Peter Yesawich of MMGY Global shared key insights about the American traveler during the ISHC's 2012 Annual Conference.
ATLANTA—The American traveling public is a fickle bunch, prone to shifts in sentiment and selling habits. But in those adjustments and adaptations comes opportunities for the savvy hotel marketer.
The key, said Peter Yesawich, vice chairman of MMGY Global, is keeping one’s finger on the pulse of those changes to best take advantage.
Doing so is no easy feat, he admitted. Fortunately, MMGY Global has a team specifically dedicated to the task. And during a panel titled “Spectator trends: Challenges and opportunities” during the International Society of Hospitality Consultants’ 2012 Annual Conference, he shared 16 of their most compelling findings.
(Note: MMGY’s findings are limited to the approximately 50% of American households that travel. Of those 50%, the group only examines households with an annual income of more than $50,000, which Yesawich said drive the majority of shifts in travel.)
1. Incidence of travel largely unchanged
The rate at which Americans took an overnight trip during the past 12 months held largely consistent with the previous two years, Yesawich said. During 2010 and 2011, 91% of Americans said they went on a trip; this year that number was 90%.
2. Leisure demand is dominating
Approximately four out of 10 Americans took at least one business trip during the past year. Roughly eight of 10, however, took at least one leisure trip during the year.
“The locus of demand in the travel business began to shift to leisure four years ago, and that spread has widened,” Yesawich said.
The average American took 3.8 leisure trips during the past 12 months, he added.
3. Affluent driving demand
“The affluent traveler is driving much of the demand,” Yesawich said.
Thirty-two percent of households with more than $250,000 annual income plan to take more leisure trips this year than last, while only 5% said they plan to take less. This compares to the national average of 19% and 13%, respectively.
4. Aging demographics brings new opportunities
“This is a wonderful opportunity for any hotel operator that caters to leisure travelers,” Yesawich said of this next insight.
More than 20% of active travelers are grandparents. Of those, 40% have taken a trip with a grandchild during the past year. And eight out of 10 times that a grandchild comes along, so does a parent.
The cruise industry has been taking advantage of this multigenerational travel trend for the past decade by offering second, third and fourth cabin rates, Yesawich said. The hotel industry would be wise to do the same.
5. Traveler sentiment is strong—and looks to stay that way
MMGY Global polls 2,300 households across the country every six months to ask about travel intentions. The resulting Traveler Sentiment Index, which was set at 100 during 2007, measures six factors, such as availability of money to travel and the perceived affordability of travel.
During February 2012, the index was at 93.6, Yesawich said. By way of comparison, the index’s lowest reading of 78.2 came during October 2008.
“The TSI seems to have stabilized,” he said. “We don’t see any potholes potentially on the horizon for 2013 from the consumer’s point of view.”
The lone exception, he added, were the suspension of the Bush-era tax cuts, which a portion of the respondents said would impede their ability to afford travel.
6. Vacation is stilled viewed as a birthright
Three-fourths of Americans agree that taking a vacation is one event they look forward to most each year. In other words, it’s a birthright, Yesawich said.
The most important thing on Americans’ “to do” list for 2012 was to get healthier, which was cited by 58% of respondents. Next on the list was to become more financially stable (45%), followed by seeing more of the world (37%).
“This perception has eclipsed a perception that consumers have embraced for many years … which is to spend more time with friends and family (29%),” Yesawich said.
7. Millennials: A whole new breed
Millennials are proving a fickle group, Yesawich said. They show up to a hotel, give solid ratings in all aspects when such feedback is deserved, “and in the next breath say, ‘We’re not coming back,’” he said.
That’s not to diminish the role of service but rather to introduce the idea that this next generation of travelers want to try and experience new things, he said.
Indeed, 93% of millennials said they are more likely to try new things while on vacation, while an additional 89% said they prefer to go to new destinations for vacation.
“Smart money in marketing today is no longer in trying to repatriate the existing guest,” Yesawich said; it’s to cultivate the sense of “wanderlust” that’s percolating in the next generation.
8. Frugality conveys status
While status often is conveyed by one’s material possessions, Yesawich said his firm’s research revealed a slightly incongruous finding: It’s not the possession so much as the price to obtain that possession.
In other words, “Status was conferred on the people who got the best deal,” he said.
The emergence of so many new “toys” or tools to shop rates and bargains is evidence of the trend, he said.
9. Value is still king
Despite the prevailing emphasis on frugality, value is still king, Yesawich said.
Not only did travelers say that “value for price” was the most important criteria in choosing a hotel, but they are willing to pay full price if they’re assured of the value inherent in that price.
For households with an annual income of more than $250,000, 81% agreed they are willing to pay full price on items they purchase as long as they’re guaranteed the quality and service they deserve, he said. That number was 79% last year.
10. Not all vacations are created equal
Seven out of 10 Americans have gone on a “celebration vacation,” or those that are tied to specific life events, during the past year, Yesawich said. The two most popular events are milestone birthdays and anniversaries.
These trips are typically longer and generate higher spend than an average trip, he added.
11. More people are taking last-minute trips
“More and more people are taking these last-minute trips,” Yesawich said.
Approximately 30% of Americans have taken one during the past 12 months. That number is up from the “teens” a few years ago, he said.
The average advance booking period for last-minute trips was 6.2 days.
The incidence of those taking advantage of flash sales, however, was down from 20% during 2011 to 14% this year. MMGY defines a “flash sale” as “the basting of time-sensitive offers or discounts to targeted prospects via email.”
12. Print is losing its impact
During 2011, 40% of travelers said they look for travel deals in the newspaper.
Today that number has fallen to 29%, Yesawich said.
13. Mobile usage going up … and up … and up!
During 2010 and 2011, 23% of Americans had a smartphone; today more than half do.
Tablet usage is picking up as well. Whereas 7% owned a tablet device during 2011, this year more than 27% do.
The adoption rate has been nothing short of extraordinary, Yesawich said.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “Explosive growth of tablet devices, but we’re also discovering that people use tablets and smartphones fundamentally differently in terms of how they use them when they plan and purchase travel services.”
Whereas smartphones are used more for on-the-go search, tablets are couch-potato companions used to research travel and shop online, he said.
One out of five Americans own both devices, Yesawich added.
14. OTAs still top dogs, but meta-search engines are joining the pack
Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz are the “big dogs” in the world of online travel search, Yesawich said. The incidence of travel to Expedia—that is, the percentage of respondents who search the site at least once—was 56% during 2010 and 52% this year and last.
Brand.com, by comparison, drew 15% of respondents during 2010, 29% in 2011 and 31% this year.
“The ones that you want to watch are the ones called the meta-search sites,” he said, highlighting Kayak in particular.
The site tabled its planned IPO after Facebook’s landed with such a thud. However, once the dust settles, Kayak will move forward, Yesawich said.
“When they get that bucket of cash, they’re going to do one thing: They’re going to bang away at advertising to tell consumers that they can go online and find all the prices they want with a couple of clicks,” he said.
15. Brands are losing their power
Thanks in part to the efforts of sites such as Kayak, brands are losing their luster, Yesawich said.
“From a consumer perspective, the importance of the brand in transactions for the past five years continues to decline,” he said. While value for price was cited by American as the most important factor when choosing a hotel, room rate came in a close second.
To make matters worse for brands, the majority of consumers are still left with the impression OTAs and meta-search engines continue to house the best prices, Yesawich said.
16. Social media still a hard sell
“The adoption rate of social sites by active travelers in terms of where they claim to be posted is nothing short of phenomenal,” Yesawich said. Seventy-three percent of travelers surveyed said they had a Facebook page, up from 67% last year.
Furthermore, 61% of travelers routinely check ratings on TripAdvisor before they conduct a transaction, he said. “That’s an amazing number.”
Increasingly more important is YouTube, Yesawich added. Today 32% of all travelers visit the video platform looking for customer reviews. That incidence number has doubled in 24 months, he added.
But despite such usage, 7% of Americans said their travel decision was based primarily on research or feedback from social networking sites, down from 9% during 2011.