I am a PANK, and I didn't even know it.
More importantly, in this context, I am a PANK who has traveled with two nephews.
The fact is, PANKs are everywhere, and many travel with their nieces, nephews, godchildren or the children of friends. Travel sellers should pay attention to them -- or at least that's what market researchers are telling retailers of all kinds, because PANKs spend a lot of money on children who are not their own.
First, a definition: PANK is an acronym for "professional aunt, no kids," but it really embraces any career woman who doesn't have children of her own but who loves to travel and enjoys sharing the experience with young relatives or acquaintances.
Second, some data: The Weber Shandwick public relations firm partnered with KRC Research to scout for market segments that generally go unnoticed. To study this particular segment, the researchers partnered with Savvy Auntie, a service provider that targets working women without children.
The team reported that 23 million (nearly one in five) American women are PANKs, and they spend an estimated $9 billion a year on nieces, nephews and other children with whom they have a special bond.
In one example, Pat Maida, a retired bank executive in Clearwater Beach, Fla., arranged her first PANKing (we can coin words as well as the next wonk!) trip for a 5-year-old niece who was upset that Aunt Pat was moving far away.
The niece, Lauren, traveled solo across country to visit Maida, but the trip was memorable for a second reason: Maida tried brushing the youngster's hair but got the brush so thoroughly entangled in the girl's locks, she almost had to take her to a hairdresser to get the brush removed.
Many adventures have followed, though without the hair tearing. Maida said she likes to cruise with the kids because it's easy to pursue independent activities but connect for dinner, shows and sightseeing.
It would be "awesome," she said, if travel sellers developed trips dedicated to PANKs and their kids, the way product is developed for singles.
PANKs generally aren't identifiable in travel marketing databases as anything other than single, childless women at a specific income level. But their agents might know them personally and value their business.
Pat Maida's travel agent is her cousin, Chuck Maida, president of All Seasons Travel in Jacksonville, Fla.
Chuck Maida said single, childless women "are often driven and very career-oriented" -- and well compensated, which gives them the wherewithal to take children on trips both for the bonding and a break from work stresses.
"We've scored a hit by closing the first sale of this type," he said. "It's not just a hit; it's a home run" because these clients can afford to travel "again and again."
He said All Seasons does not target PANKs as a specific market, but through Ensemble's marketing program for members, the agency promotes to a segment of women defined as single with a high income.
John Krieger, the president of Cruise and Tour Center in Dallas, said his database doesn't track this category, and it wouldn't be cost-effective to promote specifically to doting aunts.
"You would need a laser to reach this demographic," he asserted.
On the latter point, Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's executive vice president for global sales and marketing -- and a PANK -- said, "When targeting women with family themes, you don't have to be that granular if the marketing is good."
She said the KRC study "reaffirmed" Royal Caribbean's approach to marketing, which holds that family units come in many forms. As a result, she said, the cruise line, "always a family brand," has recently adopted an advertising template that, when featuring women with children, doesn't call the woman Mom. Each person who sees the ad determines the woman's connection to the children, Bauer said.
To a degree, she is her own model. Members of her family travel in a variety of groupings, and "that's how families act." It's not just two parents and two children.
Bauer has seven nephews, and "all will be spoiled in due time," but for now, she travels most with the older two, who are teenagers. She said she travels with her nephews to give them "great experiences" and to see her favorite things "through their eyes."
Besides, when they are with their aunt, they are "on their best behavior, more respectful and thankful than with their parents." They also are a "little more spoiled, the center of attention."
In her most recent exploit, Bauer took her 16-year-old nephew Kyle out of school to attend the American Country Awards in Las Vegas. "Only aunts can get away with that," she chuckled.
Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., has three children. But she assumed a PANK role once, taking two preteen daughters of relatives to Universal Studios and on a Disney cruise.
She said she was more alert to their whereabouts than she would have been with her own children, but they were "more respectful. Your own kids are always trying to put something over on you."
She isn't currently selling to PANKs who travel with kids, but she sees other atypical family or quasi-family groups, such as two women traveling together with one child each.
However, Hirleman said she aims to ask select new or existing clients if they travel with nieces or nephews, an intention that dovetails with Bauer's advice to agents: When qualifying clients, Bauer said, agents should keep this angle in mind.
Agent Pat Saizan said, "I really get this market. I would be a PANK if I didn't have my son." (As it is, she has taken her brother's children on cruises with her son, so we'll call her PANKish.)
Saizan, who operates Saizan's Travel in Altamonte Springs, Fla., said she is now inspired to "segment out this market in my database system."
The co-president of Ensemble, Libbie Rice, has two young children and a PANK near at hand: her sister, Katy Rice, a New York-based professional who has taken Rice's 8-year-old son to California for his first aunt-nephew trip. Rice figures that was just a first installment in PANK-sponsored trips for both her children.
Rice said her sister already receives marketing materials because she buys kid-focused products such as tickets to "The Nutcracker" ballet performances.
Katy Rice said she hasn't received child-related travel promotions. But, she added, this market is only beginning to develop. "It would be interesting to hear from travel sellers" with relevant products, she said, adding that a cruise "would be fantastic. It is a self-contained setting, and there is lots of stuff to do."
A PANK with considerably more years' experience, Mary Karlo, a schoolteacher in Rumson, N.J., has squired her nephew and three nieces on trips, occasionally to Europe but more often in the U.S.
Also an All Seasons client, she said she watches for Maida's promotions, but she has a favorite. She will "go wherever Disney goes," partly because she's confident that, with Disney, a child is safe, well entertained and has plenty to do.
Karlo said she has taken her youngest niece, also named Mary, now 15, to Walt Disney World about 25 times and on about 20 Disney cruises. One trip is an annual summer event: 10 days spent "tearing up Walt Disney World. We don't open this trip to any other family and friends."
She said she would like to see travel promoters offer more deals for one adult and one child; she often has paid for two adults.
The kids are king or queen when Karlo chaperones them, she said. They also behave, she cracked, because they know "I don't have to take them again."
However, Karlo observed that she doesn't have to worry about funding college and the like, so, "What better way to blow some money than traveling with my niece?"
One drawback for any travel marketer is that some PANKs buy the multigenerational trips only occasionally as one-off or special-occasion events.
I wouldn't have been easy to identify before I took my nephews to Europe, and it would have been pointless to follow up after. The three-week trips were one-offs for each of two teenage nephews whom I otherwise saw infrequently.
I figured the trips would be broadening for them and I would get a kick out of sharing their thrill at seeing Europe for the first time.
With the older one, who is the silent type, I was uncertain if he had taken in anything I said, until I heard him talk to friends and family afterward the trip.
The younger one talked too much and hadn't gotten the memo about being more respectful. I still don't know if he absorbed anything I told him.