By Dan Dickson
Maybe it began in 2000 when the stock market tanked and people grew disillusioned and set new priorities with their traveling budgets. Or perhaps it began after 9/11 when people felt jittery about traveling alone, preferring quality time in the company of family members. Or possibly it happened in the past four years when the recession tightened family budgets, requiring families to spend differently when they hit the road.
Whenever the trend was ignited, the upsurge in family travel has not stopped, and 12 years later, the market is still expanding. Tour operators continue to invent new family-travel divisions, programs, brands and tactics and are well rewarded for being smart enough to have done so.
The family travel niche is a consistent segment of all travel. A TripAdvisor survey revealed that 83 percent of consumers planned to take at least one vacation with family members. But many families need a skilled family travel specialist. A smart, experienced agent can fill that void and not only help provide a trip of a lifetime, but also earn repeat business.
A Different Point of View
Collette Vacations of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, has been around since 1918. This family-owned company launched Collette Family Vacations in 2010 with its own logo, brochure and microsite on the Web. Collette says it targets products that are less expensive than those of its competitors. The itineraries are carefully designed to keep all generations engaged. There are substantially discounted rates for children 14 and under, and hotels that are appropriate for families.
“You have to view this division, this product line differently. You’re not dealing with your tried-and-true traveler. You’re dealing with their kids and grandkids,” said Allison Villasenor, Collette’s senior project manager. “You must take a different approach when developing inclusions to keep everyone involved and captivated.”
Collette’s family-oriented domestic selections include the popular Wild West and Yellowstone Family Adventure, with a visit to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a rodeo, and American Spirit Family Discovery, which includes Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“Our American Spirit trip is engaging and educational,” said Villasenor. “We actually included a scavenger hunt. Grandparents, parents and children all looked for historic landmarks and saw them in a new, discovery-oriented way.”
Knowing your travelers is important. There may be someone 4 or 14 on that motorcoach, so Villasenor suggests that operators stay conscious of what they’re developing for them.
“A 4-year-old isn’t going to like a lecture from a horticulturalist or a garden visit, but they may enjoy a painting class,” she said. “Take your inclusions to the next level.”
Among Collette’s international family offerings are trips to Canada, London, Costa Rica, Panama, Italy and Kenya. Is taking young children to foreign countries a waste of time and money because they won’t appreciate it?
“I think travel is the best educator,” Villasenor said. “The sooner your kids discover the world, the sooner they’ll understand different cultures and that the world extends beyond their neighborhood or city.”
‘Think like the family’
Jodi Grundig, a freelance writer, pens the Traveling Mom blog. Her advice to tour operators is to think like the family members they’re servicing.
“Families look for itineraries that are kid-friendly and include stops for running around and burning energy. Restaurants should be family-friendly and include good kids’ menus and amenities,” said Grundig. “Families also love behind-the-scenes tours and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If families take kids out of school for a vacation, they’ll want some educational content.”
Grundig warns that agents should understand what families want and how families travel. It’s very different from other adult travel and should include more breaks, outdoor activity stops and free time.
“Focus on itineraries that are fun for the entire family,” she said. “Focusing just on adults or just kids will result in unhappy travelers.”
Another major tour operator joined the family travel trend in 2002 when Tauck introduced its multigenerational product Tauck Bridges. The Tauck Bridges program frees family members to build lasting “bridges” — different generations experiencing the joys of travel together. Tauck has 16 Bridge programs: five in Europe, two in Africa, seven in North America and two in Latin America.
Daisy Smith, a Tauck Bridges agent, has taken four such trips.
“Bridges is my favorite product to sell. I was a schoolteacher for 22 years and wound up working for Tauck because I took a tour with them and fell in love. There are things for younger, middle and older people,” she said.
Bridges is designed to not bore anyone: not too many museums for little ones, not too many cutesy children’s sites for adults.
“We also locate hotels that are kid-friendly,” she said. “The worst thing to happen is to go to a hotel with your children and get the evil eye from staff because they don’t want children around.”