Today I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the University of South Florida’s School of Restaurant and Hotel Management. The featured speaker, Chairman and CEO of YPartnership, Dr. Peter Yesawich, is widely considered to be the preeminent source of insight into the evolving travel habits, preferences, and intentions of Americans. In addition to handling the public relations and marketing for a list of clients that reads like a who’s who in the American travel industry, YPartnership produces the National Travel Monitor, a research publication that predicts future travel trends by interviewing 1800 active travelers each year.
Perhaps the most astounding fact in their most recent report was that in eleven short years, the percentage of households accessing the Internet for the purpose of planning personal travel jumped from 11% to a whopping 80%. While Internet usage for booking travel may have initially blossomed because people were excited by the prospect of discovering a “once in a lifetime” cheap fare, it really began to boom following the stock market meltdown in 2000 and World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Following 9/11, the travel industry became distressed, and they worked their way out of it by offering deep discounts on products and services. However, rather than using traditional channels to offer these discounts, for the first time ever the travel industry marketed directly to consumers with email campaigns. Initially this drove the general pubic to use industry-owned search engines like Expedia and Travelocity. Today the travel search engine model is moving toward Meta Search engines, which scrape the best fares from a host of sites and aggregate them into a single website. The advent of the Meta Search engines is driving the industry toward transparent pricing.
To this, add the fact that people are increasingly inclined to believe the opinion of a blogger or an anonymous consumer who writes a hotel review over a story written by a credentialed journalist, and you get a small idea of the tremendous challenges facing the travel industry. Not to mention that the industry hasn’t even begun to figure out what social networking and viral marketing is all about. They do know it is having an impact, though. Yesawich recently Googled Spirit Airlines. Although the airline was the number one site returned by Google, the number three site was a post from blogger Alex Rudloff, titled “Do Not Fly Spirit Airlines.” Curious, Yesawich clicked on the link and found a horror story about the poor customer service at Spirit Airlines. The post would have probably died a natural death except for the fact that Spirit CEO, Ben Baldanza, sent out a scathing email to yet anther irate customer, which was leaked to the Internet, apparently by a disgruntled Spirit employee. In it, Baldanza says, “..we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.” With this kind of fodder all over the Internet, who needs traditional journalists.
One of the cultural issues that is projected to create the most havoc for the American travel industry is our “poverty of time.” Unlike Europe, where the average employee gets well over 30 days of vacation each year (42 days in Italy!), the average number of vacation days in the U.S. is a measly 13. For Americans, this will translate into more frequent vacations for shorter periods of time. Estimates are that the extended weekend vacation will make up 52% of all travel this year, as opposed to 46% in 2006.
Fortunately, the YPartnership study is not all doom and gloom. Despite economic woes, terrorism alerts, and skyrocketing gas prices, the outlook for the travel industry is fairly rosy. Forty-four percent of all respondents say they want to take a cruise; six percent say they want to buy a timeshare. Thirty-eight percent say they are willing to pay up to 20% more for customized products or services, most of which are being geared to affluent baby-boomers who are retiring in increasing numbers. Having spent enormous amounts of money making their homes private enclaves of comfort, they now demand this same level of comfort when they travel. Yet, among these same travelers the importance of brand names is declining, thus hotels are scrambling to create value-added products and services. Many now offer luxurious in-room options, such as Westin’s “Heavenly Bed,” with its 250-thread count sheets, down blanket, comforter, and goose down pillows. Wyndham Hotels allows customers to set up an online profile that stores their preferences: fruit or salty snacks, newspaper they read, type of room (smoking or non-smoking), size of bed, etc. When customers check in, their room is ready and waiting, just the way they like it.
One category of travel that is thriving is multi-household leisure travel, which is defined as travel done with family, extended family, and friends. More than 80% of people surveyed indicated they plan to do this type of travel over the next year. Walt Disney World has successfully capitalized on this concept with their “Togethering” program, where up to 12 different people can register online to jointly plan and book their vacation. It has become one of the most successful packages ever offered by Disney.
Even the issue of rising gas prices will not put a crimp in our travel plans. Research indicates that gas prices will not become an issue until they top $3.50 per gallon. If that happens, people say they will simply take fewer trips or take their trips as planned but cut down on eating at fancy restaurants or buying souvenirs. And then there’s the “been there, done that” mindset. Nearly two thirds of all vacationers say they want to go somewhere they’ve never been before on their next trip. Given the trend of vacationing closer to home, the travel industry would do well to target potential customers in a narrower geographic area than in previous years.
The only travel category that Yesawich DIDN’T address was the baby boomer like me, for whom adventure travel or travel to unique destinations is a priority. I can’t believe I am THAT different. In fact, I know I’m not unique; when I traveled around the world last year I met lots of people my age, all of who were in search of the same type of experience I was. Maybe I should email the guy. After all, he’s only got hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research backing up his data, while I, on the other hand, am an expert……