Rethinking How to Sell Celebration Travel

Millennials are prime targets for such celebratory travel as babymoons, mini-moons and gap year trips.

If you’re limiting your special occasion sales pitches to destination weddings, traditional honeymoons, anniversaries and birthdays, you’re missing the boat on some potentially lucrative bookings. Consider targeting gap-year students, expectant parents and recently divorced men and women, as well as rethinking post-nuptial vacations. We spoke with a number of industry experts to get their take on these growing niche segments. Here is what they have to say.

Divorce Parties

The “divorce party” is perhaps the newest member of the celebration travel niche.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t a celebration of a failed marriage. Clients are not going on vacations to revel in the fact that their marriage has ended, but rather to rejoice in the closure of the actual divorce process and the beginning of a newfound sense of independence.

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After all, divorce — with all the money and arguing that often accompanies it — is commonly considered among the top three most stressful life events a person could endure.

Just like solo travel, divorce parties revolve primarily around trips that the client could not take while he or she was married. Perhaps it was a fishing trip or a shopping excursion or a tour of Major League Baseball ballparks that he or she always relished, but the spouse did not.

“Taking the trip you want with who you want demonstrates your newfound freedom,” says Laura Hanaford of The Trip Trotter, which is part of the Tzell Travel Group. “I took my divorce trip to St. Barths, which is a perfect destination as it combines glamour, beach, shopping, partying and the best dining in the Caribbean.”

Kier Matthews, vice president of sales and national accounts at Europe Express, tells Travel Agent that a great way to find these clients is by aligning yourself with the nearest divorce attorney. Perhaps you might set up a networking lunch with one such local lawyer, give him or her your card and start watching the client leads grow.

“Divorce trips are absolutely a thing, particularly for women,” says Hanaford. “My female clients say that they are so used to compromising on a destination and activities that they never get to take the trip they want. As Americans, we’re given such little time off that unless it’s a bachelorette party or [other] big occasion, we never get to travel with our friends as vacation time was saved for our spouses and families.” She tells us that Dubai is currently a hot pitch for these type of trips.

Dubai is “fabulous for divorce parties and girlfriend getaways,” says The Trip Trotter’s Laura Hanaford.

“If clients are willing to fly a bit farther, Dubai is fabulous for girls trips and divorce parties,” she says. “With their luxury hotels, ultimate shopping malls complete with daring activities like indoor skiing and skydiving, Dubai is a great place to show your ex you are free to do what you want. While the country is dry, hotels are not. The beach is a great place to hang out and hotels are famous for their all-day extravagant brunches. Many of the clubs host ladies nights, so there’s always somewhere to party.”

Babymoons

The babymoon niche may have taken a hit in 2016 due to the Zika virus scare, but this form of celebration travel didn’t totally disappear last year — it just relocated a bit.

The mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects scared away most expecting mothers from celebrating their future child in warm weather destinations where the Zika mosquito was present, but it didn’t mean babymoon clients were canceling.

“The focus on Zika and outbreaks all over tropical areas near the U.S., traditionally favorite babymoon destinations, has definitely made planning these types of trips more challenging lately, though I’ve not seen any real drop in the number of travelers interested in taking a babymoon,” observes Caroline Fridley Bracewell of Easy Escapes Travel.

A number of agents we have spoken to on this issue tell us that many babymoon clients originally heading for the Caribbean or Central and South America have been opting to instead take a closer domestic trip they perceive to be safer. Europe has also been a solid alternative for mothers-to-be looking to rethink their tropical vacation plans.

“A growing concern for people booking honeymoons and babymoons is trying to find a tropical destination that is budget-friendly and not affected by the Zika virus,” says Alex Scipione of Alex’s Adventures. “Most travel advisors now have to offer a potential ‘traveler beware.’ I think that ultimately it is leading people to look into destinations that they may not have originally considered, and consultants have to play with this new piece of the puzzle in their planning.”

And that puzzle piece is being found more and more within the United States, says Bracewell.

“With the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America out, I’m finding that resorts in Southern California, Arizona — especially Scottsdale and spa retreats such as Miraval and Canyon Ranch — and Charleston, SC, are becoming more popular as alternative options,” she says. “All of these areas offer fairly short travel time, mild to hot weather, plenty of pampering, excellent food and a number of higher-end resorts that allow parents-to-be to completely relax and enjoy a special and romantic trip.”

However, if it’s still the traditional warm-weather destinations your babymoon clients want, we were told that both Bermuda and Hawaii are currently sizzling hot in this market.

“So far, Bermuda doesn’t have any reported cases of Zika. It also works well because it has easy access from the entire east coast and tons of direct flights,” says Jim Augerinos of Perfect Honeymoons. “Atlantic beach destinations like Kiawah Island have been super popular as well.”

Other notable babymoon destinations that are picking up steam, notes Augerinos, are Montreal, Paris, London, Dublin and Reykjavik, as well as Austin, TX; Sedona, AZ; Big Sur and Healdsburg, CA; Vancouver, British Columbia; dude ranch-style resorts in Montana and super-luxe destinations such as Amangiri in Canyon Point, UT.

“People are loving the idea of staying stateside and realizing there are so many wonderful choices, whether it be a national park, a charming historic city or coastal town,” says Augerinos. 

And the desire to travel closer for a babymoon isn’t entirely Zika related.

Charleston, SC, has been cited, along with several other U.S. resort towns, as a popular option for both babymoons and mini-moons.

Jenna Mahoney, travel editor with Bridal Guide Magazine, tells Travel Agent that Zika is only part of the reason clients will be taking more babymoons a little closer to home.

In the past eight years, she says, the average age for having babies has risen. Because of that, there are more high-risk pregnancies in general, so women avoid traveling too far from home.

“I think the biggest factor is travel time,” observes Augerinos. “Most pregnant women don’t want to fly long distances and three to six, maybe seven, hours is generally the max. I also would highly recommend traveling in the second trimester, which is generally the easiest and when most women feel like normal. Access to good medical care is also paramount when choosing a destination, should an emergency arise.”

As far as international destinations go, Mahoney, like Augerinos, says Bermuda is flourishing and also the Cayman Islands can take advantage of this growing phenomenon since they are both close to the U.S. and easy to get to.

Mini-Moons

Simply booking a traditional honeymoon was something agents did, well, many moons ago.

We know most of our readers are already armed with the bare essentials to sell the traditional honeymoon, so we are using this opportunity to instead tell you about the hottest “moon” of the honeymoon subsets, the mini-moon.

The mini-moon typically refers to a few extra days spent in the destination where the wedding took place. Because there may be some stragglers from the wedding, mini-moons usually include a few friends and family of the newlywed couple.

These are typically just a few days in length. It is also possible the mini-moon will lead into the honeymoon. The first few days may include family and then the couple will jet off to another destination to be alone together. For example, a client who had a destination wedding in Maui may spend a couple of extra days on the island with friends and family before the couple takes off to Kauai for a few days of “just us” time.

Mahoney says the mini-moon is becoming more and more popular, adding that, in some cases, these newlyweds will then book a 10- to 14-day, full-blown honeymoon either a few months later or for their first anniversary.

Although Augerinos thinks most of these new “moons” are fads rather than trends, he does admit the mini-moon qualifies as a legit niche subset.

“What is happening is that brides and grooms are overwhelmed with planning a wedding and the time they are taking off for the wedding,” he tells us. “They need something to take the edge off the wedding weekend, but save the real honeymoon for three to six months down the line — when they can take the time, when they are refreshed and have a little breathing room financially — after all the wedding expenses roll at once.”

Augerinos, who tells us he is seeing about 15 to 20 percent of his honeymoon clients opting not to take the honeymoon immediately following the wedding, says some popular mini-moon destinations include Charlottesville, VA; Charleston, SC; Savannah, GA; Ashville, NC; St. Michaels, MD; Bluffton, SC; New Orleans and Boston.

As far as general honeymoons go, The Trip Trotter’s Hanaford tells Travel Agent such European hot spots as Italy, France, England and Greece are still going strong. Specifically, she says her France bookings are at an all-time high.

Romance experts we spoke with say Bermuda is flourishing as a babymoon destination in the wake of still-lingering Zika fears.

Portugal is gaining traction and is often paired with Spain,” Hanaford notes. “Most honeymoons that I plan include more than one country and often the countries are [ones that are] not usually paired together, like Italy and Ireland, or Vienna and Santorini. Thailand has been strong this year and clients often postpone their honeymoon to enjoy better weather there.”

Hanaford says the most in-demand excursion for honeymoons are wine tours and private boat rides. And although there is the specter of Zika in Florida, she points out that her Miami business was very strong this year for not just mini-moons, but especially for girlfriend getaways and bachelorette parties.

Destination Weddings

What can anyone tell you that you don’t already know about booking destination weddings? Perhaps the most compelling piece of advice we have gleaned regarding booking this form of celebration travel is to tell your clients not to actually get legally married in another country.

Instead, clients should tie the knot legally in their home country and then have a symbolic ceremony in another destination. The experts we spoke to say this will eliminate the mountain of red tape that clients who get married legally abroad usually have to cut through.

Also, Bridal Guide’s Mahoney tells us the hottest trend within destination weddings is personalization. She says that many would-be brides and grooms are shying away from tired wedding traditions, like champagne fountains and throwing garters, and instead opting for more unique inclusions, such as taco trucks and hand-rolled cigars.

Gap Year Travel

Gap year travelers — primarily high school grads taking time off before entering college — are looking for experiences. While backpacking across Europe will always remain popular, places such as South America and Asia are rising in popularity.

One type of experiential travel that’s particularly common right now is “voluntourism.” Tour operators such as Projects Abroad, Ripple Africa, i-to-i, and Raleigh International specialize in finding volunteer work for travelers. Note: Plenty of other operators, including Go Overseas and Gap Year Adventure Travel, not only present volunteer work-based expeditions, but also offer a variety of other activities.

The benefit of volunteer-based travel (aside from the feel-good aspect of it) is that it’s also a résumé booster. Graduates who opt for an internship or a volunteer program while traveling aren’t losing out by not immediately entering the job market. It’s not only a good way to spend time but also a smart way.

With Ripple Africa, travelers can help improve the standard of education and healthcare, preserve and sustainably develop the environment, and create opportunities for the communities in Malawi. On i-to-i’s Teach English as a Foreign Language program, travelers can even participate in paid internships; the company has positions in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, and Europe. Project Abroad specifically caters to high school graduates — in 2016, 1,140 gap year students went overseas with Projects Abroad, which was the most ever for the company. These students represented 32 diverse nationalities and contributed 275,000 work hours. The company has short-term international volunteer programs in 30 countries.

The other end of the spectrum includes travelers like the clients of SmartFlyer’s Kelly Smith — college and graduate school alumni who have time off before starting grad school or their first day of work, respectively. (Smith notes that she’s been planning a lot of “bar trips” for law students). During these travelers’ times off, they’re looking for their next adventure, since most have already visited the usual places during their undergrad years.

G Adventures finds that Thailand is the most popular destination for YOLO tours, which have built-in appeal for gap year travelers. 

“I’m finding that some people choose to travel solo while others go in small groups, but everyone is looking for adventure,” Smith says. “Most of these travelers are trading hostels for four-star hotels. They want a nice place to rest their head at night but don’t need anything luxurious. They’re also spending more money on experiences rather than accommodations.”

Go Overseas, G Adventures and Contiki, which specializes in 18-to-35-year-old travelers, are all good options for adventurous travelers. Many of the tours these companies offer include trekking, ziplining, bungee jumping and enjoying the local culture. Go Overseas sells gap year travel to every continent except Antarctica. They present options from volunteering to work travel to adventure to medical travel.

G Adventures, while it doesn’t offer “gap year travel” per se, does offer “YOLO” (you only live once) tours that are designed for younger, budget-conscious travelers. Although some of their trips are hosted in hostels and less-expensive hotels, there are 94 options of tours (all 15 days or more), with 30 ranging from 30 to 65 days.

The most popular destinations among these “YOLO” travelers from the U.S., in order of popularity, have been: Thailand, New Zealand, Vietnam, Australia and Costa Rica. Among G Adventures’ British customers, India and Southeast Asia seem to dominate among long-term travelers.

Similarly, Contiki doesn’t sell gap year-specific travel, but targets the age group. The tours are broken down into eight categories, helping the traveler find what’s best for him / her. They include: Discover, In-Depth Explorer, Camping, Winter & Ski, Short Trips & Festivals, Sailing & Cruise, Easy Pace, and High Energy.

Post-College Vacations

Graduating college is a major milestone that prompts many young travelers to celebrate by hitting the road.

“They’ve finished their undergraduate degree, worked through college and then, before they start graduate school or go into the real world, they say, ‘Let’s travel,’” says Kim Launer, a travel consultant with the DeKalb, IL, office of Royal Travel & Tours. “I did a few of those this past summer. They’ve been taking a little sabbatical of three or four months and doing trips.”

Europe is by far the most popular destination for this type of travel, says Launer. “Everyone wanted to do six weeks, eight weeks in Europe.” She notes that Ireland, Scotland and Britain, collectively, constituted the most popular European destination, followed by Italy.

Coming in third was not a single country, but rather visiting “as many countries as humanly possible that they could get to on their budget, either from Hungary to going through Germany, trying to hit the Netherlands, Spain — as many as they can possibly get to in a short period of time,” says Launer.

Cost savings are a big factor for the clientele for these types of trips, many of whom are between 23 and 30 years old and haven’t yet officially launched their careers.

“It’s mostly people who are really hitting the reality of the fact that doing some type of guided tour where they have some things combined [such as transportation, lodging, and some of the sightseeing], saves them a great deal of money,” explains Launer.

Experts identify Ireland as a top draw for babymoon, mini-moon and post-college travelers.

Most of the trips Launer has seen are land-based, as opposed to cruises, and many of these clients want to explore the culture of each location.

“Maybe they’re a history buff and they’ve had a class or two on it, or maybe they’re a foreign language major — that really contributed to where they went,” says Launer.

The most important draw for travelers interested in this type of travel, though, is the value of a guided trip.

“People in this age bracket are understanding that something that has been prearranged is of a better value than trying to go book a B&B on their own — they waste time and sometimes money on things that could have been prearranged,” notes Launer.

Safety is also a factor and people are more aware, she says, adding, “They’re not just getting off of their flight, they’re paying attention to their surroundings, and knowing that they’re going to locations that are safe and that they’re prepared to travel in.”