When the U.S. Travel Insurance Association gets together for its annual meeting, things can get depressing. Last year, catastrophes dominated the discussion: Hurricanes, pandemics, terrorism. "It was like listening to The Book of Revelations read aloud," remembers one attendee.

While disasters have a silver lining for insurance companies -- they serve to remind travelers to buy insurance -- catastrophes were eclipsed last year by industry growth and lower payouts. Insurers seemed a happy lot at their gathering last week in San Diego.

The group's opening speaker offered, in her observations, a form of insurance for insurance companies. In fact, she offered sound advice to anyone whose business depends on understanding customers.

Madelyn Hochstein, president of research company DYG Inc., presented the findings of DYG's comprehensive consumer scan. She spelled out the values and motivations of Americans in various demographic slices.

Key to defining society in the 21st century is what she labeled "The Valuable Life Goal." It is the desire to have an impact on, and add meaning to, life through personal responsibility and thoughtful sacrifice. While sacrifice and responsibility aren't two words usually associated with travel, they have become more prominent of late with the growth in "voluntourism" and the "green" movement toward environmental sensitivity.

Today, Hochstein said, an edge goes to "heroic brands and purpose-driven companies," no matter what they're selling. While it's helpful if a company can point to specific green practices or a record of philanthropy, she said brands themselves can be heroic.

In other words, clients may be buying an insurance policy, an airline seat or a room night, but that's not necessarily what they want to hear about. To reach them in the most powerful way, first ask yourself: In what ways are you making life better?

Hochstein also identified the needs of people in economic groupings that she dubbed "the strugglers, the muddled middle and the wealthy winners." She then prescribed how to reach these subgroups.

For the strugglers, a marketing message should reflect feelings of respect for their faith, their sense of style and their struggles. No matter what the anxiety-riddled muddled middle might say, their subtext will be, "Am I taking the right vacation?" Listen carefully to what they need, then reassure them that they are. Those in the "winner's circle" are looking for a vacation that combines ethical behavior and exclusivity, especially when accompanied by the suggestion that they'll receive a "new way" of winning.

Finally, Hochstein noted, it's important to understand generational differences. Here, in a nutshell, is her advice on how to sell to various age groups:

Gen Y (ages 20 to 31): Focus on affordable luxury, opportunities to be in the spotlight, fun, entertainment and self-discovery. For women, it helps if a vacation is scripted to the point that it seems error-proof; men want something wild and physical.

Gen X (ages 32 to 42): Emphasize family travel, appealing to mom with a spa and drawing in dad with fun facts about a destination. The possibilities for romance should also be highlighted.

Baby boomers (ages 43 to 61): Reassure the men that they can do the stuff they always wanted to do. Provide women with travel products that reinforce their still-strong feelings of sensuality.

Listening to Hochstein speak, it's a little embarrassing to see our desires, worries, vanities and confusion revealed so clearly. The common motivation for American consumers seems to be fear: Fear of a polluted world, fear of loss of status, fear of physical decay, fear of being a loser.

The nice thing about the travel industry is that we actually have products that can ease fear. If not for that, I suspect that more than a few travel insurance underwriters listening to Hochstein might have dreamed about reducing insurance to its most raw form and simply selling anxiety policies.

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