The U.S. travel industry is setting its sights on the Hispanic market, 52 million strong this year and projected to grow to 132 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census. It's a demographic that will wield $1.5 trillion in spending power by 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Selig Center for Economic Growth and the Latino Print Network. Even so, it's a group that until recently has been largely ignored by the travel industry. Even businesses that might have been expected to target this market have not.
For example, the Mexico Tourist Board only recently began studying U.S. Hispanic consumers as a separate market, said Jose Barquin, director of the board's Miami office. He said one reason travel marketers in general have overlooked the U.S. Hispanic market is due to false stereotypes, such as the misperception that Hispanics' lack of documents and money keep them home. The stereotypes are nonsense, said Barquin and others who are leading a travel industry charge to develop the Hispanic market.
Their goal is not only to sell travel to the Latino market but to bring more Hispanics into the travel industry.
Recently, two major industry groups, ASTA and the National Tour Association (NTA), began pooling their resources to develop the U.S. Hispanic travel market. The new ASTA/NTA Hispanic Business Development Task Force is laying out a plan designed to develop the Hispanic market in two ways: first, to sell travel to the group and second, to draw Hispanic talent into the travel industry while recognizing the Hispanic talent already in the industry.
One indicator that Hispanics travel less than the rest of the U.S. population is that they are underrepresented in the numbers of visitors to U.S. national parks (see report, bottom of this page). Spot surveys of national park sites across the country find that Hispanics typically make up just 3% to 5% of park visitors. Hispanics make up 17% of the U.S. population at large.
"The travel industry is courting Hispanics just like the presidential candidates," said Olga Ramudo, president and CEO of Express Travel, Miami, chair of the ASTA/NTA task force and a member of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. Ramudo says it's about time.
Other industries have been far more proactive. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, for example, has 10,000 members and attracts 2,000 people to its annual meetings, according to Kirk Whisler, president of the Latino Print Network.
And other industries began targeting the Hispanic market decades ago, according to Jorge Plasencia, chairman and CEO of La Republica, a cross-cultural advertising and communications agency he started six years ago to market to Hispanics.
Plasencia is also chair of the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza. He said that many other industries -- home products, mobile phone providers, the technology and the health industries, to name a few -- have recognized the importance of the Hispanic market. It's not just its size or its buying power. It's also a market with great brand loyalty.
Plasencia said that years ago, Procter & Gamble launched marketing efforts targeting the Hispanic market, advertising products such as Pampers and Bounty paper towels in Spanish media and sponsoring local festivals and community events. As a result, he said, P&G (which is not one of his clients) continues to have success with this market.
"Hispanics want the best for their families," Plasencia said. "They will always spend a little more if they feel they're getting value for their family."
That's just one reason that the Hispanic market holds potential for the travel industry. Hispanics travel differently than the U.S. market in general.
"We travel in herds," Ramudo said. When a Hispanic family group hits the road, it's not just mom, dad and the kids. It often also includes grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, even neighbors and friends who are so close that for all intents and purposes they count as family.
There are other cultural distinctions.
You don't start a tour at the crack of dawn with the Hispanic market, said Ramudo, a sentiment echoed by most others interviewed for this article. Nor do you have a one-hour lunch at noon; instead, you have a longer lunch later in the day.
It's a market with both the money and the desire to spend.
"They do have the income, and they love to travel," Barquin said.
Hispanics are not looking for an inexpensive hotel, Plasencia said. Like other affluent travelers, they want value, but value doesn't mean only low prices. Like travelers everywhere, they're seeking experiences.
"We're looking for 'Where can I take my family that will provide great value so we will we have those lifelong memories? Where can I go to truly create lifelong memories?'" he said.
La Republica, which now has two major travel clients, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and Universal Studios, has been getting this response from Hispanic consumers in focus groups held around the country.
But while there are some universal truths when it comes to describing the Hispanic market, there are also differences, because this is not one market or one culture but many.
All Latin cuisines include rice and beans, said Juan Camilo Caicedo, sales director, west region, for LAN Airlines. Falling under the LAN umbrella are airlines from several South American countries: Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. (Some industry players include Brazil in the Hispanic market, even though Brazilians speak Portuguese, and some do not).
But, Caicedo said, drill down a layer and you'll find that those beans, their colors and ways to cook them, vary from nation to nation. Similarly, when Hispanics celebrate birthdays, they all put candles in a cake and blow them out, but that cake could be called a ponque or a pastel or a torta, depending on where you live or where your family is from. Order a torta in Mexico and you get a sandwich.
Phrases differ from group to group. "Ahora means 'right now' in Peru or Chile," Caicedo said, but in Colombia or Venezuela, it means "in a while."
"We're the same, and we're not the same," Caicedo said.
And then, there are generational differences that go well beyond just age, separating, for example, immigrants from their first- and second-generation U.S.-born offspring.
A classic example of this is Mary Jo Salas, a leisure sales specialist with Alamo Travel in San Antonio. Salas is first generation, born in Chicago. She spoke only Spanish until she entered kindergarten, but she learned her second language quickly and now, thanks to summers spent in Mexico, speaks Spanish like a native-born Mexican and English like the native-born American she is.
One way to tackle generational differences, Barquin said, is to take the emotional track and capitalize on the relationships that are so important to all Hispanics.
"We are moved by feelings, sometimes more than by rationality," he said, adding that relationships and emotion are the two levers to use when marketing to the Hispanic community.
One travel company that has been highly effective in marketing to Hispanics is Rail Europe. It has made a concentrated effort to court the market, building not one but two Spanish-language websites, one for agents and one for consumers. Its call center is staffed with Spanish speakers, and it offers marketing materials in Spanish.
Frederic Langlois, CEO of Rail Europe, said one big mistake many marketers make is assuming that because so many U.S. Hispanics are fluent in English, there's no need to create Spanish materials for them. Langlois is dead set against one-size-fits-all marketing, and that is particularly true of the Hispanic market, he said, because it's a market in which relationships are so important.
"To be successful you have to know your customer," he said. Speaking the customers' language and knowing their culture means you can fine-tune your offer to fit their desires.
For many Hispanics, Langlois said, English is the language they work in eight, 10 or 12 hours a day, while Spanish is their language of fun. Evidence of that lies in the fact that Univision, a La Republica client, wins ratings on many nights over CBS, NBC and Fox in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, Plasencia said.
But Rail Europe didn't just build websites. It invested heavily in face time with the agents who sell to this community. Langlois praised Angel Alvarez, regional sales director for Rail Europe, whose territory includes the U.S. Hispanic market and Mexico.
Hispanics tend to use travel agents more than the general U.S. population, he said, mainly because relationships are so important to them. Alvarez visited travel agents, attended trade shows and local travel events. He worked with agents in cooperation with European tourist boards to help them design their marketing plans -- not a special campaign but as an intrinsic part of Rail Europe's operations platform and something the company has been working on for a few years.
What's more, it has paid off, producing a 13% jump in revenue for the trade in 2011 over 2010, according to Rail Europe.
The traditional bond with family across generations and time zones means that while face-to-face encounters are important, social media and mobile phones that enable Hispanics to keep in touch with family and friends in other countries are essential.
"We over-index on mobile and cellphones and on social media," Plasencia said. "It is so important for Hispanics to keep in touch with that cousin in Colombia, the aunt in Venezuela and the classmate left in Mexico. Social media is so prevalent in the Latin community because it is all about keeping that connection with your homeland."
Marketing to the Hispanic market also means tweaking content.
"They are very warm and lively people, they love music, they want to have fun, so we target them with things that we think they can relate to or would want to go and see," said Salas, who finds herself writing Spanish copy for clients. She recently did an email blast to a group of Mexican-American entrepreneurs.
"They are like any average American, but some things will call to them more: bars and restaurants, nightlife. We -- they -- definitely want to do something after the sun goes down."
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.