The latest PhoCusWright U.S. Consumer Travel Report suggests that a significant generational shift in the travel market may be under way.
"When you break it down by age, boomers are declining pretty aggressively in the last three years when it comes to travel," said PhoCusWright analyst Marcello Gasdia. "In the 45-to-54 group, you have only 56% taking a trip in 2012 [down from 63% in 2010] and even fewer in the 55-to-64 segment. Those age groups show the lowest percentages in terms of taking a trip."
(PhoCusWright, a travel industry research firm, is owned by Northstar Travel Media, which publishes Travel Weekly.)
"Boomers have lost a lot of assets since the downturn," Gasdia said. "Also, they may still have dependents relying on them, and they have retirement on the horizon. It's a lot of financial pressure. Hopefully, we will see [their travel plans] pick up."
The decline in boomer travel was partly responsible for a decrease in average household travel spend for the general population of the U.S. Last year, it was down $235, to $2,874. However, there was a bright spot in the results for even older travelers: 59% of those ages 65 and older took trips in 2012, compared with 56% the previous year.
Other findings in the PhoCusWright survey were less favorable to travel agents, including the overall flatness in the number of people traveling and a decline in cruising.
However, there were also a number of bright spots for travel sellers, including a return to international travel, which has been recuperating postrecession; strength in upscale lodging products; an "explosion" in river cruising; and strength in dynamic, or custom, packaging.
"The very top-line data on leisure travel is that the number of adults traveling every year is stagnant," Gasdia said. "About four in 10 are taking a trip at all, and that's absolutely economy-related. Prerecession, that [percentage] was in the low 70s, but it took a big hit in 2009 and hasn't really recuperated. There is still some penny-pinching going on. "
However, the nature of those trips bodes well for agents, Gasdia said.
"While U.S. travelers are taking slightly fewer trips this year, down from three to 2.8, they continue to take longer trips," Gasdia said. "Holidays of seven nights or longer still represent 27% of all trips, and that's been a stable level. That is relevant for agents because those are more complex trips and will include hotels that are more relevant for the agency side."
On the international front, Gasdia said, "The percentage of all U.S. consumers who take one trip outside the U.S. has been recuperating. It went up from 24% in 2010 to 28% in 2011 and 30% in 2012. Those big trips are holding steady because consumers are concentrating their dollars to make them count. They are cutting out smaller trips, again boding well for the agency side."
There is also resilience in the business travel market, including business trips with a leisure extension. According to the survey, the number of respondents taking one to two business trips with a leisure extension increased from 17% to 18% last year. Those taking three to five such trips increased from 9% to 11%, and the number taking six or more such trips held steady at 7%.
Lodging is trending upscale
The frequency of travelers staying in hotels is holding steady, according to Gasdia.
"But we are seeing an increase in quality and in the use of all-inclusive properties, again good news for the agency side," he said. "Consumers are definitely moving upmarket."
In addition, the intention to purchase lodging in 2013 is high compared with other travel products, with 24% of respondents saying they planned to spend more nights in hotels this year, as compared with 15% who said they intended to spend fewer nights in a hotel.
For cruising, long many agents' bread-and-butter, the news is mixed.
"It's hard to see where all the bad press is taking this," Gasdia said. "A lot of tour operators are talking about an explosion in river cruising, but we are seeing an overall drop in cruising, from 10% of all vacations to 7%."
On packaged travel, Gasdia said that while prepackaged vacations are doing fairly well, the stronger position is held by dynamic or custom packaging, with about 14% of trips taking that form (compared with 8% for pre-packaged tours.)
"Another thing we've been hearing from the agency side is that there is shifting interest to consumers wanting to create their own experiences, and that is good for the agency side, as well," Gasdia said.
Research, shopping and purchasing
While in recent years there have been tremendous changes in how consumers behave online when it comes to purchasing travel, the numbers as related to the use of travel professionals held steady, PhoCusWright found.
The percentage of consumers researching a travel destination online climbed from 54% in 2010 to 66% in 2012, closing in on 75% who shop online in general. (PhoCusWright breaks down the online process into four phases: researching a destination, shopping, purchasing and sharing.)
The use of mobile devices in the travel arena continued to grow, with 14% of respondents shopping for travel on their phones and 13% doing so on tablets, despite the fact that far fewer consumers own tablets.
A significant development in online shopping involved airlines moving past online travel agencies when it comes to booking -- 36% vs. 33% -- breaking a longstanding lead for online retailers.
When it came to researching a destination, the use of travel professionals held steady at 7%, even as the use of guidebooks, ads and brochures declined fairly rapidly. The real growth in shopping options came with metasearch engines such as Kayak.com, which were used by 36% of respondents.
When it came to the shopping phase, the use of agents climbed from 8% in 2010 to 10% in 2011 and held steady there in 2012.
And for the all-important purchasing phase, 37% of respondents booked exclusively online in 2012, signaling strong growth in that phase, even as there was a decline in those who booked both online and offline. Even so, 25% of buyers still booked both online and offline.
As for demographics, one interesting result showed that while couples still represent the largest market, they are declining as more people, particularly young people, travel alone. In fact, one-third of travelers took at least one trip alone in 2012.
Read more from Travel Weekly's Consumer Trends survey here.
Photo of stressed couple going over finances courtesy of Shutterstock.com.