Published September 14, 2016
The world of tourism is changing, and those who don’t change with it will soon find themselves out of business.
That’s the bad news; the good news is that change is possible. And it’s not as hard as you might think.
Though trends have always evolved, and business has always ebbed and flowed around economic factors, a convergence of technology, culture and new generational attitudes has caused a sea change in group tourism in recent years. Group leaders, tour operators and other tourism professionals who keep doing things the way have seen their shares of the market shrinking while innovative organizations have found ways to thrive with new ideas and approaches to travel.
Group travel as we know it today began in the middle of the 20th century and reached its zenith with the retirement of the World War II generation. These senior citizens found themselves with the time, money and desire to travel. But because many of them didn’t have much experience traveling on their own, they sought out the security and ease of group trips. As a result, the group tour business boomed, and many of the customs and habits particular to that generation became the conventional wisdom across the industry.
Today, however, the Greatest Generation is quickly aging out of the travel market. Their children, the baby boomers, have themselves begun to retire and represent the target market for group travel. And many of the traditions of the tour business don’t make much sense to boomers, who are more likely to have traveled extensively on their own and bring an entirely different cultural perspective. They are more tech savvy, less thrifty and healthier than their parents were at the same age. And perhaps most importantly, they don’t think of themselves as senior citizens and don’t want to be treated as such.
In this new tourism environment, group travel is still as viable as it ever was, but travel planners must embrace a new mind-set and change the way they structure their products in order to make them appeal to today’s generations. Here are five rules for thriving in this new age of tourism.
1. VALUE MATTERS (…BUT NOT THE WAY IT USED TO)
Consumers will always pay attention to price when they are shopping for travel. But when it comes to group tours, price doesn’t matter the way it used to.
The World War II generation grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and became famous as penny-pinchers. They brought this mind-set to how they traveled, largely gauging the value of a trip in terms of price. Tour providers packaged their products accordingly. Since group tours offer economies of scale, many travelers were drawn to them as a way to save money on a vacation. As a result, group travel earned a reputation for being a low-budget affair.
By and large, however, baby boomers are much more relaxed about money than their parents were. Industry studies have found that younger group travelers tend to expect higher-quality accommodations and meals than previous passengers did, and they are comfortable paying higher rates in order to enjoy more amenities.
Today’s travelers still demand value, but they measure that value differently. Instead of a rock-bottom price tag, value in tourism today means bragging rights, inclusions, access and amenities. They want things that they can’t get themselves, and they understand that this might cost more than a cheap vacation that they book online.
The best way to deliver value today is to give your travelers something they can’t organize for themselves. Take them to the front of the line or behind the scenes. Arrange a meet-and-greet with a local celebrity or VIP access to a high-profile event. Once the trip is over, customers will remember how much they enjoyed what they did, not how much they paid to participate.
2. EXPERIENCE MATTERS (…AND ATTRACTIONS ALONE AREN’T ENOUGH)
It should be an obvious principle: The most important aspect of a travel product is what people do every day during the trip. If the tours and activities you have lined up bore people, they’re not likely to travel with you again.
To keep people interested in group travel, it’s important to understand what kinds of experiences they want to have during their trips. And the old method of sightseeing — “stop, stand and stare” — has lost its luster with the new generation.
Many traditional group tour itineraries read like a list of attractions: Each day consists of visits to a handful of attractions with a meal or two mixed in. The problem is that today’s travelers can visit those attractions on their own. They don’t need your help to arrange entry into a museum when they can buy tickets in advance online.
To counter this, smart group travel planners are finding ways to give their travelers interactive, immersive experiences. Most people don’t want to take driving tours through historic districts or listen to a docent drone on about some old piece of art. Instead they want to be active, to be involved, to get their hands on things. They don’t want to just hear a story — they want to be part of the story.
More and more attractions, tour operators, and convention and visitors bureaus have recognized the need for interactive, experiential activities and are making them available to group travel leaders. Take advantage of those opportunities, and ask your travel partners to give you their most creative ideas.
The best way to keep people traveling with you is to deliver experiences that are consistently innovative and engaging.
3. FOOD MATTERS (…AND BUFFETS DON’T CUT IT ANYMORE)
For years, traditional group tours treated meals as pit stops between itinerary items. Since time was short and cost was a primary motivating factor, travel planners prioritized price and convenience above the quality of the food and the authenticity of the experience. And thus, cafeterias and buffet restaurants became staples of the group tour portfolio.
A lot has changed in the past 20 years, though. Culinary curiosity has swept through our culture, dominating television, magazines and social media. Everyday people now delightfully think of themselves as foodies. They have caught a glimpse of the world’s culinary wonders, and they want to experience them firsthand. Today’s travelers want to experience a city and a culture by means of its food and are always on the hunt for the next great taste.
Meals, then, are no longer just necessary stops between museum visits. Mealtime on your tour should be an event. Your travelers expect to be surprised and delighted by the food they eat. They want to meet the chef, to learn a recipe, to take pictures of their plates and share them with friends back home. They want fresh quality food with local flavor that has been customized for them, not greasy food that has been warming on a restaurant buffet for an hour. They want to choose their food off a restaurant’s full menu, not a limited tour menu, and to enjoy the ambiance of the main dining room instead of being stuffed away in a reserved group space.
Today’s group tour passengers have high expectations when it comes to food, and they understand that quality meals come at a price. The best way to fulfill their food cravings is to introduce them to local flavors and to budget time and money for memorable meals on the road.
4. TECHNOLOGY MATTERS (…AND IT PERMEATES EVERY ASPECT OF TRAVEL)
Ten years ago, going on a trip meant leaving technology behind and largely disconnecting from the world. Leisure travelers didn’t check their email on vacation, and most people didn’t look at their trip photos until after they got home.
As we all know, the rapid pace of technological development has changed everything. Smartphones, social networking and widespread WiFi access have created a culture of constant connectivity. People don’t unplug from technology when they travel; they use it to enhance their travel experiences.
Your customers will use technology to research trips, augment their experiences on the road and share their memories once they get home. If you want to succeed in attracting customers today, you must meet them in their technological habits before, during and after a trip.
First and foremost, you need at least a simple website for your group or tour company, and you need to make sure that page is optimized to look good on a smart-phone. You need to make trip itineraries and information available in an email and electronic documents that people can share with each other online.
During the tour, your travelers will want opportunities to take photos, peruse their social media feeds, text friends and family, and consume movies and music — all while on the go. So don’t overload them with forgettable guide commentary or make them put their phones away. Instead, create opportunities for them to use their devices during the tour.
Finally, once a trip ends, make use of social media to help travelers share their photos and memories, and showcase the fun to other people in your network. This will help build buzz and anticipation for your next trip.
5. LEADERSHIP MATTERS (…AND IT’S MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER)
For years, people have used the term “group leader” to mean travel coordinator. But in the new age of tourism, people don’t need someone who simply manages logistics. They need people who will inspire them, challenge them and lead them to new places.
The role of a group leader is no longer simply to pick out trip destinations, organize details and then handle problems when they arise, although you still have to do all of those things. Today, leadership means motivating people to travel and convincing them to do it in a group with you, even though they could very well go the same places on their own.
The travelers of this generation don’t need the same old itineraries resold year after year. They are looking for group leaders who have vision, passion, creativity and a wealth of new ideas. They want someone who is going to expand their horizons, deepen their perspective and introduce them to places and experiences they never would have thought of themselves.
Changing is never easy, and navigating your way through a changing business environment can be downright daunting. But you can’t hide your head in the sand or wait for someone else to figure out a new path before you follow them. Leaders see challenges as opportunities and are willing to try new things, even if there’s a chance they might not work out.
The future of group travel is still bright, and it belongs to those who will be bold enough to embrace change with open arms.