Whether you think of them as socially aware, environmentally conscious game-changers or selfie-seeking influencers, Millennials—who are broadly defined as anyone born between 1980 and 1999—and their habits are shaping the times.
In fact, this year the so-called "wanderlust generation" is projected to overtake Baby Boomers becoming the largest adult generation on the planet. And the good news for the airline and travel industry is that this generation of roughly two billion social media-driven wanderers also views travel as an essential part of their lives.
Though there may be no single, meaningful way to capture all of their tech-savvy hearts and loyalty points, the travel sector's quest to court jet-setting Millennials at every turn should be music to the ears (and pocketbooks) of all travelers.
That's because the travel industry's desire to satisfy the ever-evolving demands of Millennial travelers means more affordable options across the board, for all generations and demographics. And the real winners here aren't just Millennials, but anyone looking to travel like them.
Redefining Luxury Travel Preferences
All-inclusive cruises, private car service to and from the airport, and extended stays at exclusive five-star resorts used to be hallmarks of luxury travel. Millennials, however, have helped to turn the "luxury travel" concept on its head.
Luxury isn't necessarily about high-class transportation and accommodations anymore. Instead, many Millennials like using their money to enjoy feature-rich, customizable, and unique experiences. Hospitality disruptors like Airbnb helped fuel this craving and establish it as a generational standard. After all, why stay in a hum-drum hotel when you can sleep in a remote oceanside yurt with access to free bicycles and an organic garden?
“Millennials are daring, particularly Millennials from North and Central America, Europe, and Oceania," says veteran passenger engagement strategist Stathis Kefallonitis. These travelers seek out sharable experiences, pushing them farther out into the far reaches of the world.
At the same time, while Boomers may not be out to capture the perfect Instagram pics, they are still influenced by global interest in travel and the companies catering to it. They're also very likely to take advantage of less expensive airfare with customizable add-ons, a greater variety of lodging options, and the proliferation of adventurous tour offerings. AARP's Boomer Travel Trends 2019 report found that Boomers take four to five leisure trips a year, while research by Expedia suggests this cohort, as well as their successors, Gen Xers, also travel for longer periods of time.
It would seem that for Millennials, having an authentic experience while traveling is king. But experiencing local cultures isn't just a Millennial quest. Boomers are taking full advantage of a greater breadth of affordable experiential travel options. On TravelPulse, Susan Young recently wrote: "Those enjoying their retirement years are on the go and ready to see more—more cities, more countries, more wildlife adventures, and more environmentally friendly opportunities."
Even so, a traveler's physical ability may be a challenge when designing travel experiences. Someone with a knee replacement might not be able to climb to their fourth-floor host apartment, let alone the Great Wall of China or the Walls of Dubrovnik. It's tough to have a single universal offering that accommodates everyone.
This is where the Millennial concept of customer control comes in. Older generations lived through a time where you got whatever the company was willing to give you, whether you liked it or not. Now every traveler has options—and they're not afraid to use them.
“Airline brands that give up control and create offerings that can be easily customized will rule passengers' hearts and wallets," says Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying and author of SOAR, a book on airline marketing. As examples, he points to how KLM lets Economy passengers order Business-class meals ahead of time, or how airlines like AirAsia have used online bidding processes for things such as discounted flatbed seats.
“Airline brands that give up control and create offerings that can be easily customized will rule passengers' hearts and wallets"
A Mobile-First Approach
Because of their reliance on smartphones—particularly when they travel—Wi-Fi truly does make Millennials' worlds go 'round. “Millennials can't live without Wi-Fi... and that's why airlines that offer fast, high-speed Wi-Fi service inflight are so well regarded," says Nigam.
Boomers, on the other hand, don't necessarily share the same thirst for constant internet access—but that doesn't mean they haven't got their mobile phones handy. The aforementioned AARP report reveals Boomers still use them to take photos, check maps, text, and call to keep in touch with loved ones. They also use them for inspiration while traveling, says research by Expedia.
When thinking about how to create comprehensive digital and mobile experiences for multiple generations of travelers, one may consider Boomers' needs as the baseline. For instance, an airline companion app's landing page could immediately display the simplest functionalities: Check-in, flight status, connect to the inflight entertainment system, and perhaps a link to the airline's marketplace shopping portal.
Boomers could stop right there, having had their needs met. Deeper into the app could be more features focused on Millennial, and even Gen Z, travelers—for instance, syncing a Netflix or PlayStation Network account, or scouring a partner's destination tour offerings.
If Millennials are shaking up the travel industry, we can only imagine what Generation Z has in store for us. Though they are just starting to flex their economic might on the travel and leisure front, their tastes are already proving to be markedly different from Millennials.
“What's cool and unique about the next generation is that it's a younger, more diverse bunch that isn't afraid to travel and bring their unique perspective to these places," says Justin Heyman, founder of the NYC-based BigFoot Yoga consultancy and a globetrotting Millennial who travels at least four months out of the year.
The power of the "travel is a lifestyle" idea is highly influential for both current and coming generations, and it's changing how travel and hospitality providers operate and market their businesses. Still, the travel industry should remember that Gen Xers and Boomers' needs can be easily met in the rush to cater to Millennials. It just takes an inclusive mindset to do it well.