Millennials are tech-savvy. They want validation. They want to visit the most hip, new destination, and tell all of their friends about it on social media.
Travel agents are scrambling to expand their knowledge and marketing to the largest generation in the U.S. Millennials love to travel and have a stronger preference for booking with agents than other generations. But what is the strategy to reaching and retaining them?
While observers agree that Millennials exhibit some behaviors different from their peer groups, they also caution travel agents to remember – human nature doesn’t change all that much from one generation to the next.
They advise: Better that you embed yourself into millennial networks to get their attention, incorporate subtle generational differences into your marketing and operations, but focus on what you do best and deliver a distinct level of service any generation would prize.
There are some differences
Major market research reports have been hitting the news media throughout the first half of the year, attempting to define who Millennials are and what their travel purchasing behaviors look like.
The American Society of Travel Agents released their full results of a survey in June. At about the same time, travel research powerhouse MMGY Global released their annual detailed study of travel purchasing behaviors. Just last month, J.D. Power joined the chorus, covering purchasing behaviors across generations and purchase categories.
The upshot of all of the research is this: the share of Millennials using travel agents in the last 12 months is up – 30% according to ASTA and 34% says MMGY – while less than 20% of GenXers and Boomers use travel agents. That’s a big difference.
Millennials are more likely to book their reservations through an agent than other generations (41% to Boomers at 31% and Matures at 21%) and they’re much more likely to rely on more sources of information during the vacation planning phase. Additionally, during the research phase, they are substantially more likely to consider the advice of a traditional travel agent.
Millennials also want more control over their reservations, Steve Cohen, VP of Insights at MMGY said. “The number one reason that millennials give us for using a travel agent is they believe they have more control of booking each aspect of the trip.”
“They like to be involved, and feel like they are in control,” said Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors.
Build it, and they will come
That need for control worked for Susan Marie Swett, owner of Crystal Lake Travel Agency. Swett tells the story of Millennials Daniel and Pamela Strelcheck. Swett had booked travel for Daniel’s parents for about 40 years. When Strelcheck and his wife were looking to celebrate their fifth anniversary with a trip to Peru, “they did their research, but had some things they wanted to do that aren’t typical,” Swett said.
For example, while most tourists make a full day trip to Machu Picchu, “I know that there are several other mountains you can climb right there,” said Swett. “We had them staying in the region for three days instead of one.”
The Strelchecks also wanted to step off of the typical group tour itineraries and fashion a journey that wasn’t advertised. “They wanted to combine certain destinations in one 10-12 hour day, which most tours would split into half days.
“I had to work directly with the operators locally. At first, some of the operators weren’t cooperative. But it turned out that where normally they would have been on shared tours, with other people, it was just them and a guide, and reasonably priced.”
“Experience trumps costs for higher-income millennials, and, let's face it, building your own trip can be a pretty onerous task,” said Alex Howard, a Nashville, TN.-based editor at Lonely Planet.
Reaching Millennials doesn’t require Snapchat
Swett uses traditional means to build her Millennial business. She books tables at wedding expos and other events, but also advertises daily with Facebook and conducts e-mail marketing.
“The internet is like this big library,” Swett said. “But even Millennials want help. That’s an agent’s chance to ask ‘What do you want from that particular vacation? Have you considered this instead?’" By just being a good travel agent, Swett has grown her business across all generations, she said.
Another way to earn more Millennial reservations, is to understand where they are going and inspire them to book. MMGY Global found that traditional travel agents come in 22nd after influencers such as friends and family (51%).
“It is a lot of word of mouth, trusted peers. I trust my friends’ judgment more than an online review now of days,” said Samir Lakhany, chair of the Emerging Leaders Council (ELC) a group of 40-year-old and younger executives in the Intercontinental Hotel Group’s Owners Association.
To tap into where Millennials are going next, Johnson at Coastline is hiring more Millennials. “No one knows a millennial better than a millennial. They get it. They understand. They like the same type of travel, the bragging rights, the off the beaten path.”
Johnson says that as Millennials age, earn more and begin to form families, they find they rely on experts like travel agents to take care of things they don’t have time for. “They are starting to use us as they are with other professions, like financial planners,” Johnson said. “The older they get, there’s even more pressure on their time.”
In that way, and others, Millennials display attributes that make them no different than other generations. “Millennials are not a one-size-fits all group and there are various nuances in their behavior. At the very least, one needs to look at the differences between younger and older millennials” said Dr. Makarand Mody, professor of marketing at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration.
J.D. Power offered the same advice in their recently released Millennials Report. “Don’t treat Millennials like a homogeneous group by age and perceived life-stage; acknowledge their individuality and engage them accordingly.”
No substitute for knowledge and experience
But as agents pursue destination knowledge and chart a course to specialties that set them apart, major consumer media brands are trying to match that kind of local knowledge, and heightening competition.
This July, Travel + Leisure relaunched its digital Travel Guides and debuted the Travel Guide mobile app – both curated by T+L editors “with insights from a network of local correspondents” about hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, things to do and “insider finds.”
The app is “tailor-made for travelers who are on the go and want easy access to Travel + Leisure’s expert editorial advice when they’re on the ground in the world’s top destinations,” allowing users to create custom itineraries. Forty six places were available at launch, and T+L said it will continue to add destinations and update content.
Travel + Leisure Editor Nathan Lump noted how T+L already operates “various commerce initiatives and booking partners,” and stated “T+L is now well positioned to serve our audience at every stage of their travel journey.”
Travel agencies need to transform as well, said IHG’s Lakhany. “While millennials look for the convenience and ease the Internet provides for some things, they look for the most individualized and customized experience they can purchase. Agents need to modify their service to provide that extra validation.”
To do so, Cohen said, agents should be taking full advantage of fam trips so that they are learning details that online travel agencies cannot provide. “Get to know those places where millennials are visiting. Get expertise on those destinations. If you can start becoming more expert in the areas where you know this client base wants to go, it’s a no brainer.”
OTAs are muscling in too. On July 13th, Booking.com, released its new “Booking Experiences” app, a “highly curated, mobile-led experience” using artificial intelligence to predict where a traveler wants to go and what they want to do.
Currently, Booking Experiences is available for Amsterdam, Dubai, London and Paris on Android and iOS phones. New York City will go live in the autumn 2016. According to spokesman Joseph A. Moscone, content is being curated by Booking.com’s “local teams and is being guided by our travelers” through 98 million+ verified guest reviews. Expedia, TripAdvisor and other OTAs have similar expert advice features.
Not everyone is convinced computers and apps can replace good agents. “OTAs, because of their sheer size, may find it difficult to become specialists. They provide generalist scale. But they are trying nonetheless, leveraging some great online content - the nitty gritty, hidden, local gems that only a specialist could tell a traveler about,” said Professor Mody at BU.
“Travel agents “need to emphasize how some experiences can only be facilitated by (their) human intervention, and that’s a premium worth paying for,” he said. “They said that the radio wouldn’t make it, but it’s still around.”