How is your solo travel business? If it’s not a significant portion of the business you’re booking, you could be missing out on a lucrative—and growing—market.
In the United States, there are more single people than ever before: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017, more than 45 percent of all Americans 18 or older were single. That’s more than 110 million Americans. And when it comes to solo travel, the potential market is even larger, as agents report their solo travelers extend beyond singles to include people from all walks of life.
According to a study of global travelers released in May 2018 by Booking.com, it appears there "is a surge in solo travel ... with two fifths (40%) of global Baby Boomers having taken a solo trip in the last year, and a further fifth (21%) planning to take one in the future.”
As a result, the solo travel market is booming—and growing every day. In fact, according to the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), roughly half of their tour operator members reported growth in solo travelers last year.
The Solo Traveler
“We hear more and more about how people are placing more emphasis on experiences and less on things,” says Melissa da Silva, president of Trafalgar. “And at Trafalgar, we are seeing people who don’t want to wait to have amazing travel experiences. They are empowered and will travel, regardless of whether they have someone to travel with or not.”
Da Silva speaks from experience: Her very first international trip was as a solo traveler with Contiki 25 years ago. “I had such amazing experiences and formed such special bonds that I ended up working in the travel industry,” she says. She also notes that for many years, she continued to travel solo. “I viewed solo travel as an opportunity to recharge and get my mind aligned,” she says. “It was a very intentional choice.”
Pamela Small, luxury specialist and owner of Pam Small Travel, LLC, an affiliate of Travel Experts, a Virtuoso agency, says, “There are a variety of reasons that single people choose to travel solo, but we also see married people who travel solo—maybe they want to get away, maybe their spouse can’t take off as much time as they can, maybe they want to go somewhere their spouse isn’t interested in. I’m seeing all age groups, and all kinds of reasons for traveling solo.”
Regardless of the specific reason, the common denominator for many is that while solo travelers are choosing to vacation on their own, they don’t necessarily want to be alone throughout their journeys. And with so much to choose from, it can be intimidating for a solo traveler to find the right experience which is why more and more are turning to travel agents for guidance.
“Travel agents are a perfect resource for solo travelers, giving them an expert to help understand their options and point them in the right direction,” says Guy Young, chief engagement officer for The Travel Corporation (TTC). “They take the time to understand what a person is looking for out of a travel experience and use their extensive knowledge to recommend the best possible option.”
Solo but Social
The ability for solo travelers to connect with others is one of the primary reasons that Eliza Newsom, a travel consultant with AffordableTours.com in Stafford, Texas, says, “For a solo traveler, a guided vacation is the most comfortable way for them to step out and travel. Guided vacations are my go-to starting point as a recommendation for a solo traveler.”
She notes that it’s easy for people to meet each other on a guided vacation because “there are opportunities to interact with other people right from the start. Most guided vacations have a welcome dinner as soon as people arrive, and many encourage travelers to sit in a different place each day and interact with other people, whether they are solo travelers or part of a couple or group.”
Small, who specializes in luxury travel, also typically starts her recommendations for a solo traveler with a guided vacation or a river cruise. “With a guided vacation, a solo traveler can be confident that they will be part of a group of like-minded travelers,” she says. “Because they are small groups, it’s easy to get to know other people and my clients have found that the other people on guided vacations are very welcoming to solo travelers.” In fact, she says, “Many of my solo travelers make friends on guided vacations and then they continue to take trips together.”
In addition to meeting other like-minded travelers, Small points out the ease of planning and traveling as a key factor for solo travelers. “With a guided vacation, they know that every detail of the trip is taken care of,” she says. “They don’t have to worry about getting from one place to another, choosing hotels or what part of a city to stay in, even where to have lunch or dinner—there’s always a travel director to make recommendations for meals and activities during free time.”
Adam Cooper, president of Contiki, the guided vacation brand geared to travelers from 18 to 35 years old, notes that the mix of structure and flexibility is especially enticing to travelers of all ages. “With a guided vacation, travelers find that the overall duty of care, along with the security of being with a group, allows them the freedom to do things they might not have otherwise done if they were completely on their own,” he says. “There’s a safety blanket with guided vacations that gives travelers a higher level of confidence and comfort, no matter where they are visiting.”
Connecting with the Solo Traveler
Given the wide range of demographics of potential solo travelers—they literally can check off any box in the categories of age, gender, marital status, socio-economic status and other differentiators—reaching out to this market can sometimes be challenging.
As the visibility of solo travel has increased—with solo travelers showing up in television shows, movies, Facebook pages, supplier promos and other mass media—agents are finding that solo travelers are more comfortable in their decisions right from the start. “In the past, people would call and we would have to reassure them repeatedly that they could comfortably do a solo trip, but now people realize that there are others like them out there and the conversation is more about how to do it, not if they can do it,” says Newsom.
To that end, marketing that features special savings for solo travelers, as well as photos and personal stories of solo travelers, can continue to reinforce both the practicality and desirability of solo travel.
One way AAA Western and Central New York has put this market front and center is with their Solo Travelers Club. “The club is growing so much that we have outgrown three meeting locations since I started working as a travel consultant for AAA Western and Central New York in the Rochester office about five years ago,” says Donna Livernash, CTC, MCC. The club features four meetings a year, traveler certificates that can be used for travel, exclusive bonus reward trips and a host of vacation options for solo travelers, including guided vacations and shorter area daytrips and tours.
Livernash, who meets with many solo travelers, says the qualification process is similar to that with other clients, but that it’s particularly key for her to create a bond with her solo travelers. “When we talk about why they are looking to travel, sometimes there are sad stories that come up if their spouse has passed away. And sometimes a first solo trip can be intimidating. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to create a connection,” she says.
Newsom, too, notes that creating a bond and providing reassurance can be an integral part of helping a solo traveler plan a vacation, especially for first-timers. “Typically, with a couple or a group, the travelers have someone else to bounce ideas off of,” she says. “But with a solo traveler, they tend to want to discuss those ideas with me more. That’s something I can really bring to the table as a travel consultant with a solo traveler—I can help them visualize what they are going to do, discuss options and really help guide them.”
Newsom notes the importance of understanding what companies offer specials for solo travelers such as roommate matching, single supplement waivers and/or discounts in order to best advise her clients of their options. “We always have a conversation about what a single supplement is and if they are willing to pay that if necessary, or if they prefer to share a room—and if that’s even an option with any given company,” she says. “This helps me guide them to what might be the best fit for them.”
Her attentiveness to these kinds of details is a part of why she can say confidently, “There is a lot of repeat business with solo travelers. After they go one time, they realize they can do this and they love it. They come back confident and ready to book the next one.”