Amex Consumer Travel Network's Tony Gonchar

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Tony GoncharThe American Express Spending & Saving Tracker showed an increase in the number of Americans planning to take a vacation this summer: 69% as opposed to 59% last summer. Retail Travel Editor Kate Rice talked with Tony Gonchar, vice president of the American Express Consumer Travel Network, about what's behind the numbers and what American Express is seeing as the summer progresses.

Q: What do these numbers mean?

A: This tracker is a pretty interesting report. It is a random sample of about 1,500 people who are representative of the U.S. population. It is a good bellwether of what people are looking for. We are seeing strong positive indicators with almost 70% of Americans planning summer travel. That's up 10 points from last year. Thirty-one percent are going to spend more than $1,000, vs. 27% last year. I'd say that indicators are directionally good.

Q: Any destinations that stand out?

A: We are seeing a strong desire for the Caribbean: Jamaica, the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. Europe and Greece are coming back very strong based on recent air-purchasing data from American Express call centers and owned offices. Greece is up significantly with double-digit increases.

Q: What other trends are you seeing?

A: Travelers continue to march toward more authentic, personalized experiential travel. There is more interest in shopping, in historically themed travel and in river cruising, which allows for that intimate interaction with some of these very small European cities. That level of authenticity is something that we have seen growing.

Q: Is this quest for authenticity new?

A: The enrichment trend is something that we have been seeing over the last couple of years. More and more consumers are looking to go a little bit beyond the traditional path. Vacations that include elements of enrichment and education mean people come back with a refreshed, changed mindset as well as having enjoyed the relaxing experience that is typically part of a consumer's vacation. There are differences, of course. On the higher end, travel will be more bespoke and expectations higher. At the same time, we can't generalize that the entire vacationing public is moving toward historically based travel or deep enrichment. There still will be flop-and-drop people who want to go to the beach and relax.

Q: What's the consumer mindset behind this trend?

A: We don't have a crystal ball on consumer behavior, but it is important for people in travel to have some knowledge of demographics. That helps them determine what their customers are looking for as well as how to position themselves. In general, we see consumers placing a high value on travel. They are spending more money traveling. Certainly, there is a degree of confidence in the economy now that allows people to make these decisions more easily than they have in the past. There is probably pent-up demand for travel.

Q: What does this mean for travel agents? How can they capitalize on it?

A: This shifting of desire and interest on the part of the consumer means they need to find someone with the expertise to help them arrange the best possible experience for the budget that they've got. This is going to become more intense because the availability of information is so pervasive. They need advisers like our Travel Insiders group, who are deep experts in particular destinations. More and more people are going to be looking for that type of expertise to help them navigate all the choices before them.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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