MMGY's Chris Davidson on the 'Portrait of American Travelers' survey

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MMGY Travel Intelligence, a research division of MMGY Global, this month released its annual Portrait of American Travelers survey. Senior editor Jamie Biesiada sat down with Chris Davidson, executive vice president of research and insight and head of MMGY Travel Intelligence, to talk about the trends revealed in the survey and how travel advisors can use the information.

Q: Nineteen percent of survey respondents plan to use the services of a traditional travel agent in the next two years, and 16% reported using one in the past year. You said agent usage has been fairly steady in recent years. Do you see any indicators that will change going forward?

Chris Davidson
Chris Davidson

A: From everything we've seen, I would project that travel advisors' popularity will only increase over time.
It's not a price issue; it's more about travelers asking, 'How do I get the most out of my vacation, and how do I make sure that things don't go wrong -- and if they do, I've got a source of help for that.'

At the top of the list of why consumers use agents is 'making sure I make the right decisions and get the most out of my travel experience.' And with the rising importance of those experiences -- in terms of the appeal of more local, authentic experiences, the rise in the sharing economy -- these are all things that would be a little bit less traditional and a little bit more complex in terms of how you book.

So where traditionally you might have been more likely to use a travel advisor for international travel or potentially for a cruise, the more complex forms of travel, ... it's more likely you would [now] use an advisor to get the most out of your experience and these different forms of travel.

Q: This year's Portrait found that traveler perspectives are shifting, with more emphasis being placed on things like local experiences, especially culinary ones. How should travel advisors apply that information to their businesses?

A: I think traditionally, the view was that the food and beverage experience was an aftermarket decision. What we're seeing is it's clearly more important in terms of affecting decision-making on the very front end of that planning process.

From a travel advisor perspective, it's making sure that you're considering the fuller extent of that in-market experience and how that can affect the packaging of the [travel experience] for the prospective traveler up front.

Q: Clayton Reid, the CEO of MMGY Global, has predicted a travel recession in the next year, but the survey found travelers intend to spend about the same on travel in 2019 ($5,025) as they reported spending in 2018 ($5,038). That perhaps signals a recession is further off. How much further?

A: I would be lying to you if I told you it wasn't a pretty good source of internal debate.

There's no way of knowing, obviously, but right now there are macroeconomic forces and microeconomic forces at work. But what we see in terms of consumer appeal of travel, money available for travel, perceived affordability of travel, perceived safety of travel, all of those numbers are pretty positive right now. I don't see a travel recession based on these current numbers within the next 12 months. But things can happen, and we're certainly cognizant of that, too.

Q: How would you suggest travel advisors prepare for what appears to be an inevitable recession?

A: From what we know from the data, people will continue to travel. They'll just travel a little bit differently. So, understand how they might travel differently. They may decide to visit a different destination. They may take one less night on their trip. They may do a road trip instead of flying. They may decide to stay in an Airbnb instead of staying in a traditional hotel or resort. I think it's really about understanding those changing priorities and behaviors of travelers.

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