Scratch That Niche

There was never a more important year for niche markets than 2009. The year of the economic downturn saw agents across the globe losing business due to clients’ reluctance to travel. While generalists struggled, those agents with a specific, targeted audience stayed afloat as such niches as weddings and honeymoons proved to be recession-proof.

Niche markets thrived before 2009 and they continued to prosper long after. With so many viable options on this front, Travel Agent condensed the always-growing list by zeroing in on the most successful niche markets for agents, based on both revenue projections and market size.

In no particular order, we break down each market, tell you why you should be selling it and then give you a little push in the right direction as far as getting your feet wet in the niche of your choosing.

Destination Weddings and Honeymoons Travel

Why You Should Sell It: More than 2 million couples get married in the U.S. each year, according to “The Wedding Report,” one of the leading companies providing independent research in this market. Each couple spends an average of $27,438, thus generating an industry-wide $100 billion on an annual basis. Similarly, 91 percent of all couples getting married in the U.S. take a honeymoon, averaging six nights. Destination weddings generate more than $5.3 billion and are roughly 16 percent of the bridal market.

Getting Started: Know your product. Visit the destinations you sell and develop a relationship with onsite service providers. Also, attend bridal shows and consider cross-promotions with local bridal shops.

An Expert’s Take: According to Jacqueline Johnson, president and CEO of Global Bridal Group, the weddings business provides travel agents with the “perfect customer.” This means a customer who is willing to pay full price if presented with the benefits, shops with immediacy, and is looking for the top quality of product, environment and service. “While weddings are impervious to outside events, they are all about dreams and the fulfillment of this life event,” she says. Johnson also says that the wedding market has had a dramatic shift within the American audience to electronic media, which cannot be overlooked. “Online now generates total spending of $9.9 billion, a growth of 3-7 percent, as more couples take advantage of the Internet and mobile to pay for or place deposits on products and services they want for their wedding.”

Accessible Travel

Why You Should Sell It: According to Jani Nayar, executive coordinator for the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), the accessible travel market is worth a whopping $15 billion a year. The National Organization on Disability estimates that there are 54 million men, women and children in the U.S. with a disability, and as the baby boomer generation ages, there will be even more travelers who have special needs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of women over the age of 65, and 38 percent of men in the same age group have disabilities.


Accessible travel
Accessible travel is a $15 billion-a-year market.


Getting Started: Travelers Aid International—the parent association for Travelers Aid agencies across the country—launched a new website,, last year, to help persons with disabilities plan and enjoy a better travel experience. Also, agents looking to sell this niche should become a member of SATH.

An Expert’s Take: “The market for accessible travel just keeps getting better,” says Kristy Lacroix of Wheelchair Escapes who has more than 18 years of experience in this segment and is a Certified Accessible Travel Specialist, an active member of SATH and a Master Cruise Counselor. “With all of our wounded soldiers returning with many disabilities, I expect to see them push the envelope. They want to keep living, not just existing. Don’t we all? I expect to see ziplines for the disabled, even the visually challenged.”

LGBT Travel

Why You Should Sell It: According to a recent survey conducted by, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has increased their travel in the last year, compared to the year before. Most destinations surveyed say LGBT travel rose 1 percent to 3 percent over that span.

Getting Started: Agents should get to know this segment by visiting the websites of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association and Community Marketing, Inc..

An Expert’s Take: “Branding yourself as gay-friendly isn’t enough…you have to do your homework,” says IGLTA President/CEO John Tanzella. “Be aware of the major gay events and LGBT-affirming laws around the world, so you can suggest welcoming destinations to your clients. Also, remember that being gay-friendly doesn’t mean treating your gay clients differently—it is, however, still about being sensitive to your clients’ needs.”

Faith-Based Travel

Why You Should Sell It: According to a survey conducted by Menlo Consulting Group and Globus, the total market for religious travel in the U.S. (past and potential) is at about 16.6 million people. In 2008, more than 900,000 people from the U.S. traveled internationally for religious purposes, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. So, there is some money to be made here. However, this market is very hard to predict.

Judaism and Islam
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem holds religious significance for followers of the three major monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Getting Started: Mike Schields, Globus’ managing director for groups and emerging markets, says the best way to start is by going to your neighborhood church and networking with priests and parishioners. “Advertising in church bulletins is so incredibly cheap and so effective,” Schields says. “A lot of these travelers find out about faith-based trips from their church, so it’s very important to be involved with your local church even if you are not religious.” The typical age for these travelers is around 55 years old, but Schields says that number is coming down slightly. The hottest destinations for this niche, he adds, are always the same—The Holy Land, which includes Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey; Italy; Portugal; France; and Mexico. More than 90 percent of the religious travel market is Christian, but faith-based travel also includes Jewish and Muslim travel as well as other religions.

An Expert’s Take: “This is really a niche that has always been there and will never really go away,” says Schields, adding, however, that it does fluctuate. “Companies tend to jump in, jump back out and jump back into this niche because one year it could be up and another it could be down.”

Culinary Cruise Travel

Why You Should Sell It: One of the fastest growing markets in cruising is the culinary cruise, which first emerged five years ago when Holland America Line debuted its Culinary Arts Center program. Since then, nearly every cruise line has formulated its own culinary cruise program. Kate Murphy, president of Wings Travel Group, expects interest in the market to grow. “Right now we target baby boomers, because they are the biggest age group that cruises, but we are finding that the next generation is just as big into cruise,” says Murphy.

Getting Started: Culinary cruises are often found in the premium and upscale markets, but the mass market has also tasted its popularity. Many mass-market cruises “feature restaurants with a chef’s table that have a culinary element to them,” Murphy says. “That doesn’t make it a culinary cruise, but it shows how far-reaching the market appeal is.”

An Expert’s Take: “Around 30 percent of all cruises have some sort of culinary theme or application to them right now,” says Murphy. Annett Youngbauer, a franchisee and travel agent at Travel Leaders, says, “The reason these cruises are so popular is because they offer a way for travelers to enrich their lives… and it isn’t dependent on geography.”

Adventure Travel

Why You Should Sell It: According to the most recent Adventure Travel Market report by George Washington University, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and Xola Consulting, the total size of the adventure travel market in 2009 was $89 billion. Looking ahead to 2012, Irene Neustaedter, manager of Around the World in 80 Ways, predicts that as the backpacker demographic of the 1970s and 1980s ages, the niche will continue to evolve to include a wider variety of comfort levels.


Silversea is one of many lines targeting baby boomers and Gen-Xers with culinary-themed programs.


Getting Started: For agents looking to specialize in adventure travel, Philip Sheldon, president of Hanns Ebensten Travel, advises, “The most important thing is to look for a tour operator or outfitter that has local relationships in the place that you want to go to.”

An Expert’s Take: “It started more with the backpacking type of adventure,” Neustaedter says. “Over the years they would introduce more and more comfort. Now adventure travel is for everyone, not just the 18-24 set.”

Group Travel

Why You Should Sell It: Group travel, one of the most lucrative of all niche markets, should be an automatic sell because it is something that every supplier offers. “I wouldn’t even call it a niche,” say Globus’s Schields. “It is literally billions of dollars. Whether you look at airlines, hotels or tour operators, every single supplier does groups. It’s a must-do part of the business.”

Getting Started: Reach out to local companies, churches, schools and volunteer organizations. Identify a leader or other influential member to be a “pied piper” to help spread the word and promote your trip ideas. Knowing the demographic group that a certain trip appeals to also is a good way to target an audience.

An Expert’s Take: Schields predicts that 2012 sales will be anywhere from flat to up 5 percent over 2011. 2013 projections show that sales will be up 10 percent over 2012. “What is preventing further growth are airfares,” he says. “We’ve seen a real shift from Europe to North American destinations. It’s incumbent upon agents to recognize these trends when selling.”

Medical Travel

Oahu’s Bishop Museum
Oahu’s Bishop Museum is a must-see on any edu-tourism visit to Hawaii.

Why You Should Sell It: According to Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, medical tourism is estimated to be a $60 billion industry. While the concept has been around for centuries, the industry’s formality is still growing, so there is no standardization for collecting data. Much of medical tourism is entrepreneurial and takes place in some of the world’s most high volume tourist areas, such as Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Jordan, Turkey, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil and India.

Getting Started: Medical tourism isn’t new. There has always been a stream of people traveling from one place to another to seek healthcare. In the early 2000s, the trend emerged when people of high-quality areas would seek out facilities in other high quality areas of care, looking for value, affordability and access. The Medical Tourism Association’s website (above) is a good place for agents to begin.

An Expert’s Take: “I think that we are going to see a growing number of facilities receiving international accreditation, in terms of quality of healthcare and delivery of services,” says Stephano. “We are also going to see more governments getting involved from a city, state and national level of particular countries as their involvement in creating sustainable programs grows.” Stephano also believes that we are going to see a larger development of regionalized markets in addition to global markets.

Family Travel

Why You Should Sell It: When asked to select the most popular travel themes as part of the “U.S. Packaged Travel Landscape 2006-2010” report, prepared for the American Society of Travel Agents by PhoCusWright, “family vacation” was the second most-picked option with 33 percent of travel agent respondents. Since so many families deferred vacations during the recent recession, Samantha McClure, owner of Austin-based Small World Travel, an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso Agency, predicts that family travel is due for an upswing in 2012, including “a lot of multi-generational families where grandparents are taking either just the grandkids, or the whole family.”

Getting Started: Agents looking to get into the family and multigenerational travel market would do well to develop programs that take advantage of group pricing, celebration event packaging, multiroom accommodations, family-style dinners, family reunion activities and portrait photography services. A study on multigenerational travel by Preferred Hotel Group has found that multigenerational groups tend to book their travel around milestone events, such as significant anniversaries or birthdays, and these services appeal to the large size and celebratory nature of multigenerational groups.

An Expert’s Take: For agents looking to specialize, McClure advises, “If it’s a niche that you’re going to do, you should specialize in it, because it’s very different. Accommodating families, young kids and grandparents is a very special market. Only certain properties, tour operators and guides are right. It’s a very specific niche and I think that there’s lots of business.”


Why You Should Sell It: Hawaii presents a wide variety of unique opportunities, and guests can use their visit to master some new skills. Surfing and scuba lessons are available all over the island, but some resorts and hotels offer off-the-beaten-path lessons. The Hilton Waikoloa Village on Hawaii Island, for example, has Dolphin Quest, an interactive program that not only lets guests swim with dolphins, but also offers a course in the mammals’ physiology and how the group is protecting the endangered species.

Getting Started: Oahu is home to several unique learning opportunities. The Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu is a great way to start an educational visit to Hawaii. Families can try their hand at traditional activities from climbing coconut trees to preparing authentic Hawaiian foods to sailing an outrigger canoe. Pearl Harbor arranges tours of the historic site that launched the U.S. into World War II. And the Bishop Museum holds numerous lectures and classes, most notably Traditions of the Pacific, an ongoing educational program that explores the natural and cultural history of the islands.

La Paz Waterfall
La Paz Waterfall in Costa Rica is typical of natural wonders that await eco-travelers.

An Expert’s Take: Tamara Aalto, product manager at tour operator All About Hawaii, says that Pearl Harbor, Polynesian Cultural Center and the Bishop Museum are the most popular choices for learning about the islands’ history. “Guests can learn about the natural, cultural and geologic history of Hawaii’s Big Island while exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or Mauna Kea with an interpretive guide from Hawaii Forest & Trail,” she says. “And on Maui, we partner with Maui Paddle Sports where guides are Jacques Cousteau-trained naturalists who share about Hawaii’s marine life, history and people in addition to teaching the sport of paddling, which is an integral part of Hawaiian culture.” Bruce Fisher of Hawaii Aloha recommends the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Bishop Museum, ’Iolani Palace and the Missions Houses Museum for educational experiences in the islands.

Rail Travel

Why You Should Sell It: As fuel prices and security measures make air travel even more expensive and inconvenient, travelers are turning to trains. Travelers can avoid out-of-town airports and security lines, and can go directly from city center to city center. In Europe, high-speed trains are taking over: In the April 23 issue of Travel Agent, Rail Europe President and CEO Frederic Langlois said that trains now account for 90 percent of the market share for trips of two hours or less, and 75 percent for trips of less than three hours. In Britain, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) reported that journeys on the rail network reached over 1.4 billion last year—a new high for a peacetime year since the 1920s.

Getting Started: Rail Europe, in spite of its name, sells rail tickets all over the world, including Asia and the U.S. The company can help agents organize full vacations and can arrange for unlimited passes to public transportation—like the Swiss Pass, which allows visitors to take just about any train, bus or boat in Switzerland, and also allows free entry into hundreds of museums and attractions.

An Expert’s Take: Robin Locker Lacey of Mélange Travel estimates that 90 percent of her clients use trains to get around Europe as opposed to flying. “Clients see train travel as a matter of convenience, value and flexibility without the hassles of air travel,” she says. “While the airlines are spending time nickel-and-diming travelers, taking away services, charging baggage fees and making air travel more unpleasant in general, rail companies have been hard at work building modern, efficient, high-speed trains with comfortable seats, air conditioning, bar carts and soundproofing. First-class travel on some trains even includes a three-course meal…This makes rail attractive to clients because they are able to see the value in it.”


Why You Should Sell It: In a world that is more connected than ever, ecotourism is a unique opportunity for agents to sell one-of-a-kind experiences in exotic locations. Ecotourism is also an exceptional way to woo clients that are green-focused and sensitive to sustainability and the environmental effects of the travel industry. According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, ecotourism is expected to account for 1.6 billion international arrivals by 2020, up from 903 million in 2007.

Getting Started: The International Ecotourism Society offers educational material for professionals looking to learn more about sustainable tourism at large, in addition to information on new destinations and programs for tourism professionals. The group now offers certification to professionals. Sustainable Travel International also imparts information on how to plan a green trip for your clients, with details on eco-certification, the effect of carbon-emissions from travel, and training.

An Expert’s Take: “We try to go green as much as possible,” says Elizabeth Burgos at Willett Travel, who specializes in selling Costa Rica. “We also try to get everyone outside off the beaten path; even though it may be the same destinations, we tend to show them more of the nature of the country. Keeping a little bit of adventure in mind is also important. You can combine different activities, do a nature walk, waterfalls and bird watching in the different destinations. You can’t get everything in one place.”

Business Travel

Why You Should Sell It: After a few painful years economic turmoil limited the amount businesses could spend on travel, but business travel has begun to grow and will return to pre-recession spending levels this year, according to the Global Business Travel Association. “It seems like we can start to breathe a sigh of relief about business travel,” says Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO. “The continued stability of business travel bodes well for the economy as a whole and for continued recovery in the employment market as business travel is a leading indicator of both. While the outlook for Europe is cloudy and economic growth in Asia is slowing, things still look much better than they did 12 months ago.”

Getting Started: GBTA has an online resource library featuring access to industry panels, business travel research, RFP templates, and access to industry events and organizations. Most big cities have business travel associations that hold training sessions, networking meetings and can help give a more specific account of how to leverage technology during the sales process.

An Expert’s Take: “There are countless ways these new [technology] tools can help businesses reduce costs, increase profitability and improve travelers’ lives without negatively impacting business travel demand and the global travel industry infrastructure that supports it,” Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the U.S.-based Business Travel Coalition (BTC), tells Travel Agent.