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Group markets expanding


The Group Travel Leader
Published September 10, 2013

Courtesy Virginia Tourism

A strong youth movement seems to be emerging in the tourism marketplace. What are some of the best ideas and innovations that you’ve seen come from your younger members?

Simon: We’ve ramped up our engagement in trying to get young professionals involved in the industry, and we have a young-professionals task force that is really helping us and brainstorming to see what their business world looks like and what they need to be effective. Technology always comes to the forefront, for efficiencies and communications. It’s second nature for them.

We’ve heard from a lot of our tour operators that they’re hiring 20-somethings to come in and take on their social media, and they’re seeing higher sales as a result, not only to younger markets, but also older markets. They’re seeing an impact from a sales standpoint and also creating efficiencies in the office.

Assante: We’re definitely seeing younger members connecting with younger teachers more through social media channels. Younger band directors are networking much more through social media than the old band directors, who would go to national association meetings to connect face to face.

There’s a lot of really neat technology tools that are being used by students and teachers all the time, way beyond Facebook. That’s where we’re seeing innovation in the way students are coming back telling their stories. Another area is fundraising: Students are all fundraising for their programs, and they’re using social media sites and crowdsourcing to fund raise for their groups.

Dale: We’re seeing a greater focus on sustainability with younger travelers. They’re interested in minimizing their environmental footprint. There’s an interest in voluntourism, international and domestic. They feel that they should somehow leave a place better than they found it. You’re going to continue to see this trend grow. As the economy gets stronger, there’s a sense that the time is right to reinvigorate the outlook for sustainability.

There’s also an increased focus on creating real hands-on types of experiences. They want to create art from a particular culture or cook with local chefs and try recipes. They really feel as though they need to get a hands-on experience.

What I’m seeing with younger operators is the understanding that as the customers get younger, they have to adjust their business to meet that demand. They also understand that travel isn’t the same today as it was pre-9/11. Travelers are traveling differently; they have less time, and they don’t take longer vacations. I’m seeing young operators respond to that by offering products that aren’t cross-country, seven-day products. They’re two- or three-day trips, or a day trip out into a wine country.  It recognizes the different patterns of travel today.

It’s also more prevalent now than in past years to see more high-end products. People don’t have as much time to spend, but when they go, they want to spend more money for an appealing trip.

Where is the untapped potential in tourism right now? What emerging markets should tour operators and travel planners be looking into?

Assante: If you’re moving student groups, what’s interesting right now is the Indian market. Students are interested in coming here from India and seeing the space centers and the Boeing plants. They want to see technology in action. So thinking about the purpose of the travel is where you’re going to see the growth. Combining college campus visits with visits to a space center or a factory — that’s a niche market where some of the international students are coming in.

The other area that’s growing is the “gap year” programs, where students aren’t going straight to college, but taking a year to mature or do some volunteer work. The students are going to do something with their time, and very often it’s travel. We’re starting to talk more with tour operators who have gap year programs with schools. The challenge with those programs is that they’re very often single students. You have to gather enough students into the program to make it a real group. It’s slow, but it’s coming.

Dale: I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of multigenerational travel. More and more grandparents have a longing to travel with their children and grandchildren and create these memories that last a lifetime. Somehow we have to laser-focus in on how to create itineraries and experiences that are suitable for multigenerational travel.

The other thing that we’re going to see more of is the whole notion of individualizing experiences and customizing experiences. There’s a misperception that when you travel as a group, you’re confined to a very rigid, structured itinerary. People want to travel with a group, but create some type of customized component and put their own special mark on it.

Pantuso: International inbound is a big opportunity. The United States is now investing over $100 million in federal money collected from overseas visitors to promote inbound tourism. Inbound travel was fairly low a number of years ago. Last year, we were at 50 million new visitors, and the target is to get it to 100 million new visitors in a few years. That’s a lot of new business. If you’re a tour operator, you have to think about how you can attract those travelers and participate in that international market.

Another area that’s new and growing on the bus side is the phenomenal point-to-point service that we see in almost every market now — things like BoltBus, Megabus and Greyhound Express. That continues to grow at a rate of 7 to 10 percent per year. From a tour perspective, how do you tap those customers, or how do you get them to your restaurant or entertainment or hotel when they get to your destination? That’s a hugely untapped market.

Simon: Food-and-drink tourism — that’s the highest-targeted specialty market that our members reference. The other specialty travel that ranks high is faith-based, adventure and family. We’re also seeing a growing interest in sports tours that some of our more traditional tour operators have been integrating into their product mix.

There are also two ethnic markets to pay attention to. The China market is going to be exponentially growing, as well as the Hispanic market. Hispanics are becoming a more prominent part of our population, and they are travelers. They are, in fact, great group customers because they travel with family and friends. They naturally travel in groups, and a lot of them have been putting their own trips together.

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