Tour Operators Agents face the challenge of clicking with youth By Michelle Baran / September 15, 2010 Share 1 -- The next generation of travelers presents a huge opportunity. They are passionate about travel and are willing to spend a considerable amount of time and money on domestic and international adventures. The challenge is that they are hiding in the virtual matrix of the Internet, social media and word-of-mouth referrals. And most of them don't use travel agents. In a survey of 250 young adults ages 18 to 35, conducted last month by Mr. Youth, a New York-based social marketing agency, more than 80% of respondents said they did not use agents to make travel plans. "Who in our age group actually uses a travel agent?" asked Omar Bengali, 25, of Los Angeles, a law school graduate who recently traveled on an Eastern Mediterranean cruise with Contiki Vacations, a tour operator that caters to the 18-to-35 market. "There are like eight people that would actually call up a travel agent, unless they're our parents. No, we went straight to the Internet [to book this trip], which is where most people go these days, and typed in Contiki.com." Bengali was traveling with a group of 114 Contiki passengers last month and, like Bengali, many (though not all) of his fellow travelers found out about Contiki through a friend, went to the operator's website and then booked by calling directly. For many agents, the challenge of tackling the do-it-yourself, agent-unfriendly mentality of the young adult demographic might seem not only daunting but simply not worth it. But those agents who have successfully penetrated the market -- mastering a combination of traditional and social media marketing as well as online selling skills -- see it as an investment not just in a lucrative market segment but in their future. They recognize that young adults are going to bring their own communication methods and purchasing habits with them into their 40s, 50s and beyond. Susan Schaefer is one such agent. Schaefer owns Ships 'N' Trips Travel in Brentwood, Tenn., and runs the website KickButtVacations.com, which specializes in travel for the under-35 market. She has booked more than 200 passengers with Contiki to date and makes more than 100 travel bookings annually for the 18-to-35 market, including with other suppliers such as spring-break specialist Student Travel Services, Beaches Resorts, Travel Impressions, Goway Travel, Gogo Worldwide Vacations, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line. "I think if you can snag them now and impress upon them your usage," Schaefer said, "if you can meet that 'What's in it for me?' question now, and then keep in touch with them afterwards ... if you can build a relationship with them at this age, I think you can have multiple bookings and a client for life." Her secret weapon is her college-age daughter, who has been on a Contiki trip and who helps her mother tune in to the behaviors and desires of her peers. Schaefer established a presence with a physical booth on her daughter's campus, and by reaching out to fraternities and sororities and connecting with other parents concerned about their children traveling alone. But she also connects with clients and potential clients through social media with links to her Facebook and Twitter pages from her website as well as to Contiki YouTube videos and to a blog called the Traveling College Student. The need to adaptGreg Fischbein, president of Contiki, said the common denominator among successful agents "appears to be adaptation." "There are plenty of agents doing wonderful business in this market," Fischbein said. But he added, "This new generation isn't simply going to walk in the door. Agents making the big inroads have embraced and advertised their services on mediums like Facebook and Twitter. They have established themselves as a resource at the local schools and online. Most importantly, they have culled their personal database of long-standing clients and have promoted Contiki for their children, for graduation gifts, for celebration travel." While most agents in search of younger travelers have the skills to cull their databases or go after friends and family, they might be confounded by the undeniable, unfaltering reality of social media for reaching the next generation. To many, the reality looms as a confusing, technological marketing labyrinth too overwhelming to approach. But for those who tackle the social media conduit, the rewards are ample. "I'm 53," said Maria Saenz, a senior travel agent at Montrose Travel of Montrose, Calif., which has Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. "And although I feel like I'm young, I don't necessarily speak like these people. When I get them in front of me, that's one thing, but when you're just texting or writing an email, it's difficult to communicate. If I were 25, it'd be much easier." Nonetheless, Saenz said, "It can be done. Everybody in the world is penetrating this. We have to. There's no option here. This is the way that it has to be done. This is the way this group wants to behave." Getting in their heads Several levels of education are needed to tap into the young adult market. First, it's essential to understand who these people are, what their likes and dislikes are and what their spending habits are. Then, it's important to understand the means that must be taken to reach them, such as social media. And finally, once they are reached, the challenge becomes how to educate those young adults willing to learn about the services a travel agent provides. According to the Pew Research Center, there are roughly 50 million millennials, the generation of people ages 18 to 29, in the U.S. Three-quarters of them have a profile on a social networking site, well above the 50% of Gen-Xers (ages 30 to 45), 30% of boomers (ages 46 to 64) and 6% of silents (age 65-plus). Despite the recession, about nine out of 10 millennials say they currently have enough money or that they will eventually meet their long-term financial goals. But 37% are unemployed or out of the workforce. Responding to a custom survey of 250 young adults ages 18 to 35 that Mr. Youth conducted for Travel Weekly, the majority said factors that would increase travel agency use included "less expensive services," "implementing better messaging and advertising so people understand the advantages of using a travel agent" and sellers becoming "more social media savvy." Nearly 50% of respondents cited price as the most important factor when looking for travel services, and the 20% of respondents who said they do use travel agents cited as their reason "overall convenience" in terms of time and effort and reduced stress and confusion. Those who don't use agents cited price and the belief that "online services are just as efficient." "This suggests that respondents view travel agents as a luxury service -- not necessary, but certainly convenient if one can afford it," the Mr. Youth survey concluded. STA Travel, a Dallas-based youth travel company, devotes a great deal of its time and energy to analyzing its core business, the youth travel market. It has found that the average travel purchase price on www.statravel.com is $475, including tax, and the average purchase price via STA's call center and stores is $700, including tax. About one-third of STA's customers book travel on the website, while the remaining two-thirds book through the call center or in one of the company's 18 retail locations across the U.S. While their ability to spend varies significantly, the youth travel market -- a potpourri of college students, working professionals, singles and newlyweds -- is generally more budget-conscious than those who have a few decades' worth of earning power. Price, in some form or other, is of concern to them. Agents who work with this demographic say they have to communicate that they often can and will get their young clients better prices than they could find themselves. And those who don't charge service fees have to communicate that there is no cost to the client for using an agent. Schaefer said they sometimes ask, "Will I save money? Will you get me a discount? Will it cost me more to book with you vs. doing it myself?" "I'll go into the explanation of what I do for them, how I make money," Schaefer said. "As of right now, I don't charge fees. I explain to them [that] cheapest isn't always truly the cheapest. I try to educate them about value vs. price." The types of trips young people are booking run the gamut. "Eighty-five percent of what we sell are international trips," Bell said. "About half of that is to Europe. No. 2 is to Southeast Asia. The stuff we sell to them are either rail passes and lodging to Europe or they'll go on a tour." The top searched destinations at STA Travel's website are London, Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles and New York. While there are tour operators that cater specifically to the millennial market, such as Contiki, GAP Adventures out of Canada or the U.K.'s Top Deck Tours, the youth travel market also books plenty of FIT packages and individual components, for which it doesn't matter if the vendor specializes in youth travel. Shifting marketing tactics Whether or not agents embrace it, social media is here to stay, according to Matt Britton, founder and CEO of Mr. Youth. In fact, Britton predicted, "The whole phenomenon of social search ... is going to affect the travel industry disproportionately." James Bell, commercial vice president at STA Travel, said young people "totally live online," adding, "When I talk online, that's heavy, heavy, heavy in social media. We have close to 35,000 fans on our Facebook page. And each of our local stores has a local Facebook page, as well, so they can connect on a local level." When it comes to social media, "You can't fake it," STA Travel wrote in a report about best practices. "Either you are committed to this space as a platform to connect with customers or you're not. Once you dip your toe in the water and respond to a complaint, you are now publicly committed to responding to all. The conversation is going to happen whether you are there or not, so you might as well get started and help control the direction." In other words, just having a Facebook page or Twitter feed doesn't cut it. You have to actually know how to use and manipulate social networking services. Two marketing tactics that come up time and again as effective tools in the travel social media space are contests and photo sharing. Melissa Witbeck, a social media specialist at Montrose Travel (No. 49 on Travel Weekly's 2010 Power List), said, "On our Facebook page, we post pictures. People like looking at pictures, or putting their picture on. That can sometimes lead to something. We are going to set up a photo contest for our clients and a poll on Twitter and have the other Facebook fans vote on them." Social networking is a quick and convenient way for friends to get recommendations from each other, and Mr. Youth's Britton said that those recommendations are increasingly going to be about travel. "If I'm a looking for a hotel recommendation, I can just see what my friend network likes, and I can find one," Britton said. "People aren't gong to trust TripAdvisor [because] you don't know who those people are. What might be amazing to one person might be terrible to you." According to STA Travel, the social media strategy is clear: You can't afford to not have social media efforts relate to your business. One of the company's main goals is to drive traffic to its website by linking and connecting its product with topics that are relevant to its audience. For example, Bell said STA Travel has identified three key passion points of the youth market: music, sports and entertainment. "So all our marketing is built around music, sports and entertainment," Bell said. "We're in the space that they're in." For instance, STA has a microsite, STA Travel Music, that showcases new bands, and it recently partnered with the film "Eat Pray Love" to create packages inspired by the film, the story of a woman's journey of self-discovery through Italy, India and Indonesia. To gauge the success of its social media marketing efforts, STA looks at metrics such as Facebook interactions; users posting comments and likes; and retweets, the number of times a message is re-sent by Twitter users. The company then tracks incremental revenue, click-throughs to STATravel.com and call volume to its national call center to determine the direct demand being driven by those channels. Brewing a media mix In most cases, social media isn't used as a standalone marketing strategy. Many companies that have had success with it also maintain traditional marketing practices. "We'll layer that with localized market immersion," Bell said, "that would be specific to where we've got retail stores, localized events to drive traffic, pizza parties in our office, study-abroad fairs, destination talks." Individual tour operators and consortia have also amped up efforts to provide agents with marketing materials geared specifically to the youth segment. Contiki offers an educational and motivational program for retailers, the All Access Program, which includes information about the spending and traveling habits of the youth market as well as marketing ideas designed around a concert metaphor. Ensemble Travel Group provides its consortia members with marketing material called "Vacation Therapy," geared toward the young adult demographic and playing on a medical theme: a diagnosis of "totally over it syndrome" or addressing "the cure for nothing happening." In the Mr. Youth poll, when those who said they didn't use travel agencies were asked if they would ever use a travel agency in the future, 22% said yes, 34% said no and 43% said "only if they had no other option." Agents also have a choice: Embrace this next generation of travelers, the travelers of the future, or ignore it. "Contiki benefits greatly from the thousands of bookings generated by agents in a market they supposedly don't see in their agencies," Fischbein said. "Moreover, given the sheer size of the 18-to-35 market, proactive agents have the opportunity to cultivate clients with a tremendous lifetime value. ... "One misconception is that 18-to-35ers won't use an agent. They will. An agent is part of the research mix, and these travelers have to book somewhere. If an agent/agency is willing to reach out, show their value as a resource, they will get business."