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I have few vivid memories from my elementary school years. What I do remember in great detail, however, is a family vacation we took to Montana. Memories from our Montana trip have persevered probably because what we did was so distinct from anything we did in ordinary life, particularly because of the concentration of our quality time together as a family — and also because my super-chic mom stepped in horse poop.
By day, we took hikes along creeks among wildflowers and butterflies. By night, we performed for our parents, showcasing interpretive dances we had choreographed to select songs from The Beach Boys’ “Still Cruisin’” album. My favorite memory, though, was our family’s first (and last) group horseback ride along some epic, spruce-lined mountain, where my mom got spooked by her bucking horse and decided that she would rather walk than ride the multi-mile trail. Her designer cowboy boots were no match for the puddles and horse manure, and, boy, did we hear about it (and hysterically laugh about it) for days — and years — to come.
Though we’re far from perfect, my family is close, and we still travel together because we know how important time together in a unique setting and away from work is for our relationship. The knowledge of what travel can do for a family brought me back to Montana for the first-ever summit of the Family Travel Association (FTA). Like a family, participants were not shy about expressing their hopes and frustrations regarding the family travel category.
At the start of the summit, Rainer Jenss, FTA president and founder, expressed his goals for the immediate future of FTA: to inform consumers of what’s out there and possible for families; to inspire and educate consumers on why family travel is important, especially showing how travel can be a great source of learning for children; and to simplify the process of finding and booking family travel experiences.
During the course of the summit, participants voiced their concerns regarding unreached potentials in family travel; the negative perceptions teachers and parents have regarding taking kids out of school to travel; the challenges and inconveniences families face from hotels and airlines; as well as a lack of mainstream knowledge regarding the experiences families can, and should, have.
Presentations by Sarah Gavin, head of communications at Expedia, Inc., and Randy Garfield, retired president of Walt Disney Travel Company, both noted that although family vacations create vivid, lasting memories, many family members are not utilizing their vacation days. Garfield noted that a quarter of families haven’t taken vacation in a year — which adversely affects health and family relationships.
“The family vacation is as American as apple pie and baseball, but unfortunately, it’s at risk in America,” Garfield said. “We are a nation of work martyrs.”
However, an unwillingness to take time off work is not the only threat to the family vacation.
Wendy Perrin, travel advocate for TripAdvisor and creator of WendyPerrin.com, stated that the travel industry has needed a family association for a long time in order to combat the perceived negatives of family travel. Parents who reach out to her share a number of concerns, from a fear of kids getting bored to the uncomfortable possibility of family conflict.
Perrin also added that families are up against big planning challenges: They might know which country they want to visit, but they don’t know how to choose the right places in that country. They’re having trouble balancing fun activities for kids and relaxation time for parents. They want the space of a rental house but the infrastructure of a hotel.
There also seems to be an issue with hotels masquerading as family-friendly. These properties offer free Wi-Fi access in the lobby but not the guestroom; they serve sugary big cookies before bedtime; there’s no kids’ club for ages below age 5 when you need the most help; there’s no buffet breakfast; no safe public space where kids can run around without having to watch them; and no basic supply and gears that parents can borrow to reduce packing needs.
According to the September 2015 “US Family Travel Survey,” conducted by the FTA in association with New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism and revealed at the summit, most families are cautious travelers who are willing to travel, but struggle to plan their trips due to concerns about affordability, which information to trust, cleanliness, safety, food choices and more.
“As an industry, we can really help this group,” Jenss said.
Other concerns brought up during the summit might involve a bit more elbow grease and advocacy to address. These involve eliminating the extra fees from airlines to allow parents to sit next to their children and doing something about the limited time parents are able to travel with kids due to school schedules, especially because peak periods at popular destinations result in crowds and inflated pricing.
Of course, travel agents can help families with all of this. Navigating the complexities of booking a family trip, including providing guidance on where to go, is exactly what a great family travel agent does. But not all families realize that agents are an outlet.
“Families don’t know there are other options besides Disneyworld or where to go over school holidays where it’s affordable and uncrowded,” Perrin said. “They still seem stumped.”
Indeed, it’s clear: The FTA will be better able to reach its goals — particularly those of simplifying the travel process and showing families the depth of options out there — if promoting travel agents is part of the solution.