Just like every other business, the group travel industry wants to know what the future holds. And although it’s impossible to say for sure, industry experts with their fingers on the pulse of present trends can offer us a peek into the future.
In August, travel industry organizations spoke to Select Traveler to weigh in on current travel trends, as well as what they see coming down the pike. Asian markets, and China in particular, will continue to be a massive market for group travel, in both the packaged travel and the cruising industries. As people become more socially and environmentally conscious, “ethical” or “impact” travel is another largely untapped opportunity for the group travel industry. And believe it or not, travel planners and tour operators may find some hope in millennials.
United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)
Last year, USTOA partnered with graduate students at Cornell University’s S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management to create the organization’s first “packaged travel index.” USTOA surveyed 1,500 consumers — last fall and again this spring — to better understand travel markets and track trends. Although USTOA has only two rounds of surveys under its belt, the data have already delivered valuable insights into the current travel markets and “will be a great tool,” said Terry Dale, USTOA president and CEO
Even within the six-month window between surveys, “there were some fluctuations that were encouraging signs for the U.S. traveler,” Dale said. People indicated they were going to spend more on travel, and 83 percent said they want to visit other countries. This spring, travelers also booked their travel at a higher percentage rate than they did last fall.
“Early indicators show reasons to be confident that the U.S. consumer is making travel a priority, and the outlook for the next couple years is positive,” Dale said.
As for what travelers are seeking, cultural immersion will continue to be a priority in the group travel industry. Travelers want to feel like they’ve lived like a local so that when they return home, “they feel that they really understood this place they visited in the world, and they understood the people,” Dale said. As part of that, travelers expect more opportunities for customization and personalization. They want to take ownership of their experience and opt for excursions that parallel their interests, he said.
Other factors that will continue to influence buying decisions are safety and security — two issues that are paramount to U.S. travelers. People want to have confidence that if something unexpected happens during their trip, whether due to Mother Nature or mankind, they will have a safety net and a trusted person working on their behalf, Dale said.
Each fall, USTOA surveys its membership about the top destinations. Globally, Myanmar has topped the list for the past three years, and Cuba made last year’s list for the first time, coming in at No. 2. Dale said he wouldn’t be surprised if it came in at No. 1 this fall.
“There are some extraordinary places in the world that are starting to open up that are really appealing to seasoned travelers,” he said.
Although baby boomers will continue to be the packaged travel industry’s bread and butter, another recent USTOA study in partnership with Cornell showed promise in the millennial market. It found that millennials are open to buying packaged and escorted travel but only if it’s with a group that has a common interest, such as college alumni in the same graduating year. The multigenerational market continues to perform well, and that is often millennials’ first introduction to packaged travel, Dale said.
“We do believe the millennial market will be lucrative for us — maybe not today — but we were more encouraged than we were going into the study,” he said. “We were pleasantly surprised.”