The family/intergenerational travel trend that emerged following 9/11 is still going strong more than a decade later.
About 44% of adults bring children (and grandchildren) along on leisure travels, and taken as a group, they take more trips per year (4.5) than business travelers (3.9), Gen Y (3.9) or Gen X travelers (3.5), according to the 2012 Portrait of American Travelers (MMGY Global/Harrison Group).
A gathering of those who focus on that trend and on social media came together recently with energy and passion at the Family Travel Conference in Dallas, and the industry suppliers took notice. Representatives from Disney, Southwest Airlines, Omni Hotels, Hyatt, Travel Guard, Visit Orlando and the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau attended and listened for what could be learned from about 100 family travel bloggers, twitterers and journalists, including Wendy Perrin of Conde Nast Traveler and ABC News' Genevieve Shaw Brown.
Although workshop titles included "Story Telling and Marketing," "Monetizing Content" and "Creating Multimedia Content" and discussions centered on enhancing family travel websites and portals, there was also plenty of content that could help the travel agency community more effectively sell family travel.
Joanne Vero of Travel Media Showcase, which produces the conference, used a workshop to point out that, in the past, agencies that marketed to family travel had a "one size fits all" approach. There was consensus among attendees in the room that that was not the best way to approach the niche.
Specifically, travel professionals need to avoid products where, for example, unhealthy children's menus, passive kids' club activities, wasteful welcome gifts and cookie-cutter destination activities are packaged and offered as "family vacations."
Vero pointed out that more than 30% of leisure travelers, and a whopping 68% of business travelers, watched a travel-related video in the past year.
Agents need to recognize that families get their travel information very differently than they used to.
"We can help travel agents better understand what 21st century families want and help them exceed their family clients' expectations," said Eileen Ogintz, another conference organizer and syndicated columnist of "Taking the Kids," which is carried by Tribune Media Services, HuffingtonPost.com and MSNBC.com, among others.
Kim Jack Riley, marketing leader of FC USA (Discountcruises.com, HotCaribbeanDeals.com and Flightcenter.com), said the conference was a "priceless" opportunity to have in-depth contact with the other attendees, because as "influencers of the influencers" they provided "a direct line to my customers. She finds social media efforts more effective than other direct marketing campaigns, including buying search terms and topics on Google.
Riley said the information gleaned at the conference enabled her to refine her sales tactics by learning how to "personalize" her relationship with her family travel customer base through social media strategies, and she found the peer networking to be invaluable.
During the conference, attendees flexed their collective social media muscle, tweeting and posting on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Organizers claimed an aggregate 1.6 million unique visitors to attendees' sites as well as 326,000 Twitter followers and 250,000 Facebook friends.
On the topic of Facebook, Perrin of Conde Nast Traveler defied conventional wisdom in suggesting that family travel sellers use their Facebook page, not their Twitter feed, to showcase travel deals, because she believes "that's where the bookers are."
I came away from this conference with a strong sense that, as the family trend moves into its adolescence, the industry has just scratched the surface of its rich opportunities: opportunities for social media marketing and new marketing partnerships between suppliers and agents (off- and online, home-based and traditional).
But travel sellers must recognize that, in addition to social media expertise, they must "address the specific and unique needs and expectations that multiple generations that travel together have," said another conference host, Kyle McCarthy of Family Travel Forum.
In other words, there must be an understanding that planning for family travel means taking into account everything from age-sensitive activities to dietary and mobility restrictions.
The next conference will be held in Rockford, Ill., in August (see TravelMediaShowcase.com for more information). Its aim, Ogintz said, will be to "facilitate dialogue by providing a venue for the industry, sellers and media to share ideas" on family travel and social media.
Kaleel Sakakeeny is the CEO of New Media Travel and a former reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio. He is also the former Family Travel contributing editor for Travel Weekly.
Correction: Kim Jack Riley runs Discountcruises.com, not Disneycruises.com as reported in a previous version of this column.