Children are having a greater impact on family vacation decisions, and travel agents say understanding how to obtain and filter children’s feedback helps them succeed in the family niche.
In MMGY’s 2017 Portrait of American Traveler survey, 77% of parents with children under the age of 17 said the kids influence their choices of daily activities, up from 66% in 2015, and 70% said they say the choice of destination.
“The first thing agents should ask a parent isn’t where they want to go, but what they want to do,” said Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association in Nyack, NY. “Then you say to the kids, here are the types of places you can go that offer those things.”
Children have the least say with hotel/resort choices, where 54% of family travelers said their children influenced the final decision.
“Activities are a no-brainer. Children know what they want to do,” said Steve Cohen, vice president of insights at MMGY, a travel-industry marketing and research firm. But when it comes to lodging, price, location and availability tend to shift more of the authority back to parents.
The Family Travel Forum runs a teen blogger college scholarship every year, soliciting essays from children 13-18. “We ask kids to talk about their vacations and what travel means to them,” said its editor, Kyle McCarthy. “Given the opportunity, these kids talk about the vendor in a straw market who helped teach them how to make a bracelet, not the cabin on their cruise ship. Agents should look for activities that will provide families with wonder and surprise.”
Tracy Drechsler-Waite, owner of Your Dream Travel Concierge in Oakdale, NY, recently booked a family to Turks & Caicos because one child wanted to participate in a community service project, while two others wanted to spend time in the ocean. She knew of a resort that could satisfy both core needs. She said she constantly “listens” to her clients’ lives to supplement the qualifying questions she asks parents when they ask her to come up with their next dream vacation.
Drechsler-Waite relies on some basic queries, including: What are you looking for in this vacation? Are you looking for time alone with your spouse too? How much quality time do you want with the kids? When you dine out at home, what restaurants do you visit regularly? What’s your go-to splurge restaurant?
Janet Blackwell, owner of Tidewater Cruise and Travel in Bel Air, MD, asks clients to describe their favorite vacation. One said a cruise, but her family talked more about the shore excursions than the ship itself. “So I booked them on an itinerary where they were in port five of six days,” she said.
Blackwell also relies on her clients’ social media feeds to glean family information. “A good agent has to have an ear for signals and hints. Following your clients on Facebook can help you see what activities they are into.”
“The big picture is, if you have happy children, you have happy parents. And if you have happy parents, you have return clients, and in most cases, lifelong clients,” Jenss said.
Children of Millennials have the most sway
When it comes to children younger than 12, as difficult as it might be, it pays to invest time in understanding what they like to do, Jenss said.
Younger children of Millennial households appear to have the greatest influence in travel planning, MMGY found. In households with children under 12 years of age, 82% of Millennial parents said the children influence the daily activities of a vacation, and 65% said children also help decide which hotel or resort the family books.
“The younger kids are having more of a voice, because they are more likely to be vocally unhappy,” said MMGY’s Cohen. “And an unhappy child is a difficult place to be.”
But make it clear from the beginning that you are listening, but not necessarily following. “You want the client in the initial planning to make it clear that ‘we aren’t saying we will do what you say.’ Have them tell the younger ones, ‘We just want to hear what you are thinking,’ ” Blackwell said.
This is especially true if the family is on a budget. A 17-year-old can understand budget considerations, but a 5-year-old can’t, “so be more cautious of the parent engaging younger siblings. And offer fewer choices to the family with younger children, because it’s hard for someone so young to compare things.”
“I ask my seven-year-old where she'd like to go and she says Hawaii, the Amazon or Australia, based on what she's read. She has no idea about prices and travel times,” said Laura Hall, spokesperson for Kid & Coe, a London-based online travel company that helps parents find children-friendly accommodations and activities.
Modern families provide new challenges
With more grandparents putting together family travel itineraries and half of marriages ending in divorce, crafting a family vacation isn’t always easy. “I hear a lot from single parents that it is hard to relate to their children because they might not have frequent visitation with them, so they may not know, for example, what the children eat regularly, and whether a resort will have enough variety of dining to satisfy them,” McCarthy said.
When a divorced parent seems unsure, agents can e-mail a worksheet to either parent so they can sit down with their children and ask the right questions to ensure every generation has the vacation of a lifetime.