With family travelers making up 30% of U.S. adult leisure travelers, the lucrative family travel market is undergoing significant growth and offering great opportunity to travel sellers.
But these are not yesterday’s families, and suppliers and sellers alike are discovering that a decent swimming pool or some chicken fingers on the kids’ menu aren’t going to cut it anymore.
In recent years, a market once defined by fun-and-sun cruises and all-inclusive resorts has expanded to include enriching visits to far-flung destinations, voluntourism and adventure travel experiences, often shared by grandparents, parents and children alike.
At an inaugural Family Travel Conference in February in New York, the family travel bloggers who hosted the event issued their wish list to suppliers who focus on family travel. It included providing better and healthier food for kids; more activities for tweens and teens at hotels and resorts; offering more enriching programs for kids; and offering more activities for families to do together.
“For me, I need one good belly laugh and one good whole-family experience,” declared Kim Orlando, founder of TravelingMom.com and one of the conference organizers. Orlando and her husband have three children: two sons, ages 16 and 12, and a 14-year-old daughter.
“The kids, they want some adventure,” Orlando said.
This summer, she and her family visited Kauai, where she signed up everyone for a voluntourism program to help the native flora thrive by ridding the island of invasive plants. The family spent the day cutting back blackberry bushes, and she said the kids really enjoyed doing something purposeful and helpful.
“You take the focus off of yourself,” Orlando said. “What you want doesn’t matter right now, because you’re working on this for someone else’s benefit. Most kids want to help.”
The experience was offered by the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, and Orlando said she expects to see an increase in the number of properties offering voluntourism programs in which kids and adults can participate together.
“We need more opportunities to engage as a family,” Orlando said. “It’s really important as a family, and it’s not so easy to make happen. On vacation it’s a chance to reconnect.”
The needs and demands of family travelers are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated. Families want more and better options so that everyone, from age 7 months to 70 years, has a thoroughly enjoyable and enriching vacation.
Ten years ago, “there were all-inclusive resorts and the cruise lines in this game, and it was all more about fun and sun,” said Tauck President Jennifer Tombaugh, who helped launch the company’s Tauck Bridges family program in 2002. “People weren’t thinking as much about the cultural development for kids, about shared enrichments.”
But all of that is changing.
Sharon Bell, business manager of Tauck Bridges, said, “Family travel has always been important to families, but it’s become even more important. Even when families are together, the kids are texting. Families are taking it into their hands more, saying, ‘Hey, we want to get our family back.’ It’s more than just wanting some R&R.”
No conversation about family travel today is complete without mentioning multigenerational or intergenerational travel. A healthier, wealthier, aging baby boomer population is fueling huge growth in the phenomenon of grandparents traveling with their families.
“Multigenerational travel is on the rise,” said Nancy Schretter, managing editor of the Family Travel Network website. “In some cases, this involves three generations — grandparents, parents and grandchildren — while in other cases it is just grandparents and grandchildren.”
The trend in multigenerational travel further exacerbates the pressure on travel suppliers to create experiences that cater to a wide range of age groups, different generations and a multitude of interests. The challenge for travel suppliers is finding just the right mix of how much time the family wants to be together and how much time they want to be apart.
According to a Disney Cruise Line representative, “Families tell us they enjoy spending time together onboard as well as pursuing individual activities. Families can choose to spend time together and pursue different interests while they are apart. Each family decides what is best for them.”
Indeed, Schretter said, “Families come in all shapes and sizes, not just two parents and two kids between the ages of 4 and 12. We see the greatest number of requests for information assistance from parents with children in the baby or toddler age range, from those with tweens or teens, from parents with young adult children, and from grandparents.”
To address some of these together-yet-separate needs of families of all shapes and sizes, cruise lines have for years been offering everything from childcare services for babies and toddlers to youth clubs for kids of all ages, including teens, as well as adults-only areas. And resorts now appear to be catching up.
“A lot of the hotel chains are expanding their definition of kids,” Orlando said. “When they have a kids’ club, it’s usually [ages] 5 to 12.” But she said she has noticed a growing number of options for teens at resorts, citing Omni Hotels & Resorts as an example of a chain that she has noticed offers a program specific to teens.
Adults need their alone time, Orlando said. “You feel better if [your teen] were engaged with other teens.”
She predicted, “You’re going to see more and more” teen activities at hotels.
For some families, of course, meaningful shared experiences are as important as the time spent apart, if not more so.
In the Tauck Bridges itineraries, no matter how varied the ages, “We don’t really do separate activities for kids and adults, because it kind of goes counter to our brand promise to discover together,” Tombaugh said. “What we try to do instead is develop an itinerary that is fun for everyone involved.”
Regardless of how it is tackled, multigenerational travel has grown to become a significant portion of the family travel market.
“For many operators, the reality is that the backbone of their business is the grandparents,” said Richard Harris, vice president of planning at Abercrombie & Kent, which has a strong family travel business. “A third of their business is grandparents and [grandchild], without the middle generation.”
In certain instances, the absence of that middle generation can present its own issues.
“Grandparents can do great with kids, but physically and mentally, they need some breaks,” Harris said. That means suppliers that sell family travel are finding it necessary to build in time during which kids do separate activities to accommodate different levels of energy and different interests.
Disney is seeing similar challenges and opportunities.
“Multigenerational travel is becoming more and more prevalent,” said Josh D’Amaro, vice president of Adventures by Disney, the company’s tour operation. ”We’re seeing that come through in our numbers. It forces us to think about how to deliver those experiences to the grandparents and to the parents.”
More meaningful travel
An emphasis on experiential travel, a term once reserved for adult wanderers, has begun to seep into the family travel lexicon.
Tim Larison, owner of Denver-based Family Travel Gurus, said, “My clients who have a good budget behind them, they’ve done traditional family travel — the cruises, Disney World — and now they’re starting to branch out a little. I’m seeing more exotic packages. I’m seeing more of the suppliers really trying to go after that market.”
That has translated into family itineraries, whether they be cruises, packaged vacations or tours, that embrace more international and exotic destinations, but it has also translated into a broader emphasis on enrichment throughout the family travel experience.
There are countless examples of this. In the Caribbean, the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis engages kids in its turtle conservancy efforts. The resort lies on Pinney’s Beach, which is a nesting habitat for three endangered species of sea turtles.
One day a week, the resort offers a Sea Turtle Camp for kids with activities such as turtle watch beach walks. During the turtle nesting season, from June through October, children ages 3 to 9 who participate in the turtle education program receive a sea turtle adoption certificate.
“If you look at the travel landscape and you look at what families are expecting from trips, they’re looking for more dimension in their trips,” D’Amaro said. Families, he added, want “more dynamic, deeper, more meaningful experiences.”
Along those lines, Adventures by Disney offers culture-heavy itineraries to places like Egypt, China and the Galapagos. For 2013, the operator added a Southeast Asia itinerary that includes a visit to an orphanage in which kids have an opportunity to bring gifts to the orphans.
Tauck, too, has a volunteer program in the national parks in which families can engage, Bell noted, adding that it’s “something everybody can be a part of.”
Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article headlined, “Volunteer trips: Is your family ready?” acknowledging a trend toward parents wanting to immerse their children in socially conscious trips.
“A decade ago, it was enough to peer into the Grand Canyon or bike through Tuscany,” the article stated. “Now, galvanized by disasters like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, and aware of the insulating effects of wealth, many parents are using travel to deliver to their children potent doses of real life.”
Schretter said that more than 40% of Family Travel Network’s readers want learning opportunities as part of their family vacations. Consequently, she said, hotels, resorts and cruise lines have developed experiences that will help children learn in subject areas such as marine biology, cooking, gardening and science.
“We are seeing more interest in voluntourism and giving back on family trips,” Schretter said. “There are lots of reasons for this. Many parents want to convey their values to their children and want to emphasize the importance of helping others. ... We’re seeing more hotels and resorts offering more voluntourism and giving-back options for their guests.”
Abercrombie & Kent’s Harris attributed the trend toward more meaningful travel, in part, to baby boomers, who are often leading the charge in planning and paying for the family vacations.
“Who would have thought of Mount Kilimanjaro and the opportunity to go climb the highest mountain in Africa as increasingly being viewed as a family program with A&K?” Harris said. “What’s interesting about that program, it’s the baby boomers: They are goal setters and goal achievers.”
Harris said that boomers want to travel with their families and “share the sort of goal-setting that has defined their life.”
That mindset has pushed the family and multigenerational travel industry to offer local, environmental and cross-cultural connections, he said.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Harris said, “it is about enrichment and challenge.”
Family travel planning
With all of these new dimensions to it, planning the family vacation has become increasingly complicated. And therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity for travel sellers.
With informed families demanding more from their family vacations, travel sellers need to be better informed. At the same time, with so many options out there, and with families being increasingly strapped for time, there is also opportunity to step in and help families sort through all the clutter.
“You’ve got dual working parents,” Tauck’s Tombaugh said. “And with moms being the organizer, [it helps] having all those logistics planned. You also have this mass diaspora of families living all over the country and all over the world.”
Indeed, planning a family vacation or a multigenerational family gathering, whether it’s a standard vacation or a special occasion such as a family reunion, landmark birthday or anniversary, can be as complicated as planning a special event. And it often translates into an elaborate group booking.
Because of all this, Schretter said she has noticed more families turning to travel agents.
“The information overload factor and time-poverty issues involved with planning family vacations are vast,” she said.
So, while families are definitely doing their travel research online, she said it’s often overwhelming to wade through all the information out there.
As for what kind of family vacation agents should be assembling for clients, Schretter said, “Families are seeking experiences that will make great vacation memories. Experiences and opportunities for great vacation memories are so important in the decision-making process.
“Parents want their families to engage with their travel destinations and to connect with people in these places. They’re looking for authenticity, personal connections and meaningful interactions with the places they travel to visit.”
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.