Consumers are loosening their purse strings on travel this year, especially when it involves unique and customized experiences, according to a recently released survey of American Express travel counselors based in North America.
A sizeable majority of the 200 travel counselors surveyed in November (86%), said their customers are currently spending more (43%) or the same (43%) on travel than a year ago.
In particular, many of these customers are splurging on travel enhancements, including upgraded hotel accommodations (47%), on-trip activities (39%), longer trips (38%), and airline class upgrades (32%).
“The survey is a reinforcement of what we’ve seen building for the past few years – people are not only feeling more confident about spending money on travel and they are valuing perks over price,” Yana Guiterrez, vice president, strategic partnerships and representative travel network for American Express Travel, told Travel Market Report.
“It’s also significant that people are willing to take longer trips.”
More than a third of the travel counselors reported that their clients are eager to take trips and spend time on memorable experiences while 21% said their clients are growing more adventurous and want to explore new destinations.
“Customers want to have bragging rights – an experience that no one among their groups of friends has had yet,” said Curtis Kowalski, a senior travel counselor with American Express in the Boston area.
“They are willing to pay for it, although they do want good value.”
Guiterrez noted that social media is playing a part in making “bragging rights” a driver of consumer travel decisions.
“People like to get the word out about their travels – and social media really facilitates this.”
Customization a priority
Kowalski, along with 67% of the other agents surveyed, spends the majority of his time helping his clients craft customized itineraries.
Along with making typical arrangements such as hotel and air, this also means drawing on local destination expertise for planning special activities during the trip.
“For example, if a couple is looking for a getaway after a busy work season, we’ll try and find something where they can really unwind, perhaps a private dinner on the beach just for them,” he said.
In another case, Kowalski handled a client’s request to visit the Vatican a half-hour before it opened to the public.
“They got to see the Sistine Chapel with just ten other people,” he said. “It cost a lot to do this, but it was the highlight of their trip. Something they will always remember.”
River cruises reign
The survey indicated that cruises remain a popular option, with slightly more than half (51%) of the travel counselors expecting to see an overall increase in bookings this year.
River cruises were singled out as a top trend for 2015 among 56% of the agents.
Kowalski is among agents who see interest in river cruising growing among clients.
They said the river cruise industry has done a good of job of satisfying growing demand for immersive cultural experiences.
“Many of my clients have already been to the major places like London and Paris, and now they’re looking at seeing the smaller places that not everyone goes to,” Kowalski said.
“They like the idea of going to ports that aren’t inundated with thousands of people from the big ships,” he added. “And they still have the convenience of visiting multiple destinations without having to unpack.”
Personalized tour options
When it comes to land vacations, the survey reported that “travelers are looking for personalized tours that offer a more intimate and hands-on experience, such as wine tours or local cooking classes.”
Requests for tours ranked high among trip planning requests, with 57% of the agents reporting that their clients want help in booking tours during their trips.
In addition, 19% of the agents said clients want help with restaurant reservations and 16% said they assist with visits to museums and other cultural activities.
The report also found that family travel is strong; 19% of agents expected to see growth in requests for multigenerational travel this year.
“I’m seeing more multigenerational travel, which I think is a result of people being so busy and doing their own thing,” Kowalski said.
“It’s a way they can come together for seven or ten days. It can be anything from tracing the family roots in Ireland or a Caribbean cruise.”
Multigenerational travel is a plus for agents because many consumers realize they need expert guidance in arranging these trips, he said.
“I’m seeing that baby boomers, even those who are used to planning their own trips, really appreciate getting help,” he said. “It’s complex with a group of people involved.”