own meals, and enjoy private amenities.”
In general, people are looking for vacation destinations that are easily accessible by car (the average driving distance to one’s Vacasa booking dropped by 20 percent in 2020) and can offer a large home for one’s COVID-19 bubble. According to Vacasa’s holiday travel survey, over 75 percent of people who booked rentals chose ones within four to six hours driving distance from their home.
Airbnb said it doesn’t have data specific to holiday travel but pointed Inman to a survey showing that its clients are also staying closer to home and booking longer stays.
Instead of being put off by limitations and the risk of catching the virus through any non-essential travel, renters are choosing to book at the last minute in case of any pandemic-related closures. Erik Berg, an agent with Engel & Völkers in Aspen, observed similar trends but also said that the uncertainty around numbers of cases and potential closures has had an impact on the overall number of bookings.
“Yes, some people come out for a week or two but we’re seeing more people come out for one or two months,” Berg told Inman. “If you’re going to take that journey and spend time in airports, you want to stay a little bit longer and work remotely. And a large group of people is staying home and saying, ‘With everything that is going on, now is not the best time to travel.’”
Traveling to a small mountain community from a dense city with high numbers of COVID-19 cases can be ill-advised in many parts of the country and simply not possible in others. After seeing an explosion in summer rentals over the summer, Lake Tahoe closed itself off to all visitors entirely after Sacramento County saw its intensive care bed capacity drop quickly and all of California re-entered lockdown mode to stop the spread of the virus.
“We’ve got incredible mountains so the interest will always be there,” Berg said of Aspen, adding that homeowners looking to rent are putting in clauses in the event of COVID-related disruptions. “But the situation with the virus is literally changing by the day. We have to say, ‘Today, this is what is going on but tomorrow, who knows?”
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina’s Asheville is another town particularly popular in the winter as visitors historically come to take in the annual light display. Mark Bastin, chief marketing officer at Yonder Luxury Vacation Rentals in the city, said that while most bookings over the past 12 years have been for houses with fewer than four bedrooms, this year they’ve had a marked increase in five-to-nine-bedroom homes.
“This is reflective of how larger groups and multigenerational families are traveling in general and the heightened uncertainty of staying at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast with strangers during COVID-19,” Bastin told Inman. He added that while some restrictions on indoor events were introduced, the streets are still lit up and people are walking around or shopping outside with their families.
While some smaller properties may still exist on the market, homes with more than three bedrooms have been booked solid through Christmas and New Year. As in the rest of the country, properties with features such as hot tubs, pools and fire pits are particularly popular as rentals. Yonder also reports a 75 percent increase in new home acquisitions compared to this time in 2019.
That type of holiday atmosphere of snow and Christmas lights are precisely what many of the renters are after as international travel is curbed due to border closures and concern over flying in an airplane during COVID-19. Berg and Bastin both say that holiday travel to their markets can be done safely, particularly if visitors wear a mask, limit themselves to those already in their traveling circle and spend most of their time inside the property and outdoors.
“Asheville has always been a strong drive-to-market,” Baskin said. “The ability to get in a car, check in to a home, makes a vacation rental an ideal option to take a break and rest during these unsettling times.”
During a pandemic, every decision to rent depends not only on the severity of restrictions in each state but also the comfort levels of individuals and their families. Berg believes it’s too early to predict if this uncertainty will have an effect on long-term rental prices. Meanwhile, like those visitors, homeowners themselves are also weighing whether to rent out a home for the holidays at the last minute.
“It’s always case by case,” Berg said. “Some owners are trying to negotiate to get a last-minute bookings while others don’t care if their place sits empty and decide to come out for a couple of weeks themselves.”