Americans eager to leave the pandemic behind showed their enthusiasm over the past year by flocking to restaurants, bars, and hotels, eating, drinking, taking daytrips, vacationing, attending sporting events, and leaning over in casinos – as if it were 2019 again. But over the last few months their behavior has begun shifting yet again.

Even as the pent-up demand for leisure, conviviality, and adventure normalizes, an economic slowdown is now looming, and many second- and third-quarter earnings point to a  shifting consumer mindset.

As financial pressures mount, the pandemic-hardened customer will likely respond differently than in past recessions. Restaurant, hospitality, travel, and leisure (RHTL) operators need to be prepared for what these changes will look like.

While business challenges resulting from COVID-19 are in the rearview mirror of many sectors of the hospitality and leisure industry, our research suggests that the pandemic experience has left an enduring imprint on the consumer mindset. In the 2022 AlixPartners Restaurant, Travel, Hospitality and Leisure Consumer Survey, 44% of U.S. consumers said shifts they made in consumption habits due to COVID-19 may be permanent. This figure has remained unchanged since May 2021, despite the easing of pandemic-related consumer vulnerabilities around physical and mental health and robust spending recovery across many sectors.

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The good news for the industry: Operators already own a menu of possibilities that can help them become proactive in planning.

This next evolution of the industry will be less centered on universal themes we saw in the Great Recession, when headwinds and tailwinds were more generally grouped at the sector level. Instead it will likely be defined by clear winners and losers within specific segments based on their ability to adapt to both changing consumer dynamics and rapidly changing business models.

Those companies that are further along on their journey to transform against these changes will be able to act more nimbly in a downturn to keep the consumer engaged.

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