During this year's U.S. Tour Operators Association annual conference, a common theme kept cropping up: millennials, and whether or not the packaged travel industry really needs (or wants) them.
"Do millennials matter?" USTOA President Terry Dale asked the organization's members during a general session meeting.
On the one hand, they represent the future, right? So it makes sense to get into their heads and try to engage with them while they're still developing the ways in which they want to explore the world -- the "get 'em while they're young" approach. But on the other hand, baby boomers still represent the majority of wealth in this country and continue to have that even more priceless commodity of time.
And boomers are still the bulk of business for tour operators. According to the annual survey of USTOA members, about half of their customer base is made up of travelers age 50 and older. So why should tour operators even care all that much about millennials?
Well, millennials are where the growth is at, noted Dale, citing statistics that by 2017, millennials -- not boomers -- will have the greatest buying power of all generations.
That reality creates a sort of awkward bedfellow situation for tour operators, many of which have for decades been catering their product more to the retiree set and are now having to sort of prove themselves to a younger audience that may not necessarily think of tour operators as their go-to option when planning their vacations.
Take, for instance, a group of millennials (travelers born between the 1980s and 2000s) that doled out some advice to tour operators during a panel session at the conference.
"Millennials think of tour operators as a last resort," one panelist noted. Ouch. How's that for constructive criticism? But for those tour operators that were taking notes, the advice was potentially very useful for companies that are committed to tapping into and selling to this market going forward.
So what do millennials want from tour operators? According to this young panel, they want opportunities to explore on their own, they want flexibility, they want to be part of the travel conversation and not be told what to do, food is huge, they want to learn and gain something from the trip, and they need to be engaged online and through social media.
Fortunately for tour operators, many of these reflect areas where they have already been developing their products. Tour operators have for several years been building more free time into their itineraries and putting a big emphasis on local culture and cuisine. And many of them have been seriously upping their social media game.
As it turns out, millennials are not all that different from their parents and grandparents. And a lot of that is due to the fact that needs and desires are communicated across generations.
As several panelists noted, their travel destinations and trip styles often provide inspiration for their parents' and grandparents' travel decisions. Which is a good thing considering the results of a survey of 800 millennials conducted for USTOA by MBA students at Cornell University's Johnson Business School, showing that some 70% of millennials are aware of what a tour operator does, and 50% of millennials have purchased packaged travel at some point in their lives. All is not lost!
While there is likely a fair amount more work to do to get millennials fully onboard, there are clearly opportunities for tour operators in this space, as well. One area that stood out like a glaring opportunity, and one that has been emerging as a theme among tour operators already, was access. What many tour operators have that even the best-researched, go-it-alone millennials often don't is access -- access to people and experiences that tour operators' ground teams and tour guides can provide. That, right there, could be the key to luring in those youthful globetrotters, and maybe even locking them in for the long haul.