A few weeks ago, travel designer Elisabeth Nelson got a curious phone call from a prospective client who wanted to book a trip with TCS World Travel, a Seattle-based outfit famed for extravagant private jet journeys that cost upward of $86,000 per person. But this traveler wanted something else: Credit card in hand, she asked Nelson about planning a bespoke trip to Cambodia and Vietnam.
The curious part is that she was 17 years old. “Given our price point, 17-year-olds aren’t usually the ones initiating a call with us,” says Nelson, managing director of TCS’s Luxury Custom Travel division. “Her mom eventually stepped in, but the daughter initiated all the research. She was the one that found us.”
In the past five years, multi-generational travel has risen to account for 50 percent of TCS’s custom travel revenues—and the sector continues to grow. While teenagers may not be the ones who are paying for these trips, they’re among the company’s most important demographics. To understand their preferences is a perpetually shifting target. Teen moods can make or break a family vacation, and currying favor early can translate into a lifetime of loyalty.
That’s why the company launched an industry-first Teen Advisory Panel on Friday. It consists of eight precocious kids aged 14 to 17, all of whom have visited a minimum of 15 countries and four continents (including North America, where most of them are based). Together, they’re serving as on-call consultants for TCS and creating guidelines for traveling with teens in an effort to debunk commonly held myths and foster better family vacations.
“Most people assume that all teenagers want is Wi-Fi, parties, and a good Instagram photo,” says TCS advisory panel member Anna. (The teens’ last names are being withheld by TCS to preserve their privacy.) But that’s a big mistake, says the 14-year-old from Texas, who’s spent time living in Peru, Indonesia, Chile, and Mexico. “The majority of us simply want to learn about the countries’ cultures and traditions,” she says.
After talking to several of those chosen for the panel, here are a few ways to help nix the drama from your next family trip.
Let Them Take Charge For Awhile
Teens’ social media savvy gives them a natural edge at travel planning, according to TCS World Travel president Shelley Cline. “The more you get teenagers involved, the better things tend to turn out,” says Cline, who credits her 17-year-old daughter with discovering all the best restaurants on their recent trip to Portugal. “They are good at finding what’s new or the next big thing.”
Not only will they find places that they are interested in—rather than scoffing at your out-of-touch choices—they’ll also feel their voices are being heard and that they’re being taken seriously, like adults. “I love researching and finding things to do in new places,” says Trent, 16, who has hiked his way through New Zealand and Switzerland.
Cline is encouraging her staff to take a page out of the young adult books when it comes to uncovering local gems. “The way they’re researching is changing travel—we want to tap into that,” she explains.
Give Them Some Space
Instead of overprotecting them, letting teens loose can unlock powerful experiences that money can’t buy. Says Josie, 17: “If a teen is organized and determined enough to research a spot or plan an outing, then I think they can be trusted to pull it off safely as well.”
Travel specialist Nelson says one of her most formative experiences was going to a nightclub in Mombasa, Kenya, at the age of 18, accompanied only by a twentysomething colleague of her mother’s. Devan, 14, says that comparing notes with locals is his favorite part of traveling—and “of life, in general.”
“In Egypt, I met lots of people who live all over the Middle East and tell a different story than that told by the news—about traditions and values. I’ve also met teenagers from Afghanistan who managed to succeed academically in a war-torn environment,” he says.
Multi-generational travel expert Kathy Sudeikis, of Acendas Travel, agrees: “Expect that kids will separate.” She suggests giving an itinerant teen a hotel business card that they can use to get back home if the phone dies. “What they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives is getting loose for long enough to make friends at a local festival,” she adds.
Don’t Underestimate. Or Over-Schedule
Good news for adults: Kids don’t consider traditional sightseeing as boring as you might expect. “People sometimes forget that teenagers enjoy a lot of the same things as adults,” Trent says. Museums work especially well when they have docents who specialize in teen tours or offer interactive twists such as scavenger hunts—amenities that are becoming increasingly common.
Even better are active experiences, such as learning to surf. Among the most memorable activities for teen adviser Josie were an overnight on an iceberg in Antarctica and swimming with sharks in Bora Bora, in French Polynesia. Others recollected catamaran rides in Thailand and seeing orangutans in Borneo.
But scheduling can be a fine art, as teens value flexibility and spontaneity. “They want to move fast and squeeze a lot into every day,” says Sudeikis. “Misunderstanding their pace is a very common pitfall.”
More specifically, don’t assume that the day is done after dinner. “We don’t want to sit in a room with our phones, we want to explore the area,” says Sierra, a 15-year-old from Washington whose passport includes stamps from 42 countries. Turn to guided night hikes, ice cream shops, or local music venues to keep young adults entertained after dark.
Teens Really Are the Future
TCS isn’t the only company that’s thinking more about teens than millennials. Sudeikis applauded cruise line Holland America for catering to its core demographic—grandparents—by offering teen-oriented programming and shore excursions. “Grandparents are paying now, which means they have to aim at kids,” she explains.
Thompson Family Adventures, a Watertown, Mass.-based travel outfit, is also catering to young globetrotters with itineraries that are specifically designed to let “teens play hard and share an adventure with their parents.” In Costa Rica, for instance, guides tap into sustainability and environmental issues while bouncing between such high-adrenaline activities as whitewater rafting and canyoning.
The TCS advisory panel won’t be working full-time. Cline, Nelson, and the team will refer to the panel’s guidelines when planning family trips, keeping members on call for specific inquiries throughout the year. Ultimately, Cline says her mission for family travelers is simple: “If the teenagers are happy, everyone’s happy.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.