Richard Turen
Richard Turen

There are several things we know for sure: Our clients want to have the most authentic possible vacation experience, sampling local foods, experiencing other cultures in depth, traveling with the kind of purpose our parents never would have understood.

We, all of us -- the millennials, the boomers, the Gen Xers, the Gen Zers -- have one thing in common: We all are seeking experiential travel. We want to explore in ways that previous generations never wanted to or never could.

You've heard all the hype. The fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry is the expedition ship taking guests to places reachable only by Zodiac or helicopter. The American people have had it with ordinary travel. We are all about outdoing our neighbors, coworkers and golfing partners with stories of the deeds we've done in search of active, one-of-a-kind travel experiences that are unique to us.

It isn't enough to taste the food in Paris. It is now about whose kitchen we can enter and how unusual a shopping experience with the chef can our agents provide.

You can't attend a dinner party and drop "I've just returned from a tour of Paris" on your friends. They will be unimpressed. Now we talk about our trip through the sewers of Paris, how we managed to snag dinner in the Elysee Palace or how we enjoyed "authentic" French onion soup while traveling the streets of the Marais on the back of a motorcycle driven by the owner of the district's trendiest restaurant.

Put Greenland and Iceland on a cruise itinerary and it will sell out in one week. Tell Americans that this year's around-the-world cruise will be 180 days instead of 90 days, and it will sell out in two weeks.

We want to see it all, and our clients are ready for any adventure. The American traveler is on the go, and the world is ours. Tell us there is somewhere we can't go, and that is the experience we want. As long as we can explore, as long as we can satisfy our undying sense of curiosity about the world around us, we will go, and we will spend all kinds of money to do things so authentic our neighbors will turn green with envy. We are explorers, and we want to see it all.

But here's the thing: What if this narrative, for the vast majority of our clients, is just not accurate? What if our industry is engaging in some wishful thinking as we describe trends toward the distant and the authentic?

Let's look at some data from an organization I feel we can trust. In addition to their Herculean efforts to protect the interests of travel professionals in ways most travel professionals do not fully appreciate, ASTA does some fairly impressive research. Their latest national survey has one little nugget of information that sets many of the myths we've been creating about the American traveler on its head: When asked to name the most important reason they travel, 64% of this year's respondents said they traveled "to relax."

That's it. That's the primary reason we travel. The second major reason we travel is to "spend time with family." And guess what? "Going to the beach" came out ahead of "experiencing different foods," while "experiencing other cultures" was only cited as important by 21% of the respondents.

We live in a frenetic, fast-paced society here in the U.S. We are working longer and longer hours, and the percentage of Americans who do not utilize their earned vacation time keeps increasing.

What if we had it all wrong? What if we, as a well-traveled group of professionals trained to know as much as we can about the world, keep looking outward while, the vast majority, simply want to relax on a beach and essentially do nothing when they travel?

There is some recent data I want to share with you to make my point. The World Bank and World Tourism Organization have compiled worldwide travel data for the past year. Americans, it turns out, made 0.2 international trips per year. Do you want to know why there is a growth of nationalist sentiment in this country? Just look at how many of our clients and those who would never have a need for our services are ignorant of what life is like beyond our borders.

Let me dwell on that 0.2 figure. The average resident of Hong Kong took 11.4 international trips last year.

Of the more than 100 countries in the World Bank study, the U.S. ranked 60th in terms of travel abroad, despite having the world's biggest economy. Let others travel; Americans just want, or rather need, to relax.

I really want to be certain I share with you a 2013 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research on a study of the world's wealthiest countries, including 16 in Europe as well as Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. And guess what? The U.S. is the only nation in the study that does not require employers to give their workers paid vacations.

In fact, five of the nations require companies to pay vacation bonuses to employees to help them defray the cost of their vacations.

British Airways was interested in just why they were seeing such a relatively low percentage of Americans traveling abroad. So they did a 2016 study and found that two out of every three American workers does not fully utilize the vacation time allotted to them. 

Then there is the matter of holders of U.S. passports. I've written on this subject, a maze of mathematical probabilities and possibilities leading down a dark statistical tunnel with numerous off-ramps. How many of our clients voluntarily travel overseas to have some kind of authentic or otherwise experience abroad? To greatly simplify this statistical quagmire, let's eliminate the following categories of overseas travelers:

  • People visiting family and close friends.
  • Business travelers.
  • Students attending school abroad.
  • Affluent travelers who travel abroad multiple times per year.

Then, I would like to take a bit of a leap and remove those who travel within North America exclusively. True, there is some sopping up of culture, but their interest only extends to the major ports and destinations within our own continent.

If you work the numbers, you are going to come down to a figure of 5% to 7% for the portion of Americans with passports used primarily for travel overseas for pleasure and discovery.

But there is one more statistical hammer we have to use on these travel statistics. A large portion -- an unusually large proportion -- of this travel overseas for discovery and cultural enlightenment is done by the richest Americans, those who have the time, the money and the desire to do more than just relax on vacation.

Figures for 2017 from Statistica indicate that the percentage of affluent Americans who took multiple vacation trips abroad last year hovered around 24%.

So we need to go in and reduce the percentage of Americans who have enough curiosity and interest to travel abroad by reducing the one-fourth of travelers who make multiple trips per year.

Now, I don't have the final percentage of American adults who have a valid passport that they will use to travel beyond North America this year or next. It would be a fun research project for some university statistics department if the variables don't do them in. But it seems clear that the actual percentage of adults who really want an authentic overseas experience and interaction with people different than themselves likely hovers between 4% and 6%.

Again, that stands in stark contrast to the 64% of U.S. travelers who just want to relax when they travel.

Many years ago, an agency owner in Wisconsin who had attended one of my seminars, called me during a meeting and said, "Richard, I just want you to know that we dumped the sand today." He explained that he was opening his new leisure agency with a fake beach, models in bathing suits and alcohol-free pina coladas served to all visitors. He only wanted to work with people who were looking for a good time on vacation while catching up on some much-needed rest.

Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

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