This Holiday Season, 64% of Americans Plan to Spend on Travel Over Gifts

Traveler demands are evolving. Instead of spending a week lounging by the pool at a generic hotel, travelers increasingly want to experience their destination and the unique activities, food, people, and culture it has to offer.

As the holidays are quickly approaching, there is no better time to discuss this trend, and how tour and activity operators can capitalize on it leading up to the season of gift giving.

The desire for experiential purchases is growing. More and more, consumers prefer these over material purchases. In fact, 145 million Americans, or 62% of the U.S. adult population, would forgo physical presents for the gift of a trip, according to a spending and saving study from American Express. And on the flip side, another recent American Express survey found that 72 percent of adults would rather spend money on experiences than things.

The demand for experiential travel rages on

It’s all connected—the evolution of consumer preferences and the desire for deeper connections and experiences when they travel.

The travel industry is seeing the trend develop. In a recent report from Skift on the growth of experiential travel, it’s noted that the United States Tour Operator Association (USTOA) is seeing proof that today’s travelers want more immersive experiences. In that same Skift report, it’s also noted that a recent poll of American Express travel counselors showed that 34% said their clients are now “specifically looking to immerse themselves in the destinations they visit and to travel like a local.”

Travelers are looking for authenticity, and something more meaningful. They want cooking classes inside a local family’s kitchen, private surf lessons on a secluded beach with an instructor who has spent their life riding those waves, an off-the-beaten-path tour of a unique neighborhood not found in their guidebooks. Through travel, they are seeking emotional connections with destinations and the people and cultures that inhabit them.

Through travel, they are seeking emotional connections with destinations and the people and cultures that inhabit them.

Travelers want these immersive experiences because making connections is increasingly what leads to a happier travel experience overall. According to a recent “Road to Happiness Study” looking at the connection between travel and happiness, one of the four key ingredients in having a happy travel experience is making a local connection. Another 78% of travelers said that on their best trips, they had either had a knowledgeable friend in the destination or a local guide.

As it becomes more apparent through research and statistics that experiences like this result in a more enduring happiness, the demand for achieving this through travel grows. As the season of giving draws near, now is the time for tour and activity operators to make sure they’re positioning themselves to capitalize on these trends and attract experience-seekers.

Here are some tips to consider.

Evaluate your experiential offerings

Take a look at what you currently offer, and consider what may appeal to today’s consumers who want more immersive experiences. Do you offer homestays, access to less-frequented locales, experiences in local villages, or behind-the-scenes jaunts to neighborhood shops or attractions? Do you employ local guides who are fiercely passionate about your niche? What sorts of truly unique opportunities do you provide for your customers?

Experiential offerings should include opportunities for personalization and immersion. Instead of just sitting on the sidelines, travelers want the chance to jump in there and participate. Instead of just taking a ride in a gondola in Venice, they may rather take a lesson and learn how to operate one themselves.

Think about how you can incorporate more localized, authentic, and unexpected elements into whatever it is you offer, providing opportunities for learning, growth, and stepping outside of comfort zones.

Market effectively to experience-seeking travelers

When you know what you offer that will speak to these travelers, you then need to promote those things in the places and ways that best speak to them.

As the Millennial generation grows up, they will be leading the charge for experiential travel, and they engage in new and diverse ways. They are technologically savvy, and they want content, inspiration, and recommendations.

A recent travel trends report from American Express notes that interest in authentic cultural experiences is at least in part being driven by social media in particular. The vast availability of images and content throughout social media showing other travelers experiencing desirable destinations and taking part in activities inspires people to get out there and plan their own travel experiences. And in general, increasing numbers of travelers are relying more than ever on digital inputs to make all sorts of travel decisions, according to a Google travel study.

Tour and activity operators need to use digital channels like social media, blogs, email, and beyond to share information and inspire. Think about creating content that is compelling, readily available, and actionable, as well as emphasizing what you know is important to experience-seeking travelers – exploration, discovery, and authenticity.

It’s extremely important to make investments in digital promotion, technology, and tools that will help you draw these customers in and give them the experience they’re looking for to convert.

Strive to create a connection with consumers by building their anticipation before their experience, and then cultivating their fond memories afterwards. These feelings are often what make an experience more enjoyable and help to leave a more lasting impression—all extremely valuable for travel businesses.

Get creative with social media

Social media envy is real, and it’s driving consumerism in new ways. But it’s not enough to just be on social media and share some pretty photos every now and then. For the experience-seeking traveler, you need to get creative.

Experiment with different types of posts and content and see what best results in your audience growing, and getting them to engage. As Expedia looked into travel advertising tends for 2015, they found that social and video would see the largest growth. Play around with video as a form of content to share throughout your social media channels in different ways.

On top of that, you could experiment with content ranging from promotions, exclusive deals, or contests that promote your business and get people talking about it, content centered on light-hearted stories, travel tips, powerful and inspirational images, storytelling, and even showcasing and re-purposing user-generated content. Firsthand recommendations and influencer marketing via social media can have a huge impact, showing what you offer through the eyes of someone was has experienced it for themselves.

But the most important thing to remember about social media is that it’s all about engagement and cultivating a conversation. A recent survey of Twitter users found that 40% have engaged with a travel brand on Twitter, 28% of those users received a response, and of those, 73% felt more positively about the brand afterward. This is a huge opportunity for tour and activity operators to make sure you’re encouraging engagement, responding authentically and constructively to interaction, and developing a positive relationship with this demographic.

Remind your audience that travel experiences make the perfect gifts

Put two and two together for consumers, and lead them to do what you already know many of them want to do.

Get creative here and use content, email marketing, social media campaigns, promotions, and contests to prod them in the direction of purchasing experiences as gifts for the holidays this year. You can even use some of the statistics from this post as proof. They may know what they like and want to buy, but show them why their loved ones will love receiving experiential gifts as well.

Don’t expect them to think of it on their own. Give them a little nudge, and keep reminding them.

The demand is there. People crave experiences, and the experiential travel market is hot. Evaluate and tweak your offerings if necessary, and then get creative in promoting them effectively this holiday season and beyond.