With Expedia, Orbitz, and other online travel stocks hovering just above the basement, news of Facebook and Google dancing around the travel niche cannot be thrilling. Online travel, in case you’ve been trapped in a dungeon somewhere, is about to take off like a rocket. For some that is.

Google’s announcement of the acquisition of ITA signaled the cocking of the proverbial hammer, if you are in the business of 21st Century online booking that is. Now enter Facebook, a very interesting interjection into travel dollars indeed. Facebook announced the buyout of the social network  NextStop, or rather the expertise and data therein. What can they be up to? Well, a piece of  $120 billion dollar online travel pie.

The Current State of Travel

According to Forrester Research, last year, online travel bookings represent nearly 40 percent of all booking bucks. Expedia, Orbitz, and a very few others have (so far) pocketed the lion’s share. But, in all honesty, just how long did they foresee such a virtual monopoly going forward? Their problem, from my perspective, is not much different from any other huge and profitable company – complacency – even greed. Why? Let me explain a little.

Expedia has proliferated the web with what you might call “satellites of success” – TripAdvisor being the biggest. The original innovation there, was significant – taking advantage of “the crowd” in as far a travel ratings and the vast network of affiliations – of course. But, like so many traditional thinking companies, Expedia only paid lip service to the social element. And then, for the most part they rested on their laurels – opps. What burns me about companies like Expedia? Their almost unlimited resources to create something far better – for you – and for them.

Orbitz? Well, maybe they just don’t have the cash? Despite positive earnings, Obritz seems content to offer Gulf Coast guarantees and traditional price incentives – for the most part any way. I covered their integration with iSeatz, but was honestly overly optimistic. The iSeatz move seemed to signal movement in the space, but like many such associations – there was no prime mover behind the deal. Many online companies fail to understand the need for traction and ongoing news – Orbitz is not alone. Without tipping any hands, I know Orbitz execs are rather closed minded or at best preoccupied with other matters. What burns me about them? The market is wide open for them to move – they won’t or can’t.

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How long is your weekend?
There were two milestones that shifted my understanding of time.  The first occurred when I was in 3rd grade and I realized that summers were actually not half of the year and that school actually was longer than summer.  I still remember not fully comprehending this revelation.  This adjustment of perceived time vs actual time might have been valuable.  I doubt it.
The second milestone occurred my first summer leading bicycle tours in Vermont.  I realized that weekends were, in fact, one day events.  As I sit in a friends cabin 3 hours from my home in Boulder, on a Sunday morning, I’m reminded that I may have it within my own power to bring back Sunday.
How I learned this lesson: Guiding bicycle tours through the quaint villages of New England still rates as one of my favs in my long list of careers. The company offered both week and weekend tours. The weekend tours particularly taught me a lot about the expectations “normal” people (non service industry folks like myself) put on these not so rare recurring parts of the week.
To set the scene for you, myself along with a partner guide would arrive at remote B&B in a hideous yellow van with a large cow face (with sunglasses-trademark) decal on the side…  24 bikes precariously balanced on the homemade roof racks.  The drive from our barn/office or our last tour were long and on back roads as in Vermont “you can’t get there from here” hold true.
Upon arrival we would literally jump out of the van and get to work unpacking the bikes, safety checking each one, going over the names, dietary restrictions, room and bike assignments in hopes that we could complete our tasks prior to the first guests arriving.  We never were successful.
Our guests….would pull up in black Mercedes or clean 4wd with NY or NJs license plates.  Sometimes in  weekend rental cars out of the city or at the closest airport with infrequent flights on prop planes.  They were generally stressed, had high expectations of what they wanted to accomplish for the weekend (we never knew what these were prior to arrival but they tended to range from meeting a future spouse to starting their training for the tour-DE-France.  On the weekends there were more singles than couples, mostly type A. If they brought their own bike it was expensive and saw little use, if they rented it would take 3-4 “fittings” before they trusted that we actually had their best interest in mind and hadn’t hijacked the front brakes.
The plan was to arrive before dinner and after dinner have a welcome meeting and presentation of the weekend. Invariably they arrived late, missed the dinner or meeting or both.
On Saturday morning we were up well before dawn filling water bottles, preparing snacks, checking the route notes and   dealing with all of the guests who had arrived to late to be fit or listen.  We were incredibly patient…maybe I used up all my patience those years.
For those who have never been on a bike tour there were generally 3 options for  rides on both days…allowing everyone to be able to have a sense of completion and success.  One of us would ride along with guests (forward and back..starting with the stronger riders and falling back with the slower group. The other would be in the van, fixing any flats, filling water and offering snacks and support, giving rides if needed.
The interesting thing about weekend tours and city goers was that they weren’t interested in our options or suggestions. In general they were weekend worriers wanting to take full advantage of the money they had paid and the valuable time. They wanted to ride the 70 mile option…oh, and if I get tired pick me up at 50 or 57 or 63…be there exactly when I am tired, and shuttle me back to the inn (like a private jet request).
Sat nights were a different vibe. Everyone was tired and their walls were down. They had sweat, laughed, complained and explored together.  Invariably wine and talk flowed freely on Sat and we saw a glimpse of who these people were, and we liked it.
Sunday could have been another Saturday…three ride options and a full day of the weekend. But it wasn’t.  Sunday morning people were  sore from the day before, maybe a bit hung over, maybe they just didn’t want to get too comfortable for fear they would stay in Vermont and become a bike tour guide.  They decided to do the short ride to get an early start back to the city to avoid the traffic…often they even forgave the ride and left directly.  Their “weekend”…by explanation three full nights and two days, clasped into one day of escape, and the remainder of the time entering or existing this elusive states.

There were two milestones that shifted my understanding of time.  The first occurred when I was in 3rd grade and I realized that summers were actually not half of the year and that school actually was longer than summer.  I still remember not fully comprehending this revelation.  This adjustment of perceived time vs actual time might have been valuable.  I doubt it.

taking a full weekend

taking a full weekend

The second milestone occurred my first summer leading bicycle tours in Vermont.  I realized that weekends were, in fact, one day events.  As I sit in a friends cabin 3 hours from my home in Boulder, on a Sunday morning, I’m reminded that I may have it within my own power to bring back Sunday.

How I learned this lesson

Guiding bicycle tours through the quaint villages of New England still rates as one of my favs in my long list of careers. The company offered both week and Continue Reading »

My friend Greg Berry at nuance intelligence asked that I comment on his recent post:  Ethical Travel I’m not sure I offered anything towards the solution of our massive travel footprint but it allowed me a venue to post some thoughts. Thanks Greg.

Meeting new friends in Jordan

Meeting new friends in Jordan

Across the globe there are countless initiatives being discussed to address travel, air travel specifically, and climate change. Recent numbers I have read are that tourism trade accounts for 5% of the World’s CO2 Emissions.  If you allow for a second lens, tourism employees 10% of the worlds economy. Tourism infuses money into poor economies. Travel encourages protection of natural environments and finally, travel leads to understanding.

The reality is most travelers fall into two distinct categories. Those traveling for “vacation”-pleasure, education, adventure, experiences etc (we will include travelers taking part in National Geographic Tours private Jet Tours (!?) and those traveling for work.  Both groups are less likely to be focused on this discussion that we “conscious” readers are.

Consumers traveling for vacation purposes are not interested in feeling guilty about their travels. They’re on holiday! They want to enjoy their experience which includes using plush towels and wonderful bath products. It is a luxury they often don’t have at home.  Many argue correctly that the “towel” issues is much more about how the the hotels wash their linens than about how guests use them.  That’s followed by airline and hotel recycling programs etc etc. Good overview of what is all really means here.

Business Travelers are far more interested in convenience. For all of us who travel for a living I think it is safe to say that airline travel has lost any mystery and excitement it may once have had. The very thought of an airport is now worse than the fear of visiting the dentist.  Anything that makes this journey to our destination easier and less unpleasant will be used. Business travelers are focused on getting in and out with as little personal headaches as possible. Public transportation to/from airports is neither convenient nor well communicated.  Trying to negotiate rail and bus options is complicated enough for the budget traveler and even cities such as NY and Chicago have done a poor job.

Positive Steps:
Vacations: Tour Providers/Companies who have taken the initiatives (offsetting the carbon footprint of the ground portion of the tour) take the first step in educating and encouraging travelers to offset their flights.  Many “tour providers” carefully choose locally owned properties and restaurants and hire regional guides, all of which encourage an overall understanding and connection with the destination. I believe that future political and ethical decisions a traveler makes when NOT traveling will be based on these experiences.  Post travel we tend to read, shop, listen to and engage in topics that touch on a destination we have been to very differently than when we merely read about an issue in a far off destination. The Middle East and Africa are good examples.

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Hiking & Culinary Italy Adventure

Tuscany Hiking and Culinary Adventure

Today the word “Adventure” is synonymous with the term “Experiential” and the Adventure Travel Industry has expanded to include everything from golf, fly fishing, safari, yoga and other “soft”/”active” trips to culinary, wine, small ship expeditions, cultural heritage, language immersion, villa rentals, photography and volunteer tours. Even brands like Disney (“Adventures by Disney”) and Royal Caribbean are choosing the word “Adventure” while clearly targeting a boomer market group. But this isn’t new. It’s always been boomers who connected to the world through experience and it is only fitting that today the 50-70 year old “Prime Time Traveler” is driving unheard of growth in all categories of experiential travel.

Let’s face it, if you are a boomer under the age of 50 it’s likely you’re still working, raising a family, dealing with or planning for college, and in debt. I don’t know anyone in my age bracket (late stage boomers) who isn’t incredibly busy.  We’re more likely to be spending our precious “vacation” time visiting family spread across the country; escaping on a quick girl-friends get-away with our friends, mother or sister; splurging on a pampered spa weekend alone or with a partner; or, rarely, taking an all inclusive no-brainer Caribbean or Mexico vacation. It isn’t that we don’t love or dream of travel but our time and finances is extremely limited.

Looking at the other end of the market, around the age of 70 (sometimes sooner) our health starts to deteriorate and we often become more fearful of what might happen in an unfamiliar environment.  Cruises and resorts still fit the bill, however, in general this population likely is vacationing closer to home and spending more time with family.

Why the explosion?
Time to Start Living: Kids are out of the house, early retirement, part-time work options, second careers, are being considered.  Life is their oyster and Prime Timers are ready to start living for themselves and enjoying the fruits of their labor. There is a sense of urgency to live and travel NOW as they see friends and parents dealing with chronic illness.

Two years ago I worked  with Eons.com to develop a travel area of this destination site the 50+.   Assessing Eons members “LifeDreams” it’s clear that Travel occupied the top place and the 50+ are ready to start living their dreams.  Experiential Travel offers the opportunity to combine Travel with other LifeDreams (volunteer, spend time with friends and family, learn to cook etc). Creating a site that allows users to easily search by desired experiences, rather than just destination, was a natural implementation to fit this need.

Investing in Experiences: this age bracket is in the simplifying stage. They generally have enough or too much “stuff” (although investing in a 2nd or 3rd property is still enticing).  Today they’re taking regional cooking classes at the culinary institute and learning Italian.  They enjoy visiting the farmers markets as much to meet the farmers and small producers as to purchase fresh vegetables.  Rather than just writing a check, they are volunteering in their local community both for non-profits and offering their time and skills to entrepreneurs. They are taking control of their heath by learning about and purchasing natural and organic foods and have developed an increased interest in the culture of food worldwide.  They are more active; joining walking groups & targeted health clubs, training for fundraising rides and walks. Along the way they’re meeting new, like minded, friends, reconnecting with themselves and their partner.  Prime Timer’s are optimistic, interested, intersting and engaged.

Trips of a lifetime: Traveling to China, Africa, Argentina or even Italy takes on new meaning as we mature. We may return again, but it is more likely this will be our only or last visit. Prime Time Travelers are willing to invest time and money in seeing and experiencing as much as they can while they are there and they crave the best and most authentic experiences. They are likely to sign up for additional extensions or excursions, upgrade to rooms with views and fly business or first class and spend extra nights before or after the tour enjoying the departure city.  Time is short.  The “Cheapest” package is of no more interest than finding the cheapest cardiac surgeon to most and frankly a discount is of less interest than a value add (axe the fruit basket and add a guided city tour or locally made souvenir).  You can also bet that a “Trip-of-a-lifetime” might be researched online, but will be booked over the phone after speaking with a knowledgeable staff member or, better yet, a past guest.

Treading Softly: Global Connection & Concern:
Geotourism is a term recently defined by National Geographic as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well being of its residents”. You might remember Eco Tourism was a buzz in the 90’s. The new term aligns EcoTourism, Green Tourism, Travelers Philanthropy, and Sustainable Travel. Basically,  how we go, where we go, why we go, what we do while we are there, and what we do when we return, all matter.  From offsetting a trips carbon footprint to choosing tour operators who stay at local lodges, hire local guides, recycle and purchase local foods to creating or investing in non-profits in the areas they travel these features all are becoming a priority for well traveled PrimeTimers who were alive and active in the 60’s. They are also willing to pay a bit more to companies who have made these commitments.

What’s Experiences are Hot and Why

Volunteer Vacations are no longer made up of teenagers sleeping on the floor of a local school at night and working during the day. Today 50+ year olds swarm to projects around the world including teaching English in Xian China, conserving frescos in Italy, counting sea turtle eggs in the Great Barrier Reef.   What is different? Prime Time Travelers require a higher level of comfort (simple hotels or homestays are often appropriate) & consideration for health and medical needs.  They also often want a shorter program (1-2 weeks) and frequently add language immersion program prior to the volunteer project and cultural/natural tour the area after the project.

Intergenerational Travel
As they clean out the homes of their elderly parents they swear not to put their own children through this.  They tire of buying presents for kids and grandkids who have everything or don’t hesitate to buy it for themselves. With busy lives the solution to get together has now become the family reunions…it just looks quite a bit different than it did 40 years ago.  Today family vacations are intergenerational and often take place not at Grandma’s house but at a Dude Ranch in Colorado, a villa in Tuscany, a ship in Alaska, or under the Serengeti Stars on Safari.

Prime Timer’s are interested in taking their passions on the road.  Why not learn to cook IN Italy, Photograph Polar Bears IN the Artic, Speak Spanish IN Guatemala, or Paint IN Santa Fe.

Active & Adventure: walking, cycling, golfing, yoga vacations are filled with active 50+ folks. Daily options addressing a variety of fitness levels,  guiltless enjoyment of local food and wine, bragging rights of completing the Inca trail or cycling through Ireland still top cocktail stories.

Culture & Nature:
connecting with traditional cultures and the natural environment, especially those most vulnerable to extinction, continue to drive unheard of travel to destinations like Bhutan, Myanmar, Antarctica & Kilimanjaro. Vietnam, Japan and Germany are attractive to this age group for historical reasons.”

Within the travel industry the importance of “Women’s Travel” is often confused.  Women hold a, agruably THE,  leading position in the viability of travel and tourism products.

Slovenia Women's Adventure

Slovenia Women's Adventure

Women as Decision Makers

Depending on whose research you review, women influence between 88 and 92% of all travel decisions.  period (should I write that again?)

She is behind the final decision for all family vacations, romantic get-aways, adventure weeks.  She controls the purse-string though she might not be making the final booking.  She makes decisions based on different variables that men.  She wants to know about the experience; how it will make her feel, how it will make her life easier (you’ve done all the planning and picked the perfect hotels, there are options for her kids, you can accommodate her husbands food allergies etc), who she will meet along the trail…she wants the picture rather than the minute by minute details.

She has a high bullshit meter and purchases from companies she has established trust with.  She wants to be asked questions about her needs and she likes to work with people who listen.  She researches travel online but then looks to her friends to tell her who they have traveled with and where they have been.  She’s looking for the perfect solution…and they want to be surprised and delighted that you have thought of something they haven’t.

To providers this may seem like a fairly straightforward introduction…but it is amazing how many brochures, websites,  tour itineraries, confirmation packets, photos, trade-show booths etc are NOT targeting women.  Having been in the industry for over 20 years I would bet that most companies in-house staff is made up predominately of women.   Has every piece you send out to potential clients been honestly reviewed by them?  Who is training your ground staff beyond “guiding” to address how to integrate these needs and desires into the itinerary.

Last but certainly not least, we should address Word Of Mouth Marketing.  In general, women are part of a much larger social community than men are.  We surround ourselves with diverse groups…other couples, women’s book groups, moms play groups, walking/running friends, professional networks. We are part of a huge web are always sharing tidbits of insider knowledge to help others.  Yes, if we like (or don’t like) the trip or company we have just traveled with we will tell EVERYONE.

Women as “Travelers”:
In the late 80’s and early 90’s women’s tours were put in a corner which most adventure travel companies as well as guests were uncomfortable with.  Were “Women Only”  really just another word for Lesbian Trips?  If we had group of women traveling together on our trips, what was their relationship? If two women booked a trip together, were they a couple?

The fact was that during this time, a fair portion of companies targeting “women only” were targeting the lesbian community, while an emerging group of entrepreneurs were simply realizing the growing market of women interested in traveling with other women.

As the industry came of age in the late 90’s and had “softened” a bit (offering more options to suite a wider range of physical abilities, staying at properties with private baths, focusing on local culture interaction and environmental education…renaming trips from “Hiking” to “walking”, focusing on food) we saw astounding growth in the industry.  The demographics had changed from trips being made up predominately of men in their 30’s to couples in their 40’s and 50’s and singles, mostly women, of all ages, eager to take part in an adventure without the concern of security or the need for a traveling companion.

In the beginning of the century “women’s only” tour companies were popping up in every niche (yoga, culinary, skiing, Sailing etc) and major tour operators began testing out “women’s only” departures.  Similar to the “family tour” bandwagon, there was little thought of why, where and when women choose women-only departures.

What we have found through the fallout of canceled departures is what we, as adventure seeking women, have always known, we are constantly changing.  We  gravitate towards “women’s only” trips to learn a new skill, especially one which involves a new sport or physical challenge, as we enjoying being in a supportive women’s only learning environment.  We are likely to take Goal Trips, like trekking the inca trail or climbing Kilimanjaro with other women.  We LOVE to get away with our girlfriends and this section of the market is only beginning to tap into this annual event.  We are also wives, mothers, girlfriends,  individuals who enjoy the company of the other sex.  We like traveling with our husband or partner, with couples, and, if we are single, in groups that have other solo travelers as well as couples.  Most of us are not “women-only” travelers, we are “sometimes women-only travelers”…it is or prerogative🙂

Peru Slide Show!

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