Editorial Findings - Travel Agent Summits Reveal Trends for 2013

Travel Agent magazine hosted a series of editorial roundtable summits in 2012, focusing on six important topics for the U.S. travel agency market: river cruising, travel to Barbados, travel to Asia, travel to Hawaii, multigenerational travel, and the importance of delivering excellent customer service.

By bringing together an elite group of executives and travel advisors to each summit, we were able to determine what the frontline trends are in these important sectors. Below is an executive summary of our findings, with links to the full wrap-up of each event, with video included.

River Cruise Roundtable Summit



At the River Cruise Roundtable Summit (www.travelagentcentral.com/river-cruises/rolling-rivers), held at the Montage Beverly Hills, panelists determined that there is still great opportunity for travel advisors to tap into their existing customer base for potential clients. Likely candidates include those who have already taken an ocean cruise but found that they prefer a more intimate environment. Another target group is those who have traveled by land in Europe, who have already visited the major destinations, and who now want to venture into smaller towns and villages in a vessel that allows them to get right up close to shore, providing them with easy accessibility and flexibility in embarking and disembarking. A third group are those older clients who find it too challenging to take a traditional land tour, who can actually stay on the river cruise vessel and experience the destination close-up without barriers. Finally, any client with a special interest, who is not necessarily a cruiser at all, is a candidate for those itineraries that offer historical sites, wine programs, musical lineups or more.

Who is the client? They’re upscale. They are well educated and well-traveled; they have been all over the world; and they are looking to do unique destinations.

It’s in that 50-to-70 age bracket; 80 percent are married so 20 percent are identified as singles. About 60 percent are women.

As noted, age groups tend to skew older for river cruises, with holiday periods seeing a multigenerational mix. At the same time, panelists concurred that river cruising is a great option for families any time of the year, since visits to Europe’s smaller towns provide great culinary options and a range of choice in touring.

A younger group tends to go for a defined weeklong period, while older clients go for multiple weeks, adding on pre- and post-hotel stays. Working to extend these trips delivers great potential business to travel advisors. Another source of revenue can be found in asking river cruise clients if they are traveling with another couple or with anyone else at all since these clients do tend to travel in clusters.

Lastly, travel advisors should take advantage of the aggressive marketing that river cruise suppliers are delivering to consumers and simply ask their client base if they have ever considered a river cruise. The one caveat is to consider that customer who truly enjoys big-ship cruising with a lot of entertainment and onboard space. Their expectations for a smaller vessel focused on more cultural programming should be managed so that they do not feel out of place on a river cruise.

That said, it should be noted that the majority of river cruise suppliers is adding new vessels every year, with balconies, high-tech staterooms and multiple dining options becoming the norm.

30Under30 Destination Immersion

At our first-ever 30Under30 Destination Immersion Summit (www.travelagentcentral.com/roundtables/30-under-30-hits-barbados), hosted by the Barbados Tourism Authority at The Crane (www.thecrane.com), participants agreed that simply seeing Barbados and interacting with those who work at the resorts and around the island, was a real eye-opener to selling the destination. And while the island is known for its affluent visitors and luxury hotels, officials noted the importance of not overlooking the budget traveler to Barbados, who can also enjoy its cultural attractions. Noted as well was the island’s safety aspect, which allows visitors to go out and spend time with locals. Participants of the roundtable concurred that the safety element would be a strong selling factor for Barbados, especially since many of the young advisors were used to selling all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean till now because their clients were reluctant to leave the property at times.

Eye on Asia Roundtable Summit



Our Eye on Asia Roundtable Summit (www.travelagentcentral.com/asiapacificvideo), also held at the Montage Beverly Hills, found as well that an older client will travel for longer periods of time while a younger group tends to venture out for shorter vacations. The younger clientele is often more price-driven and looks for deals, often booking quite close in for an Asia vacation. Research conducted on behalf of the China National Tourist Office found that there is a misperception among the general populace regarding the cost of travel to Asia; some “aspirational travelers” surveyed topped the amount they intend to spend on an Asia trip at $2,000 to $3,000 for a two-week holiday inclusive of air, which is simply not a realistic budget. We also formed a consensus that there may be a consumer market that is currently trying to book complex Asia itineraries online that may face “OTA burnout” and shift instead to the services of a travel advisor after they realize they’ve paid for large trips without being properly armed with the right information or travel arrangements.

It was noted as well that booking patterns for China have changed; where clients once were booking a year out, some have shifted to booking a month out, which can be a slippery slope since it takes at least a week for U.S. travelers to get a China visa.

Having said that, it was pointed out that it’s often much easier to book air to Asia than to Europe using airlines points; it was noted as well that several of the Asia carriers have dramatically upgraded their front-of-the plane service making for a much more dynamic travel experience, particularly for business travelers. That said, it was noted that there is a need for a low-cost carrier within Asia to make transportation within the region more accessible.

The consensus was that there is a developing FIT market for China in particular, where clients once readily traveled in groups, they’re seeking the flexibility of a private car and driver or at the very least, steering clear of venturing out with 40 other companions. Those who focus on sending luxury clientele to Asia agreed that it is the experience that will make or break a trip; allowing clients to get close-up with Asia’s cultural offerings in an interactive environment is key. Culinary and wellness travel are also growing rapidly in popularity as is voluntourism to areas in need, at least for a day or so out of an affluent traveler’s itinerary.

In the case of Taiwan, however, it was noted that people at this point may feel more comfortable traveling in a group environment since they are not familiar with the destination. Taiwan is seeing an increase in the number of four-star hotels offered, and Macau continues to see a surge in major hotel development; much of it focused on casino resorts that are so huge and so filled with artwork they can almost be considered museums unto themselves. China’s emerging large cities have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of luxury hotels, particularly as its domestic market, which has an emerging middle class, begins to venture out into their own country for the first time ever. Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong continue with their ultra-luxe offerings; of note is that the tallest hotel in the world, the Ritz-Carlton, opened in Hong Kong this year. Hong Kong is also preparing to open a new, “green” cruise port with a huge rooftop garden, which will make it much easier for cruise ships to get to Hong Kong proper from the Kowloon side of the city.

River cruising in China, Vietnam and Cambodia is a truly burgeoning market, and suppliers expect to increase their capacity in these markets steadily as demand grows.

Multigenerational Travel Roundtable Summit



The fourth topic we focused on in our roundtable series was How to Sell Multigenerational Travel (www.travelagentcentral.com/multigenvideo), hosted by Trump International Hotel Chicago. We brought together a range of suppliers, ranging from mass market to luxury, and a group of travel advisors focused on luxury travel as well as the mass market.

The findings from this gathering indicated the greatest potential of all for the travel advisor market. Research supplied by the Preferred Hotel Group (preferredhotelgroup.com) showed that as family members move further and further away from each other, the desire to gather en masse for a reunion has increased. As a result, consumers are trying to plan complicated trips for a disparate group of travelers on their own. The good news is that, in addition to reunions, multi-gen travelers tend to travel more frequently than non-multi-gen travelers and to use the services of a travel advisor.

Of note as well is that the majority of this type of traveler plans vacations around milestone events, possibly a big anniversary or birthday. The travel advisor who keeps good records of their clients, noting birthdays, wedding dates and the ages of school children who may be graduating from college, has tremendous opportunity in being proactive in suggesting a large multigenerational vacation to a client. As with river cruising, sometimes the simple question, “have you ever considered a big family trip?” just begs to be asked. The caveat is to recognize that it’s important to be ready with answers on the logistics of bringing a big clan from all over the country together, as for consumers, this has often been the most frequent barrier to planning such events.

There are many types of multi-gen trip options, whether it’s a grandparent’s big birthday, a destination wedding bringing together new families with step-siblings of all ages, or a simple annual get-together by a core family group whose children have ventured off to other cities.

What’s most important for travel advisors is to first ask for this business and then to secure it by handling any major concerns based upon multiple parties from all over the country requiring a mixed array of transportation or lodging needs. The next most important step is to be as organized as possible in arranging the group’s needs and to ask questions that could prevent complications at a later period, such as requesting information on any family member who may not be traveling at the same time as the rest of the group or who may have other special needs. Having one point person to communicate is vital (this is usually the person footing the bill), and being prepared for the fact that certain family members may be more demanding than others is also vital. Be prepared for the fact that once family members decide to branch out and go on separate itineraries after the reunion, it’s important to charge additional fees, as they, in effect, are planning an entirely separate vacation.

Know the client’s needs: some may want the independence of a villa while others may want the security of an all-inclusive, where costs are most certainly contained and defined.

The bottom line is that it’s important not to leave money on the table by simply not asking your client if they’ve considered a multi-gen trip or if they’ve planned one on their own. You’re also leaving money on the table by not aggressively marketing to multi-gen travelers by presenting a range of products that will make it easy for them to visualize their experiences. Suppliers who market to this group need to keep it simple: The Leading Hotels of the World has a villa rental program for groups that includes certain amenities that will appeal to them, including a party. This makes it easy for the advisor to explain to the client and for the client to explain to other party members.

Delivering Excellent Customer Service Roundtable Summit



Our Customer Service Roundtable Summit (www.travelagentcentral.com/conferences/delivering-excellent-customer-service), hosted by The St. Regis Bal Habour in September, drew an impressive roster of executives and travel advisors, each with a specific mantra when it comes to servicing the client. Of particular interest were insights from someone outside of the travel industry, Susan Pullin, general manager of Graff Diamonds from the Bal Harbour Shops, across the street from the St. Regis. Graff services an extremely high-end clientele, whose trust is earned over the years. And while customers may not purchase a big-ticket item every year, they do like staying in touch with the store because of the relationships they’ve formed with its staff.

The group concurred that delivering one-to-one service to clients is vital, and sometimes it’s the little things that can mean a tremendous amount, such as remembering little likes and dislikes and executing service that recognizes them.

Empowering staff to service customers in times of stress is also important; if a travel advisor or someone who works at a hotel is able to fix a problem on the spot, without having to wait hours or even days for permission from someone higher up, it’s likely the customer will walk away satisfied that their concerns were dealt with in an effective manner.

One of the key topics discussed was the importance of not judging your customer since you never know what they’ll buy next. Someone in shorts and a T-shirt could have money in their wallet to buy a private island in the Bahamas or a $40,000 safari to Africa.

Hawaii Roundtable Summit



At our Hawaii Roundtable Summit, entitled “Honing Your Hawaii Sales” (www.travelagentcentral.com/roundtables/honing-your-hawaii-sales), hosted by the Outrigger Reef on the Beach on Oahu, participants pointed to the increasing number of new resorts and airlift into Hawaii. An influx of Korean and Chinese visitors has changed the dynamic of the islands, and resorts are reinvesting big dollars to remain competitive. That’s quite a different story from the roundtable we held two years ago, when Hawaii, as with so many other destinations, was suffering from the brunt of the economic recession in the U.S. Panelists on the 2012 roundtable cited the safety aspect of Hawaii as one of its top selling points against its competitors; they also noted that the islands have become an experiential vacation, with an ever-increasing number of activities available to travelers, especially those that relate to what the locals themselves do for fun. Tour operators reported that they are providing more dynamic options and packages, such as wellness experiences and horseback riding, to keep visitors coming back.

Because Hawaii is considered by most to be a true investment in terms of both time away from home and dollars spent, the group concluded that it’s likely consumers will continue to turn to travel advisors to book the destination for them. It’s also a vacation venue that attracts repeat guests: John Monahan of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau noted that it tends to elicit an 80 percent repeat factor from North America. It’s also quite strong with families and with an older, affluent clientele. Opportunities for new visitors can be found in a younger traveler who comes to the islands for more than just a honeymoon.

Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for the latest travel news, trends and research throughout the year.

—Joe Pike contributed to this report