How to maximize the sales potential of immersive travel in Mexico.
According to the latest Virtuoso Luxe Report, the desire to be a “traveler rather than a tourist” is one of the top trends for 2018. In other words, the days when travelers were satisfied with nothing more than a cocktail by the pool are long gone. Today’s vacationers crave unique and memorable experiences.
In the North American market, Mexico is especially well positioned to capitalize on the demand for experiential travel. The nation’s proximity, attractive exchange rate and accessibility enhance its diverse culture, traditions and natural attributes. And Mexico-savvy travel agents know how to put it all together to create irresistible packages for their clients.
“Without a doubt this is a growing market, surprisingly for all age groups,” says Elly Sterlacci, president of All Inclusive Reservations in Windsor, Colorado. “For many years, I have made a point—while on business or personal trips—of not only seeing resorts, but also experiencing local history and culture, and local, authentic Mexican foods. My clients love when I share my knowledge and excitement with them. Most clients are looking to get away from their everyday ‘normal’ life.”
Sally Jane Smith, president and CEO of TravelSmiths in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, agrees about Mexico’s appeal for immersive vacations. “Experiential travel is incredibly important, especially when we’re talking about Mexico,” she says. “Mexico is filled with rich culture, incredible ruins, and their fabulous indigenous food. Our clients love having all of this right in our backyard. The proximity to these immersive experiences only helps to grow our business there.”
Increased demand for tailor-made, immersive activities is partly due to social media, according to Kim Goldstein, president of Journeys Inc. in Richmond, Virginia. “Just like everything in life, clients want customization,” she explains. “Social media is a big driver in this new trend, because anyone can easily see what others are experiencing. Many millennials rank their vacation on how they can showcase it on Instagram.”
Suppliers also report an increase in demand for unique experiences. “Today’s travelers are more sophisticated in terms of their desire to really embrace the history and culture of Mexico, and they love adventure,” says Timothy Mullen, president of Apple Vacations. “While ten or twenty years ago, our most popular excursions were snorkeling and catamaran tours, today’s travelers love whale shark programs in Playa Mujeres, Mayan eco-adventures in Cancun/Riviera Maya, swimming with stingrays in Cozumel, zip lining in Vallarta, and outback and camel safaris in Los Cabos.”
While immersive experiences are plentiful and easily accessible throughout Mexico’s most popular vacation spots, it’s up to the travel advisor to help clients choose the ones that will have the greatest impact on their vacation and create a seamless experience for those clients in the process.
Know Your Audience
The potential client base for experiential travel is wider than ever, and transcends stereotypes, according to agents who sell a lot of Mexico. Sterlacci, for example, says, “Automatically your thoughts go to the over-fifty crowd, but lately my thirty-somethings are asking for the unique and unusual.”
In addition, she says, “Today’s millennials want to be one up on their friends, so these authentic experiences give them bragging rights. And today’s younger parents, who have been able to travel with their own parents, now want to take their children to Mexico, so their kids can see, feel and understand what others are like.”
Goldstein has also seen an increase in families seeking immersive experiences. “The parents want the children to see how other cultures experience life and that not everyone lives like them,” she says. And she notes that newlyweds are among the clients who most seek out immersive vacations.
Smith, too, sees a desire for experiential travel crossing all age groups. “Everyone wants to take advantage of experiential travel,” she says. “It’s multigenerational. It’s not just the millennials. It’s parents and grandparents who want their children to experience the world. A lot of times, clients want to expand their world view through travel; they just need to know these trips are safe and authentic experiences.”
This is where travel agents have a chance to shine, suggesting experiences that will tie into their clients’ individual interests and desires.
Assess What Clients Are Seeking
To that end, of course, qualifying clients to help determine what will make their vacation most memorable and impactful is crucial. In fact, Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, notes that for today’s travelers, it’s no longer a question of if they are seeking culturally immersive experiences, but what kind and to what degree. “There’s such a wealth of options in Mexico that it’s more about finding your client’s most comfortable level of immersion, rather than a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” he says.
Indeed, Smith says that travel agents need to understand what an immersive vacation means to each client. “Experiential travel does mean different things to different people,” she says, highlighting just some of the possibilities: “It could be a total immersive experience, like going to a town and helping to build a home, dig a well or assisting with the elderly. For other individuals, it could be immersing themselves in the history of Mexico, visiting Chichen Itza and/or Tulum, going swimming in the cenotes or visiting Xcaret or Xel-ha. Some folks just want to swim with the dolphins or ride a camel. Or it could be as simple as going to a taqueria to have tequila or enjoy a Mescal tasting.”
With all the various options, the role of tour operators and packagers becomes even more important. “The tour and land operators are now designing trips and packages to appeal to those travelers,” says Smith. “They know that’s what is selling.”
Experience, too, can help an agent make recommendations that are spot on. For example, Sterlacci has seen that among her agency’s clients, culinary experiences appeal to nearly every age group, while other immersive elements are more dependent upon generation: Food and history, for example, are big sellers for the 50-plus crowd; ruins, water parks and food are top sellers for parents with children; and “in-depth history” attracts single travelers.
And location is another driver of what kinds of immersive experiences are good recommendations. “In Riviera Maya, my clients love going into Playa del Carmen or visiting the Tulum ruins along with the many eco-parks,” says Goldstein. “Travelers visiting Mexico want to experience the vibrant culture and see the history—they love going to the Mayan ruins to learn about the past.”
Mix It Up
If variety is the spice of life, then combining immersive experiences with other activities makes perfect sense—especially in a country like Mexico, where culture, history and nature are complemented by stunning hotels, nightlife and other excitement.
“My clients are looking for a few down days to relax and enjoy a resort, then they want to leave the resort to see and feel what their destination is like,” says Sterlacci. “I find clients who are away for seven nights tend to purchase two to three sightseeing tours. They mix their tours with adventure—maybe snorkeling, ATVs and zip lining—and history, including Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza.”
Smith says her clients are apt to mix and match a variety of diversions. “Some of the immersive experiences that complement all vacation types include scuba diving, ATV tours, speedboats, snorkeling, sailing, riding a camel, zip lining, museum tours, visiting Xcaret … the list goes on,” she says. “You can do just about anything in Mexico, and it’s very cost-effective.”
The ongoing appeal of such experiences provides travelers with good incentive to book tours and activities at the same time they book their air and hotel. The benefits are multifold: travelers can do their research and explore their options ahead of time; they are ensured they can book the experiences they want; and travel agents can increase their commissions.
Sterlacci has already seen that the surge in popularity of experiential travel means that more travelers book extras in advance. And to better serve that need, she says, “I recently worked with Amstar DMC to create a private label website for my clients. It features all kinds of tours, in several Mexico locations.”
Make It Personal
For all the attention that experiential travel has attracted within the industry, clients may not be aware of the concept by name—even when that’s exactly what they’re looking for.
“I do not feel the phrase ‘experiential travel’ is widely known, and maybe that’s OK,” points out Sterlacci. “It gives me the chance to ask questions and respond to my client with ideas. There’s nothing better than sharing with your client something you experienced and enjoyed. Clients can hear the excitement in your voice. I’m so excited that Americans are finally traveling to various Mexican destinations and asking for ‘experiences’—not just the beach and drinking.”
Smith’s agency also relies on personal experiences to generate excitement about immersive travel. “We are very well educated on Mexico,” she says. “We go there at a minimum four times a year—we meet the hotel managers, the tour operators and the people.”
This in-person experience helps Smith to better connect clients with the most appropriate activities outside the hotel properties. “Mexico has so much to offer; however, most guests just don’t understand that it’s right at their fingertips,” she says. “We fully educate our clients about what is available. We interview them to see what their likes, dislikes, passions and their comfort zones are, in order to fit the perfect adventures and experiences into their vacations, because we truly believe that we create memories that last a lifetime.”