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There’s a quiet revolution under way that is transforming how destinations, travel vendors and travel agents do business.
At the vanguard are consumers who want their travel experiences to reflect and support their personal values. In a post-Sept. 11 world further shaken by the global economic recession, those values include connection, contribution, integrity and authenticity.
The travel industry is not alone in feeling the effects of what John Gerzema, the social theorist, brand research maven and best-selling author describes as a profound and pervasive cultural shift that has transformed buyer behavior. No business or industry is immune to the new values-driven consumerism, according to Gerzema, who oversees a quarterly survey of 17,000 U.S. consumers in his role as executive chairman of Young & Rubicam’s Brand Asset Valuator (BAV) Consulting Group.
Travelers want to feel like a local // © 2014 Stanislav Komogorov/Shutterstock.com
Trips that include voluntourism are popular // © 2014 Pikoso.kz
Travelers enjoy learning about other cultures// © 2014 Aleksandar Todorovic
Some travelers prefer like-minded suppliers // © 2014 XiXinXing
Consumers want their tourism dollars to benefit local communities. // © 2014 Sandra van der Steen
The survey was instituted in 1993 and includes 21 years of comparative data. Recent survey results show that nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers are, on some level, practicing a more values-driven approach to consumption. According to Gerzema, that suggests a long-term behavioral shift rather than a temporary reactionary blip.
“We believe that we’re returning to values that anchored American culture and society all the way up until the 1980s,” Gerzema said. “And what we saw for the 30 years after that was an anomaly based on debt-fueled consumption.”
In the travel industry, the resurgence of those core American values is evidenced in the well-documented and widespread surge in multigenerational family travel.
“We have seen a real boom in people coming to us to book multigenerational trips,” said Billie J. Ruff, president and CEO of Travel Cafe, a Travelsavers agency in Billings, Mont. “Clients are saying, ‘We are going to do this trip instead of spending on Christmas. We are going to create an experience for our family that will be a lifetime memory.’”
Ruff believes the recession prompted people to reexamine their values.
“For so long, with the economy and the financial crisis, people had to hold back on spending,” Ruff noted. “They realized what’s truly important in life, and that’s your family.”
Travel Cafe saw an increase in multigenerational travel after 2008, but Ruff said the trend accelerated in 2012 and again in 2013. Other travel agents saw interest in multigenerational travel kick in much earlier, in the direct aftermath of Sept. 11.
“Multigenerational travel has grown exponentially since the attacks in 2001. It was a growing market before that, but Sept. 11 served as a catalyst and accelerated the trend,” said Mickey Weill, vice president of Protravel International, a Travel Leaders agency in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Family travel, and increasingly multigenerational travel, have become so much more important. When families take time to travel and be together, they truly value that experience. It has so much meaning.”
Ken Neibaur, manager of Cardoza Bungey Travel, a Virtuoso member agency based in Palo Alto, Calif., sees a related values-driven trend in more clients planning travel with both family and friends to celebrate benchmark life events including major birthdays and anniversaries.
“People are creating trips that involve other people more,” Neibaur said. “A 25th anniversary trip might now include other families and friends. People are using travel to bring people in their lives closer together and to share those moments with them instead of vacationing on their own and focusing on individual interests.”
Neibaur said that the instability and uncertainty that characterized the social climate in the U.S. post-Sept. 11 helped change what motivates people to travel.
“The idea of planning a trip to enhance my life, as opposed to communicate my status, has been a big change we hear communicated from clients,” he said. “It reflects more on the value of life. People are cognizant that there is less stability in the world and they want to take advantage of experiences such as milestone birthdays to improve relationships and feel closer to family and friends.”
That togetherness has become more important than the destination choice for some clients of Mike Weingart, a specialist in multigenerational all-inclusive travel with Houston-based Air Land Sea Consultants, a member of the Travel Leaders network.
“People are caring more about others now. I really believe that,” Weingart said. “They are looking for quality of life. They aren’t looking for bragging rights when they travel. They are looking for a more enriched experience.”
Experience Is Everything
“Experiential travel is the latest industry buzzword, but it’s the truth,” said Chad Clark, principal of Chad Clark Travel Ventures in Phoenix, Ariz. “People want to touch it, feel it, live it. Everyone wants to feel what it’s like to be a local, whether that’s in Paris, Sydney, Jaipur, Beijing or Kathmandu. They want that unique, local and authentic experience in whatever they do.”
The desire for authentic travel experiences on the local level often includes the opportunity to give something back, especially among travelers on the upper end of the income scale.
“More and more clients are looking for a customized experience where they have a chance to give back, experience other cultures and learn more about the world in which they live,” said Joshua Bush, CEO of Park Avenue Travel, a Virtuoso member agency based in Swarthmore, Penn. “With the global recession in 2007 and 2008, people started to question their values and realize it’s not all about wealth. It’s about experience. Rather than collecting things and material wealth, travel is now about collecting experiences and memories.”
Bush also said that his clients want to contribute something that is specific and produces a measurable impact.
“This is where the path in the road starts to veer away from green travel to giving back,” he said.
According to Bush, his clients want to know what they can do for a village or an individual rather than save the planet or fight something vague like global warming.
“They no longer want to do things at an arm’s length,” he added. “Now it’s, ‘I want to be involved in this change and see the direct results of my actions.’ People are realizing, ‘I have the power to have a positive influence on others while I am traveling the world.’”
Tammy Hardin, owner of Travel Square One/Altour American Express Travel in Denver, has observed a similar shift in her clients’ values when they travel.
“In the past few years, I’ve seen that many of my clients are requesting authentic destination experiences so that they have the opportunity to not only interact with the local culture and community but also to ensure that their visit leaves a positive mark,” Hardin said. “Many are even requesting visits to private homes, schools and orphanages during their travels.”
Hardin added that many of her clients are interested in giving back to projects for education, sustainability, health and wellness and overall development.
“My clients are in a demographic that tends to be active philanthropists,” she said. “So it is only natural that they would seek similar experiences during their travels.”
But Does It Sell Travel?
Unlike the multigenerational travel trend, interest in travel with a philanthropic element is still limited in scope and has minimal impact on driving sales through mainstream travel agents.
“People feel good when they are doing good or if they know that part of the investment in their vacation is supporting a cause,” said Dan Ilves, senior vice president of leisure for TravelStore, a Signature Travel Network agency headquartered in Los Angeles. “That’s a feel-good thing at the moment, but I don’t think it’s driving people’s decisions to book travel.”
Chad Clark said he isn’t getting any inquiries from clients about giving back as part of their travel experience.
“A lot of them have philanthropic causes that they are involved in on their own, but it hasn’t been a priority topic in terms of designing travel — yet,” Clark said. “I know it’s coming, it’s an emerging trend and I would love to see that interest. How we treat the environment and how we treat other people becomes increasingly important.”
Tom Baker, partner and president of Cruise Center in Houston, is seeing the very tip of the trend in his agency.
“I probably have half a dozen out of several thousand clients who even ask about sustainability, the environment, charitable organizations, protection of animals and the like. Most are concerned about value, getting the most bang for their buck,” Baker said.
While clients who ask about travel vendor or destination initiatives to protect and support local people and environments are not the norm, Baker said there is a certain type of traveler who is keenly interested in those topics.
“Only someone a bit more cerebral-minded even asks these questions,” he said. “They come from a forward-thinking, very well-traveled and contemporary person — someone who has been around the world and has a broad view.”
The Travel Agent’s Role
The ongoing shift in consumer values that’s prompting more travelers to seek authentic experiences of connection and contribution is also casting a new light on the role and responsibility of travel agents.
“I personally care very much about these things but I can’t tell my clients, ‘You should think about this.’ I don’t feel it’s my mission to bring it up to them,” Baker said. “If my clients start talking and I get the sense there are some commonalities with my way of thinking, I am not afraid to bring it up. I will come right out and tell people what I think about vendors and their policies. Those who are well traveled, who are global thinkers, we have lovely conversations.”
Some travel agents see themselves as navigating a tricky road right now.
“There are some vendors I don’t want to do business with because I don’t like their character and values,” said Jerry Vaughn, president and CEO of Inspirational Journeys LLC, an Ensemble member agency in Federal Way, Wash. “But it’s the consumer who keeps us in business so we have to put them with the vendor that best meets their needs.”
Bush has a similar perspective.
“First and foremost we serve our clients, so it comes down to knowing them and knowing what they are asking for,” he said. “There is a small sub-segment, one that is growing, of people traveling with kids who want to expose them to other cultures and folks who want to give back when they travel. When that window presents itself, when they have given us an inkling that they want to give back, it’s incumbent on us to know where those opportunities are. We need to be able to make those recommendations.”
Like Bush, Neibaur at Cardoza Bungey Travel believes agents must pay close attention to changing consumer values.
“From a business standpoint, the travel advisor needs to be in front of this, not behind it,” Neibaur said. “We need to be fluent in the language of this kind of travel because the market is moving more in this direction. We need to know what’s out there and be telling our clients what’s out there. We can’t be in a position of just responding to customer demand by sitting at the computer and doing a Google search.”
It’s too early to tell just how significant an impact the shift in consumer values toward more connection, contribution and authenticity will have on how the majority of travel agents do business. Nonetheless, while most mainstream agents are unlikely to recast themselves as activists for sustainable or philanthropic travel, many can feel that they are making an important contribution to creating a kinder, gentler world just by doing their jobs.
“I think the most positive effect travel counselors can have is to encourage tourism and help make the world smaller,” said Weingart of Air Land Sea Consultants. “You generally don’t fight with friends — so the more friends we can have in this world, hopefully the safer it will be.”