This is the final article in a three-part series on trends in solo travel.
A fast-moving market for solo travel is creating a prime opportunity for travel sellers. Agents need only take the time to understand the needs and demographics of a changing market and familiarize themselves with suppliers’ range of products and pricing for individual travelers, colleagues say.
Travel sellers like Amber Blecker see strong potential for agents in solo travel. She is among those already cashing in on the market.
“The demand for solo travel is already there, so it is up to the market to fulfill it,” said Blecker, ECC, LCS, owner of a CruiseOne franchise in Aurora, Colo.
Travel agents may even have an edge in this fast-growth market.
There is evidence that solo travelers are more likely than other travelers to seek assistance from travel agents, rather than book on the Internet, according to a 2009 report by the U.K.-based research firm Mintel.
At least one U.S.-based agent finds this to be true.
“The needs of solo travelers are more complex and are usually not served by going online,” said Patricia Klippel, CTA, of Cardoza Travel in Palo Alto, Calif.
Know the suppliers
For Klippel, selling successfully to solo clients starts with having a thorough knowledge of what suppliers offer.
“There’s a big difference among suppliers in how they serve the solo market,” said Klippel.
For instance, when planning a cruise vacation for solo travelers, it pays to know that “some lines are much more accommodating than others. You have to know which ones to stay away from,” she said.
Agents who know their suppliers may find good value for solo travelers in unexpected places.
For instance, luxury cruise lines, which often have lower single supplements than other lines, can be a particularly good cruise choice for solo clients, Klippel said. “Frequently, it turns out the luxury lines are more accommodating and a better value for solo passengers.”
Social media enthusiasts
For some travel sellers, having an online presence directed toward solo travelers is an effective way to grow the niche. Among them is Blecker who markets her services to solo travelers through her website SoloCruiseResource.com.
As a rule, solo travelers tend to be a very connected group and heavy users of social media, according to Marsha Calig, president of Calig World Travel, an American Express agency in Woodland Hills, Calif.
“One will post something about a trip on her blog and then others will want to go. It pays to be aware of this social media aspect. It also means that the potential for repeat and referral business is strong.”
Know your customer
While it is commonly thought that most solo travelers are women seeking the safety of group travel, the demographics actually are much broader.
For starters, solo travelers are not all men.
Travel agent Patricia Fulton, CTC, MCC, learned this the hard way several years ago when she hosted a tea, aimed at women, to promote the concept.
“It was all women who attended, but it didn’t really result in any business from them,” said Fulton, owner of Departures Travel, a Leisure Travel Alliance member in Mesa, Ariz.
Today, Fulton’s solo clients on cruises and tours are “mostly men.”
An evolving market
Another misconception about solo travelers is that they’re all single.
“Many couples have different interests and so choose to travel separately,” Blecker said. “I even have some married clients who choose to take two cabins for health reasons, such as snoring.”
Solo travelers are increasingly becoming “younger and more adventurous,” she added.
Calig said she too has seen changes in solo customers.
“It’s very different than when I started in travel 33 years ago,” said Calig, “You have many women who have made it in business and who are not afraid to go on a tour or cruise alone. They are very comfortable with themselves.”
Calig’s solo clients tend to fall into two age groups: middle-aged professionals and retirees. Of the two, the former are by far the more challenging to serve, she said.
“The younger group is still working, so they are far less flexible. They tend to want to travel during holiday periods and other prime periods, and they tend to book at the last minute,” she said.
Because many tour operators only waive single supplement charges on selected departures, a lack of flexibility often makes it difficult for solo travelers to get good deals or to find space on the tours they want.
Roomies on the road
One development agents should be aware of is the fact that today finding roommates for solo travelers, which used to be standard practice, is not always necessary.
“Because we’re seeing more cruise lines and tour operators offering solo rates, we don’t have to pair people up anymore,” Fulton said.
In a survey of its tour operator members, USTOA found that 60% now offer so-called guaranteed shares, where a solo traveler can avoid single supplement charges by sharing a room with another solo guest. If no one is found to share the room, the single supplement is waived entirely.
One-quarter of USTOA members waive single supplement charges on selected departures.
Not just price
Developments in supplier offerings for solo travelers aren’t confined to pricing – at least they shouldn’t be, Blecker suggested.
She cited Norwegian Cruise Line’s introduction of Studio staterooms for solo passengers, which she called a “huge step forward in solo cruising.”
Norwegian’s introduction of the Studio Lounge in that initiative is significant, in Blecker’s view.
“The secret to the Studio cabins’ success, I think, lies not in the pricing, as often solos can find a lower-priced cabin even by paying a supplement, but with the social hub in the Studio Lounge,” she said. “It gives a central location for solos to meet one another and plan activities and dining.”
Finding the right suppliers to partner with is key to serving this potentially lucrative market. One option is partnering with any of a growing number of tour operators that specialize in solo travel.
Calig said she has long worked with one of the pioneers in the field, O Solo Mio Tours, which has been in business for 20 years.
Among the newer supplier specialists is SoloMate Travel. Its founder, Patty Magalnick, left a 20-year career as a meeting planner for Fortune 500 companies to found the firm with Andrea Leber last year.
“Andrea and I were avid solo travelers who didn’t see any companies out there providing what we wanted,” she said. “We wanted to offer extraordinary destinations and services without requiring the single supplement fee.”
SoloMate Travel, which pays commissions to travel agents, offers a roommate matching service as well as single accommodations on its tours.
Magalnick is hopeful that the advent of more solo-focused travel companies such as hers will put more pressure on suppliers to lower or waive single supplements. “Hotels and cruise lines have a ways to go, but the market is putting more pressure on the industry.”
Good revenue source
Travel agent Amber Blecker said she was puzzled that more suppliers haven’t adapted to the market for solo travel, since solo travelers are an especially good revenue source.
“Suppliers need not presume that solo travelers only want the lowest categories available,” she said.
Solo passengers also tend to generate more revenue on cruises than other passengers because they often spend more time in casinos, bars and spas and on shore excursions, she added.
For more on developments in supplier products for solo travelers, see Parts 1 and 2: “Solo Travel Is Booming, and Suppliers Are Responding,” Oct. 20, 2011, and "Sea Change for Solo Cruisers?," Oct. 27, 2011.