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We have all been locked down at home for pretty much a solid year now — many of us with little or no travel, and hardly any interaction outside our immediate household. But now that vaccinations are providing a glimmer of hope, it is time to start considering what travel will look like when it resumes.
The conventional wisdom from experts says that spending time with extended family in small groups will be a major motivation as the pandemic eases. But what evidence is there to back up this assumption? Should advisors really be preparing for a rush on family travel?
Here is the case for families leading the way back as agents’ business returns.
By the NumbersThere has been no shortage of traveler surveys during the pandemic, and nearly all suggest that we can expect a boom in family travel after the pandemic.
For the past two decades, Expedia has conducted its Vacation Deprivation study, which asks people about their travel plans and how much vacation time they expect to use in the year ahead. Perhaps not surprisingly, U.S. travelers say they will use an extra five days of vacation time in 2021 — a trend Expedia is calling the “no days left behind” mindset.
In fact, one-third (32%) of respondents say they will take more vacations than usual to make up for a lack of travel in 2020, and nearly two-thirds (61%) report that they are increasing how much they will spend on travel this year. Two-thirds (64%) also report that they find vacation time more valuable when it includes quality time with family.
We are already starting to see the similarities with what’s happening now with 9/11 in the fact that we realize the importance of spending time together as a family and how precious the time we spend together is.
Meanwhile, a recent study conducted by Airbnb shows that most Americans are feeling lonely and disconnected from those who are not in their immediate household, and 41% say connecting in person with family and friends will be much more important following the pandemic. The large majority (84%) of respondents report that the first people they will visit will be immediate or extended family — in fact, 37% say the top reason for getting vaccinated at all is the ability to connect with family and friends. The same percentage (37%) indicate that their definition of “meaningful” travel has changed since the pandemic to become even more focused on spending time with loved ones.
Finally, according to the 28th wave of the Traveler Sentiment Study by Longwoods International, conducted Jan. 6, 2021, the desire to see family and friends is the top motivation for taking the first trip after the pandemic. More than half of respondents (51%) indicate their first trip will be to see family and friends, with 26% willing to drive fewer than 200 miles, 15% driving more than 200 miles and 10% open to flying within the U.S.
“With so many family vacations and celebrations postponed last year, I expect family travel to be one of the first sectors of travel to rebound as people look to make up for missed birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other special milestones,” said Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president of AmaWaterways. “Travel will provide an opportunity to reunite the whole family while sharing experiences and making memories that will bring to life aspects of their ancestry and strengthen the bonds they share.”
Cruise lines expect a strong family market to help them overcome an extremely difficult time for the industry.
“The past year has been the most challenging in our company’s nearly 50-year history, and we believe that once we start sailing again, families will be an essential component of our return to service,” said Adolfo Perez, senior vice president of global sales and trade marketing at Carnival Cruise Line. “Many families and extended families have not been able to cruise together for months, so there is a definite pent-up demand for multigenerational travel across the board.”
Jessica Griscavage, director of marketing for McCabe World Travel based in Virginia, says the vaccine has had a big impact on families.
“Grandparents are getting vaccinated, and they haven’t spent quality time with their kids and grandkids in over a year, so they are ready to go,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the fear of travel any more that’s stopping them, it’s the hassle and confusion over all the regulations. And advisors can help with that.”
Lessons From the PastWhile the travel industry has never faced anything quite like the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some lessons that can be drawn from previous global crises. In particular, advisors can look to 9/11 to see how a disaster affects travelers’ motivations.
Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association (FTA), says he is not surprised that industry surveys are calling out family travel as the leader in the industry’s recovery. He believes the lessons of 9/11 highlight the increased value placed on spending time with family after Americans go through a life-changing, traumatic event.
“We are already starting to see the similarities with what’s happening now with 9/11 in the fact that we realize the importance of spending time together as a family and how precious the time we spend together is,” Jenss said. “That clearly manifests as an uptick in families traveling together.”
While many industry experts point out that the two situations may be very different in terms of duration of the crisis and how broadly it has affected the industry, there are similarities in how travelers are likely to react once travel resumes.
“I think when we are faced with tragedies such as 9/11 and this pandemic, people want their family close,” said Gina Griffin, a luxury travel advisor with Frosch in Dallas. “Mom and Dad will probably forego having that romantic getaway in lieu of taking all the kids and grandparents and enjoying time together.”
The emotional component of travel should not be underestimated, says AmaWaterways’ Karst.
“Family travel was such a big trend after 9/11 that the term ‘togethering’ was coined, and I expect to see that same type of demand return after travel restrictions are lifted,” Karst said. “I believe that crises have a way of drawing us closer together, and enduring trials and unprecedented times alongside others makes the connections we share stronger and even more valued.”
Cory McGillivray, manager of channel marketing for the Globus Family of Brands, points out that in this case there is a practical benefit for togethering, as well.
“Similar to what we are experiencing now, after 9/11 the driver for travel was emotional,” McGillivray said. “We had a strong desire to connect with loved ones. We can see the same trends emerging today, both for that emotional reason, and the practical reason of wanting to travel with your own personal bubble.”
What Travelers Are Telling UsBeyond research and past experience, perhaps the most important indication of what advisors can expect when it comes to future family travel can be gleaned from the information we are getting now as consumers begin to make plans.
“After so much time apart, families are certainly looking for a special way to spend time together exploring new destinations, and we are seeing this in our bookings, with an uptick in multigenerational travel bookings and multi-family travel requests,” Karst said. “We are specifically seeing extremely high demand for our Christmas markets and holiday cruises compared to previous years, with 2021 itineraries already more than 50% booked.”
After so much time apart, families are certainly looking for a special way to spend time together exploring new destinations.
Griffin, of Frosch, points out that in some ways, the nature of the pandemic may help families in their travel planning.
“Given that a lot of families are still dealing with remote learning, and people are working from home, families have become more mobile and not restricted to school holidays,” she said. “Resorts are offering long-term ‘stay and learn’ options, so it makes it easy for the entire family to be on a vacation of sorts while still working and attending school.”
The FTA’s Jenss says advisors should still be focused on domestic destinations where families can get outdoors. And, he says, they should not underestimate the importance of the kids in trip planning.
“There seems to be a greater interest in exploring the U.S. and getting into nature,” Jenss said. “Also, [advisors should] make sure the kids get involved in the vacation planning. Like parents, they, too, have been cooped up and want to get away. To ensure that they have a good time, they need to be part of the decision-making.”
Perez suggests that advisors stay up to date on what cruise lines offer — even if it is not an option for clients at this time. For instance, Carnival’s newest ship, Mardi Gras, features Bolt, the first roller coaster at sea; the largest waterpark in the fleet; family-friendly accommodations; award-winning children’s programs; and Seuss at Sea, an exclusive partnership with Dr. Seuss.
“We will, of course, rely on our valued travel advisor partners to not only encourage families to sail with us, but convey how the cruise experience will adapt and evolve going forward,” Perez said.
Globus’ McGillivray says travelers have been gravitating toward trips that are geared for small groups.
“Planning a family vacation gives people something to look forward to, and Globus is poised to deliver that experience, especially with the introduction of our worldwide small-group discoveries,” he said. “We have seen some good demand for this travel style, telling us there’s demand for smaller groups of travelers.”
Cruise and tour directors, local guides and drivers can do a lot of the heavy lifting — including ensuring enhanced health and safety protocols are followed.
McGillivray also points out that families are likely to rely on the expertise and experience of trusted advisors and suppliers once they begin hitting the road again.
“On-trip assurances and in-person assistance will be very important for all travelers, including families, after the pandemic eases,” McGillivray said. “Cruise and tour directors, local guides and drivers can do a lot of the heavy lifting — including ensuring enhanced health and safety protocols are followed — gifting families the opportunity to simply enjoy the world around them and one another.”
Regardless of the type of travel, Griscavage of McCabe World Travel says advisors should keep reaching out to families and encouraging them to plan ahead. She says that especially in situations with a flexible cancellation policy, it is better to put down a deposit to hold a reservation, because opportunities are going to book quickly once people feel OK about traveling.
“I think there’s a notion out there that hotels will be empty, and prices will be super low, but that’s just not the case,” Griscavage said. “The supply might not be there, but the demand from families definitely will be.”