As the summer heats up and families start itching for things to do, we wonder: How will the economic slump affect this prime vacation season? Could family travel actually be recession-proof?
It is only logical that as travelers become more sophisticated and discriminating, their children, too, will learn to emulate them. Robin Fox, a Pisa Brothers travel agent based in New York, remembers when family travel was limited to resorts like Club Med. “Over the years, they ventured farther,” she says. “People now are not hesitant about bringing their kids to Africa or Asia… The world is getting to be a smaller place, so people are a lot more open to [taking] children to different places.”
Amanda Klimak, vice president of Largay Travel in Connecticut, agrees. “When I started in the industry,” she recalls, “my family travel business consisted of Walt Disney World, Caribbean cruises and trips to beach resorts. Today, I am looking at trips on safari in Africa, white-water rafting in Costa Rica or exploring the French countryside by bicycle. It’s an exciting time in family travel as the baby boomers introduce their children to all the world has to offer.”
Still, the fact remains that times are tight, and an extended trip for the entire brood can be costly. “Families are looking for the best possible deals and are not booking out as far as they have in years past,” notes Insight Vacations’ Marketing Director Brittny Anselmo. “Many families are booking 60 days in advance when, typically, they have booked six to nine months in advance.”
Even if travelers are making delayed bookings, at least they’re still booking. They just want to find more ways to save money, says Randy Garfield, executive vice president of worldwide sales and travel ops for Disney Destinations.
An Adventure by Disney trip to London and Paris includes a stop at the
To that end, Disney offered several deals this year to boost its number of visitors. At Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, guests staying for four nights got an extra three free; at California’s Disneyland, the deal was two extra nights with a three-night stay. Garfield hopes that the value of the deals will “communicate to Disneyphiles that they’re never going to see these kinds of offers again,” and will help hook families and make them return when the economy gets better.
Disney is also expanding its Adventures by Disney portfolio, a collection of guided vacations that takes families to destinations other than theme parks. The program was launched in 2005 and now offers nearly 20 tours to China, Australia, Peru, Costa Rica, eight countries in Europe and four destinations in the U.S.
In a similar vein, tour operator Tauck’s Bridges program, launched in 2003, offers more than a dozen nearly all-inclusive
family-friendly itineraries in North America, Europe, LatinAmerica and Africa, including two new for 2009. Founder and CEO Dan Mahar created the program when he noticed that parents were looking for new and original experiences to offer their children, and for a chance to reconnect as a unit.
“We saw travel as the perfect way to achieve both goals,” he says. As opposed to families on resort or cruise vacations, he says, the different generations on Bridges tours are encouraged to participate in activities together, a theory that Mahar describes as “shared enrichment.” Some of these activities include hiking with National Park rangers in the Grand Canyon, volunteering in Yellowstone National Park or meeting local families in Costa Rica.
In six years, Bridges has become the fastest-growing program in Tauck’s catalog, Mahar says, enjoying double-digit growth every year since 2004. While Mahar acknowledges that Bridges has been impacted by the downturn, he believes that family travel is more resilient than other forms of leisure vacations.
“The years with your kids are more precious, and they are limited,” he says. “If you miss a [vacation] this year, it’s one more year gone by till they’re off to college and beyond.” When times get tough, priorities have to be carefully weighed. “One thing this economic resetting is doing for people is making them reevaluate how they spend their money and allocate their time.”
On the High Seas
Cruises have always been popular family getaways, and many lines offer itineraries that can appeal across generations. Disney Cruise Lines, for example, is offering a series of themed cruises with High School Musical star Corbin Bleu and Hannah Montana stars Mitchel Musso and Jason Earles, among others, as part of a program dubbed Disney Channel Summer at Sea. To attract travelers, Disney is offering onboard spending credits of up to $100 per day with a verandah stateroom. The company’s cruise offerings have proven so successful that they will premiere two new ships by the end of 2012.
Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president of sales, support and trade services, emphasizes that activities must be available that will appeal to all age groups, from toddlers to grandparents. Teens, whom she describes as the trickiest clients to please, serve on Royal Caribbean’s advisory board to help ensure that their peers will not be bored at sea. The line’s ships offer such diversions as basketball courts, skating rinks, dining venues like Johnny Rockets or lounges with video games to keep teens amused.
For parents, Royal Caribbean is offering My Family Time Dining, which gives families an expedited 40-minute dinner before the kids are escorted by a guide for continued evening activities, allowing parents to enjoy some bonding time over a relaxing meal. The line is also offering savings up to $200 per stateroom on select Caribbean sailings and onboard credits for onboard purchases.
Adventures by Disney offers a collection of guided vacations that takes families to exotic — and often educational — destinations such as Costa Rica
Bring the Grandparents
Beyond parents and kids traveling together, many vacations have become mini (or not-so-mini) family reunions, with several generations touring a destination as a group. “Without a doubt, multigenerational travel has been the most obvious trend in the past few years,” says Insight Vacations’ Anselmo. “Many grandparents are taking grandchildren on our tours, typically to places of their birth.”
Agents, however, need to think outside the box when planning a trip for grandparents and grandchildren. “Grandparents and even great-grandparents on today’s multigenerational trips are far more active and adventurous than in the past,” Largay Travel’s Klimak notes, adding that frequently “the grandparents can out-hike, out-bike and out-party their younger counterparts.”
Uniworld Cruises’ President Guy Young has also noticed an increase in multigenerational travel on his company’s cruises. “Post-9/11, the concept of family and being together with family [and friends] has become much more important,” he says.
Klimak agrees. “The baby boomers truly value the time they spend with their family and are far more apt to spend what they have on vacations with their family than ever before,” she says. “This has allowed travel professionals much more flexibility with itineraries. For those of us in the family travel market, it’s a fun time to plan multigenerational travel.”
Robin Fox is confident that in spite of the recession—or perhaps because of it—families will continue to travel, especially if the prices are right. “People are looking for a bit of a deal, but they’re still going, and the hotels are willing to negotiate,” she says, adding that one of her clients recently took her sons to Paris for Memorial Day weekend, and had three hotels bidding for her business. Fox was able to negotiate a deal at the five-star Hôtel de Crillon that got the family a two-bedroom suite, airport transfers and complimentary breakfasts for approximately $1,500 per night—a savings of nearly $1,900 from the hotel’s rack rate.
“They want to travel nicely,” she says of her clients, “and they’re bringing the kids.”