Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Earlier this year, I attended the annual meeting of Thayer Capital, a venture fund focusing exclusively on travel technology. I subsequently wrote that one speaker, Alex Dichter, director of global travel for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., made a presentation designed to question presumptions -- he dubbed them "myths" -- which can distract from significant opportunities.

The first myth on his list concerned the urgency of developing technology aimed at millennials.

"Within 50 years, they will be important," he allowed. "But they're just not as interesting a demographic as we think they are."

Dichter believes that growth in travel will be driven by baby boomers until 2030. He called them "the most interesting demographic the travel industry has ever seen, with the time, money and interest to travel."

I recalled his remarks while listening to a presentation by Jay Talwar, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Hawaii Tourism United States, formerly the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, at last month's Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum.

Talwar outlined a robust Hawaii Tourism program that targets millennials. The effort is impressive in scope and depth, and his presentation was well received by the 250 people from Hawaii's tourism community who attended the forum.

The following morning, I met with 10 of those attendees -- locally based hoteliers as well as wholesalers and retailers who sell Hawaii from the mainland -- and we explored, among other topics, how they viewed Hawaii Tourism's emphasis on the millennial market.

Pleasant Holidays CEO Jack Richards was unconvinced: "We have looked at this ad infinitum, and we just can't make a case for the millennial market to Hawaii yet. I do think it warrants an investment to cultivate them as future visitors to Hawaii. At 83 million, they're the single largest generation in the history of the United States, but the 76 million baby boomers have a lot more wealth and free time to travel. And a lot have not been to Hawaii."

But he was the lone skeptic in the room. Kelly Hoen, manager of two Outrigger properties in Waikiki, connected millennials to honeymooners who have been coming to Hawaii "forever."

"Same-sex marriage, the fashion scene, the music scene, the culinary scene -- you can't get any better than what's happening right now in Hawaii for the millennials," Hoen said.

Departure Lounge founder Keith Waldon suggested the millennial attitude was a psychographic rather than demographic and that appeals to them also attract "younger-minded folks." Marriott International area general manager Chris Tatum echoed the sentiment, stating, "Baby boomers are looking at the same things that their kids are looking at."

Gogo Worldwide Vacations president John van den Heuvel observed that social media behaviors -- the search for the "Instagramable moment" -- also cross generational lines, and Hawaii's beauty and unique experiences provide the perfect backdrop.

Classic Vacations CEO David Hu said Hawaii was already at the top of boomers' bucket lists, but the destination had to define itself for millennials, and had to do it now. Adventure, culinary, wellness and music should be emphasized, "rather than just saying, 'Hawaii -- it's beautiful. It's the Aloha spirit.' You've got to go deeper."

Waldon concurred, stating that his millennial clients "know the chefs' names, know the DJs' names. They know who the DJ is dating."

Mark Travel executive vice president Ray Snisky may have gotten to the heart of why boomers and Gen Xers take comfort in the suggestion that opportunities for targeting millennials are overstated.

"This millennial segment is causing so much angst in the industry exactly because they know the DJ's name, they know the type of chef they want to have," Snisky said. "We haven't before had a clientele that was so specific in what they wanted. [Other generations] wanted to go to nice places, wanted to enjoy luxury and so forth, but there's a panic in keeping up to date with what resonates with millennials. We've almost created this world where we think they're from space."

He added: "You do have to be very specific in what you carve out for them. A picture of a beach with some umbrellas isn't going to resonate. They still go in the pool, they still eat food, but they want to do something a little different, to tell their friends after they come back."

Waldon described them as "very appreciative clients. When you make them happy, they tell people, and they do it instantly. They are so thankful, and they share that immediately."

Snisky added: "Of all the different demographics, they have the strongest wide-reaching vehicles to tell the story."

Connie Risse, owner of Ships and Trips Travel, had the last word and warned against making generalizations about a demographic comprising 83 million individuals, some of them teenagers, some in their mid-30s.

"A whole bunch of millennials are married and have two kids in strollers," she said. "They're here [in Hawaii], and they're not taking the kids to gourmet restaurants. They want the beautiful weather, they want the beaches. [Millennials include] families, too."

Although there was no consensus, I found the roundtable conversation clarifying in one regard: The biggest myth of all about millennials is that there is a single answer to the question, "How much effort should I make to appeal to millennials?"


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