Taking center stage at The New York Times Travel Show, Chris Davidson, MMGY Global’s Executive Vice President, Insights & Strategy, shared powerful new insights that clearly resonated among the audience of travel industry professionals and journalists: “How Travelers Think and Why You Should Care.”

Backed by our proprietary travel intelligence data, Davidson highlighted five key trends that marketers, DMOs and travel advisors should understand and apply to more effectively reach and influence travel consumers in the years to come.

It’s time to unhook the hammocks.

Traditionally, relaxation has been cited as a default motivator for travel. But the data reveal that it’s a bit more complicated than that. For some travelers, relaxation really does mean swinging in a hammock; for others, it’s climbing a rock wall to reach an incredible view.

Experiences are the true motivators, with 77% of travelers surveyed in our most recent Portrait of American Travelers® research saying that vacation memories are more valuable than any tangible item they purchased in the last year. Exposure to new cultures, broadening personal perspectives, learning about a destination’s history, and giving their kids the opportunity to see the world are all increasingly powerful motivators for travelers these days.

Travel is social currency.

There’s a story in the numbers. Every minute there are:

  • 3.8 million Google searches
  • 1 million logging into Facebook
  • 4.5 million YouTube videos watched
  • 87,000 tweets
  • 2.1 million Snaps created
  • 55,140 Instagram photos created

In the travel landscape, social media users are accustomed to being bombarded with everything from special promotions to inspiring photographs and storytelling. As many as 25% of travelers already follow a celebrity or influencer on social media, and even the most conservative figures show that 19% of social media users post their vacation photos solely to make their friends and family jealous.

Social media, both paid and organic, continues to be a powerful tool for brands to market themselves. But the clutter is real. So what does this mean for marketers?

A good brand is like good art. It makes you feel something.

“We have something for everyone” no longer works in a busy landscape of destination branding. Travel is an intensely personal experience, with 41% of respondents saying that where they go says a lot about who they are.

When a destination embraces its distinctive personality, it can have significant impact on the types of travelers who express an interest in visiting. Case in point: Seattle, Washington – which recently cracked the top 10 domestic destinations wish list – has done an excellent job of building its brand as a liberal destination with a trendy food and music scene, and this has elevated its appeal to be nearly on par with traditional vacation hot spots such as Honolulu and the Florida Keys.

Consumers are exceptionally savvy, and they respond well to authenticity. We’re continuing to see increased optimism across all generations about the sharing economy, including lodging options such as Airbnb and VRBO. To date, the sharing economy has reaped its share of the market from travelers who used to stay with friends and family while traveling. However, as short-term rentals become an increasingly mainstream lodging option, and as the economy begins to soften, we expect the sharing economy will begin to steal share from the traditional hotels and resorts segment as well.

Destinations also need to pay close attention to experiential activities that set them apart. For example, culinary travel continues to be one of the biggest factors in travelers’ decision-making, with 70% of respondents citing it as a motivation to travel. As a testament to the power of authenticity, the drive to eat local cuisine far outpaces interest in Michelin-starred restaurants or food and wine festivals.

Promoting those true-to-the-destination experiences, creating a sense of place and personal connections can transform prospective visitors into lifelong fans.

 Shifting the focus to residents

Until recently, DMOs and economic development offices focused their tourism efforts outwardly, relying upon visitor volumetrics and average daily rate as the key benchmarks for success. Today, most destinations are increasingly sensitive to local sentiment and seek to balance a growth-at-all-costs mindset, factoring in the importance of resident buy-in and support. By bringing more stakeholders to the table, destinations can better assess what locals need and want and ensure that the community understands the benefits of tourism. This, in turn, creates a huge opportunity to harness the power of engagement.

Our client the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO) was an early adopter in this strategy. Using a quantitative survey conducted by MMGY Travel Intelligence, the CTO discovered that most residents had a positive view of tourism in their state but were concerned about protecting Colorado’s natural resources. The subsequent Colorado Tourism Road Map shifted the focus from simply maximizing the number of visitors to a strategy that emphasizes visitor spend and creative ways of encouraging visitor dispersal around the state. The success was measurable, with traveler spend increasing nearly 7% year over year, all while overall visitation numbers remained flat. Residents were also empowered to become their own advocates to promote their communities.

Looking ahead: For better and for worse, travel impacts the world.

Travel is a deeply personal experience. It broadens peoples’ perspective, and inspires them to care more about the world beyond their immediate surroundings. However, travelers are becoming increasingly concerned about how their adventures are impacting the environment.

In the age of tourism overcrowding and flight shaming, our research affirms that environmental concerns are increasingly likely to weigh on travelers’ minds. At this point, 60% of travelers believe tourism overcrowding will have a significant influence on which destinations they want to visit in the next five to 10 years, and 48% believe that climate change will have a similar impact on these types of decisions. We can only imagine how these percentages will grow in the next few years.

At the same time, it’s encouraging to report that travelers are also willing to change their travel behaviors in various ways to reduce the ecological impact of their travel. For example, 54% of travelers are willing to reduce their use of single-use plastics while traveling and 33% of travelers are willing to pay up to 10% more to buy from travel service providers who demonstrate environmental responsibility. Yet, given that only 7% of travelers say they would purchase carbon offsets to reduce the net impact of their travel, it seems clear that work remains to educate travelers overall in how to lessen their impact on the environment when traveling.

Travelers are driven by increasingly complex motivations. And, they’re prone to see something of themselves in the places they choose to go. Ultimately, understanding why people travel, not just how, where and when, is how travel brands can set themselves apart from the rest.