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Travel marketers may really be off base if they overplay their hand toward Millennials. Two studies found that although Millennials as a group have huge buying power when it comes to travel, other groups' travel aspirations aren't all that different.

Forget what you think you know about traditional travel marketing principles and crafting effective loyalty programs. There aren’t many differences among Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, Gen Zers, road warriors, or vacationers — at least not when it comes to how they travel.

If you want to engage consumers of all ages and types, and build brand loyalty with them, you’ve got to look beyond those definitions to get at the heart of their shared travel wants and needs.

That’s what two new studies, one from Price Waterhouse Coopers’ (PwC) Consumer Intelligence Series, and another from Upshot, a Chicago-based marketing agency, seem to be hinting at.

The PwC study, “What’s Driving Customer Loyalty for Today’s Hotel Brands?” interviewed 1,026 business and leisure travelers (59 percent business; 41 percent leisure) ranging in age from 21 to 69 to understand loyalty behaviors across a spectrum of guests.

What the PwC researchers found, in some ways, was surprising: “Millennials are not unique in their attitudes and behaviors toward loyalty programs. In fact, they are quite similar to travelers aged 30+,” the researchers note. On average, travelers ages 30 and up have 3.6 hotel loyalty memberships while Millennials (ages 21 to 29) have three.

“There are some differences between Millennials and other travelers [when it comes to loyalty programs] but they’re not as significant as we thought,” says Adam Kennedy, PwC hospitality and leisure advisory leader. “They’re just not as varied.”

The Upshot study, “Travel Quest: Building a Travel Superbrand,” takes that assessment further. “Demographics, or even business versus leisure designations, have ceased to offer predictive value for understanding individual travelers’ preferences,” the study’s authors write. “Instead, these distinctions have blurred as today’s travelers fluidly shift between mindsets depending on their immediate circumstances.”

For its report, Upshot conducted an online survey of 500 frequent travelers (having taken three or more trips a year) with equal representation of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers, as well as an equal number of business and leisure travelers.

Brian Asner, Upshot planning director, says that when the agency initially embarked on this study, it was focused on examining traditional travel categories like business and leisure, Boomer and Millennial, but what he and the other researchers found was that it was more important to realize that “breaking down travelers that way doesn’t answer the questions that the modern traveler has today,” he tells Skift.

What they found, instead, was that frequent travelers of all types share similar patterns in “mindsets” or travel values. “Brands need to appeal to a diverse range of mindsets,” Asner says. “To try to speak to a more static type of traveler was the old way of looking at things. Brands need to have multiple facets of their personality to address all of these mindsets that take place in a single day.”

What are those travel mindsets? They’re about finding opportunities for cultural immersion, escaping the everyday, enabling spontaneity, and having a stress-free, hassle-free experience. Sound familiar to you? If they do, that’s not surprising. In fact, those mindsets have been used to describe Millennials’ traveler preferences and desires in countless studies and reports.

“Some of the changes in broader priorities are being attributed to the younger generations,” explains Asner, “but those crucial traits for Millennials have trickled out to every other generation, too. The demand for authenticity and experiences has become really universal now, and that’s where the bar is set.”

Those mindsets identified by Upshot, in addition to a desire for authentic experiences, and travelers’ perceptions of accommodations like those Airbnb offers, align with some of the findings in the PwC report. Here are some key takeaways from both studies for marketers in the travel and hospitality spaces:

Experiences Matter

For hotels and travel brands, it pays to create unique, memorable, and innovative travel experiences.

In PwC’s study, both Millennials and business travelers placed a higher premium on softer loyalty program benefits like upgrades than other traveler types, suggesting the importance of the overall hotel experience. While all travelers, regardless of age and traveler type, redeemed points for room nights, the second-most-redeemed category was for upgrades, which was chosen by 21 percent of business travelers compared to 12 percent of leisure travelers, and 36 percent of Millennials compared with 16 percent of non-Millennials. By focusing on offering better, more unique hotel experiences, hotels can drive more guest loyalty and brand commitment going forward.

“There’s this general notion of people valuing experiences over things, and I think that is often misconstrued as a Millennial mindset,” says Asner. “I can say from both personal experience with researching travel brands and with this survey that the desire for deeper and more authentic experiences is a very universal thing among Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, and business and leisure travelers.”

Define Authenticity

All travelers, in their own way, are seeking some sort of an “authentic” experience but it’s very difficult to define exactly what that is for different people. “When we spoke with travelers in our survey, the definition for ‘authenticity’ was really broad,” says Asner. “I can’t say all travelers share the same definition, but they all feel like it’s really important.”

Asner and his researchers ultimately concluded that “authenticity” is a “hybrid of cultural experiences and an escape from the everyday life you have at home,” he adds. “The majority of people like this balance of new and different places and experiences with something that feels comfortable.”

Know How and When to Surprise and Delight

Building on that mix of offering both comforting elements and new and different experiences is knowing how to best surprise and delight your guests. Asner says that hotel brands that want to build loyalty with their guests need to know the difference between what’s expected, and what has the power to make a guest remember his or her stay.

Today’s guests, he says, expect certain things from their hotel experiences but they also want to be surprised and delighted by the unexpected. “Consumers have extremely high expectations about what brands should be providing them,” Asner says. “Just satisfying those needs doesn’t wow them enough.”

The research from PwC supports that assessment, too, finding that for all travelers, loyalty is about receiving benefits they don’t actually request. What makes any traveler loyal to a particular hotel brand or program, beyond room quality, is accessibility, promotions, and personalized service.

“At the base level,” says Asner, “your hotel loyalty program has to make sure the functional rewards of the program are compelling, but that’s table stakes. For long-term loyalty, it’s the surprise-and-delight side of the equation, the benefits that are really unexpected and get people’s attention.”

Use Technology Wisely

Technology can be vital for providing a seamless, hassle-free traveler experience and it also has the potential to surprise and delight in direct engagement with consumers.

“When you think about all the options there are out there to engage with customers, hotels can do that much more directly now, as with an app or a website,” says Kennedy. “They need to think about how the user is consuming services from them, and how to continue driving engagement, that next stay, or that next opportunity.”

Brands that use technology and social media to really connect a guest to the hotel and to craft a memorable experience will also resonate more deeply with their consumers, says Asner. “Mobile check-in and stuff like that — it’s sort of expected. That doesn’t delight them.”

One example of a hotel brand that harnessed the power of social media to personalize the guest experience is Four Seasons, says Asner. “If people were going to stay at their properties, the Four Seasons asked those guests to create a Pinterest board that was aspirational, and illustrated what they wanted to have in their travel experience. The concierge would look at it, and put together a customized itinerary for that person and send it back to them,” he says.

Loyalty Can’t Be All Business

Many loyalty programs cater to business travelers primarily, says the PwC report, and hotel companies need to decide which they prioritize more: business travelers or everyone else? “More hotels are focused on extending loyalty programs beyond just the high-value customer,” says Kennedy. “Historically, the high-value traveler was the business traveler with high travel frequency, but they’re also looking to engage with customers who may not travel as much, or the leisure traveler who doesn’t have the same level of travel frequency. They’re looking for more ways to drive engagement for them.”

Driving engagement by offering those one-of-a-kind, authentic experiences spans all traveler types. “Stress relief and spontaneity were most appealing among all the traveler archetypes we examined,” says Asner. “You still saw the same leisure-like priorities for business travelers; their demands on the road are very much leisure-like. As any traveler goes about his or her day, they’re responding to different circumstances. They want a taste of the local culture, too.”

Asner points out Courtyard by Marriott’s “make room for a little fun” advertising campaign is an example of a hotel brand that understands how today’s business traveler wants his or her hotel experience to be. “Some people get to travel for work, as opposed to some people who have to travel for work,” he says. “Being able to explore more places as part of your work travel is a way of really understanding modern business travelers.”

If your brand can drive engagement successfully, that will likely translate to higher revenue gains, suggests the PwC study. The majority of both business (69 percent) and leisure (59 percent) travelers in the PwC survey were willing to pay between $10 to $50 more to stay at their preferred hotel brand.

Value Your Human Capital

For those hotel brands that are concerned about the impact of disruptors like Airbnb or HomeAway, they may not need to worry too much for now. Even though the sharing economy has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a potential disruptor to the hospitality industry, it’s not as well known or trusted among the majority of travelers, says the PwC report.

While 80 percent of leisure travelers and 90 percent of business travelers surveyed by PwC said they were aware of non-traditional accommodations, only 16 percent of business and 24 percent of leisure travelers have used them. Of those surveyed, with the exception of adventure-seeking Millennials, most were concerned about the variances in quality, safety, and security at these types of properties.

The Upshot study shows that among its frequent traveler respondents, 49.2 percent have used a peer-to-peer travel service like Airbnb, and 65.9 percent prefer them to traditional travel brands. Even though the research suggests traditional travel brands should be concerned about these disruptors, utilizing human capital is one way to keep hotels top of mind with consumers.

“Big hotel brands, for a long time, were selling standard, predictable experiences as an asset,” Asner says. “What Airbnb offers is that they take this natural variety you get from going to different homes and neighborhoods and builds this into a never-ending experience. No matter how many Airbnbs you stay at, it’s always slightly different, there’s always this sense of discovery.”

What can traditional hotel brands do? “Traditional brands can harness their people and make their consumers become brand advocates,” he says. “Not standardizing the concierge experience is very important.”

For example, at Kimpton properties, Asner says, there are different staff members with specific specialties and interests like sports, nightlife, dining, etc. who can assist guests. “Really offering that variety, and leveraging the people who work for that organization brings in that natural variety.”

Don’t Have Millennial Tunnel Vision

Even if it seems like typical Millennial characteristics are seeping into all different traveler archetypes, it’s important for travel and hospitality brands to know there’s much more than just Millennials, or Millennial mindsets, out there.

So, instead of trying to cater specifically to Millennials, PwC’s report suggests you’re better off crafting a hotel loyalty program that appeals to all age groups. Yes, that’s even if Millennials are the biggest group right now in terms of numbers (75.3 million in the U.S. in 2015 according to Pew Research Center) and they have the most annual spending power ($2.45 trillion globally in 2015 according to Youbrand).

Likewise, the Upshot report emphasizes that brands shouldn’t be overly focused on courting Millennials. In fact, in looking at data from Experian Simmons Spring 2015 Connect and 2-Year National Consumer surveys, Upshot found that even though more Millennials (69.8 percent) desire to travel abroad than Gen X (60.7 percent) and the Boomers (51 percent), the percentages of those travelers who have traveled abroad four or more times in the past three years painted a very different picture. Only 16.5 percent of Millennials had traveled abroad that many times, compared to 17.8 percent of Gen Xers and 20.7 percent of Boomers.

The highest-spending group for both domestic and international travel among Upshot’s respondents was the Boomers: 28.5 percent spent more than $1,000 on their last domestic trips, and 11.7 percent spent more than $5,000 on their last international trips.

“While it is certainly important for travel brands to position themselves as relevant for the future,” the study states, “brands that are overly focused on wooing Millennials may be missing out on those who are actually doing the most traveling and spending the most on these travels in the present.”

Bottom line: Don’t get caught up in definitions or categories, or what you thought you knew about certain traveler types. All travelers as a whole, regardless of age and type (business or leisure) are looking for a unique, authentic, personalized, seamless travel experience that is culturally immersive and offers local, human connections. The best hotel loyalty programs, and the best-in-class travel brands will know how to deliver that to them.

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Tags: hotels, loyalty, marketing

Photo credit: The differences between Millennial travelers and non-Millennial travelers aren't as big as you might think. JFXie / Flickr

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