Generation Z prefers authentic, responsible travel in places that are off the beaten path. // © 2018 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Make no mistake — Generation Z travelers aren’t just like millennials. // © 2018 Getty Images
There’s a new generation inching its way into the spotlight, and the world is taking notice. Best known as Generation Z, these folks are born between 1996 until around 2015. The cohort’s oldest members are barely 22.
According to Digital Tourism Think Tank, Gen Z will account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020. And like the generations before it — remember those entitled millennials? — Gen Z has already caught some flak. For starters, the average Gen Z attention span is estimated to be eight seconds. Their eyes are glued to at least one screen at any given moment, and the depth of their adoration for Justin Bieber and YouTube celebrities can be somewhat startling.
At the same time, however, one can argue this generation is already a force to be reckoned with. Defined by technology, diversity and pragmaticism, Gen Z is coming of age — and they are ready to satisfy their wanderlust.
Who Is Gen Z?
Besides Generation Z, the nicknames for this cohort run the gamut, from the Delta Generation and the Pivotal Generation to the Throwback Generation, iGeneration and Post-Millennials. In January, The New York Times asked its readers ages 22 and younger for their own ideas. Some suggested wry monikers such as Memelords and Generation Snap. Other responses included the Hopeful Generation, Generation Fix-It and The Cleaner-Uppers — and the recurring theme of recovery makes sense, bearing in mind the circumstances that have made Gen Z who they are.
After all, birth years aren’t the only thing that defines a generation.
“Based on events and conditions that happened during your formative years, you are shaped and have a unique personality,” said Jonah Stillman, co-founder of consulting firm GenZGuru. “About every 14 or 15 years, enough change has occurred to differentiate your outlook on the world as a young adult.”
Stillman himself falls into the Gen Z category. The 18-year-old says the biggest misconception of his peer group is that they are just like the prior generation.
“Most millennials grew up pre-9/11, during the economic expansion and the tech boom,” he explained. “Then, you have a generation like mine, who was raised post-9/11 and during the midst of the Great Recession. As a result, millennials mostly entered the workplace optimistic and excited; my generation will be entering the workplace skeptical and realistic with what we want to achieve.”
Gen Z is also acknowledged for having the know-how, the power, the influence and, perhaps most notably, the determination to be agents of change.
It’s the most diverse generation in U.S. history, with 48 percent being non-Caucasian, as reported by the Census Bureau. (It will likely be the last cohort with a majority-white population.) Additionally, according to a report released by consulting firms Barkley and FutureCast in January 2017, Gen Z is extremely passionate about human equality, particularly pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation. They’re engaging in activism at a younger age than ever before — take 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez, for instance, who is leading the pro-gun control youth movement following the recent South Florida high school shooting. Another example is Malala Yousafzai, age 20, who became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in 2014 for her campaign advocating for worldwide female education.
Altogether, this multicultural generation is not only socially conscious but also globally conscious. Undeterred by geographic borders, they consider themselves citizens of the world — and, luckily for travel advisors, they want to see all of it for themselves, too.
A Worthy Market
Americans across all stages of life are increasingly placing higher value on experiences over things, but Gen Z takes the cake in snubbing consumerism.
In a 2017 survey conducted by Contiki in 2017, about 98 percent of 732 Gen Z respondents agreed that experiences, including travel, are the most important thing in life.
Stefanie Schmudde, director of product development and operations for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), says that because Gen Z is so hyperconnected globally, the world is not only a smaller place, but it’s more exciting as well.
“It’s not about collecting things in their day-to-day life,” she said. “Gen Z wants to use their disposable income to travel and experience the world, rather than take a passive approach or wait until they’re older, which we’ve seen generations do in the past.”
At 22 years old or younger, of course, these wayfaring clients might not have the deepest of pockets — at least not yet. Then again, Rob Karp, CEO and founder of MilesAhead, a Virtuoso agency, says travel agents may be pleasantly surprised by Gen Z’s business potential.
“They are really becoming influencers in this world,” he said. “Some of them are just getting into the workplace, and most of them aren’t there quite yet. But there is a lot of Gen Z entrepreneurship out there, and many Gen Zers are quickly coming into extra money.”
In fact, Karp is one of those go-getters. He founded MilesAhead in November 2012, a day before he turned 15. Now 20 years old, Karp is a junior at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, New York. Save for one millennial on the team, the rest of the luxury travel agency’s employees are also Gen Z college students.
Futhermore, even if Gen Zers aren’t influencers in a specific vocation, they do wield a strong influence on their family vacation. GenZGuru’s Stillman has found that more than 70 percent of multigenerational trips are actually planned by the children.
“The parents will say, ‘Here’s a budget, and here’s where we want to go,’” he said. “But the actual buying power is in the hands of the teenager. So, though it may be the parents’ spending money, you have to market to the kids, too.”
Plus, Gen Z allegiance can be won — if agents play their cards right.
Abby Lagman, an advisor for A Destination Travel, a Virtuoso agency, says her young clients are not only well-traveled but also loyal customers. And they often give the best thank you gift of all: referrals of like-minded friends.
“Even though Gen Zers are quite informed, they want to make sure their travel plans are seamless, and that if issues arise, they have someone to go to for questions and advice,” she said. “These individuals can become lifelong clients, and their tastes, income and budgets will change over the years.”
However, with great power comes great responsibility: Agents shouldn’t miss the opportunity to promote a respectful manner of travel. Such an approach is sure to resonate with Gen Z, too. This cohort may be presumably impressionable due to its young age range, but most of its members are already eco-conscious and possess a sensible understanding of today’s rapidly changing world.
So, what’s on Gen Z’s global wish list? Travel products that better the world through philanthropic efforts or a commitment to sustainable practices, says Leigh Barnes, regional director for North America for Intrepid Travel.
“We all understand the human life cycle and the importance of educating generations to come,” Barnes said. “Selling responsible travel to Gen Z can, and should, impact their understanding of people and the planet, something they will carry with them throughout their entire life.”
Adam Cooper, president of Contiki USA, reiterates that they aren’t interested in superficial experiences.
“It is essential for agents and marketers not to underestimate this generation’s desire for change and creating good, and to be aware of how travel intersects with their yearning to make an impact,” he said.
Their Dream Trips
The archetypal Gen Z traveler isn’t likely to sprawl beachside for hours on end, with a margarita (or mocktail) in hand. You probably won’t find them on a congested group tour, either, trailing behind a guide who is monotonously reciting fact after fact.
“We know that they are very turned off by anything that feels canned, corporate or pre-packaged, as well as anything that is inflexible,” said Jason Dorsey, Gen Z and millennials speaker and president at The Center for Generational Kinetics.
Lindsay Taylor, director of business development for Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso agency, has found that her Gen Z clients are determined to travel with purpose and seek opportunities to engage with humanity on an authentic level. But, she asserts, it’s not that Gen Zers aren’t interested in the finer things in life — they just want all purchases, including travel, to be a worthy investment of both money and time.
“Their experience needs to benefit the greater society, even if it’s just increasing tourism to a certain area,” Taylor said. “They have to strike a balance between self-indulgence and societal responsibility.”
Cynthia Bartlett, an agent with TravelStore, a member of Signature Travel Network, has three Gen Z sons as well as many trips geared toward the younger population in her repertoire. Generally, Gen Z travelers tend to be rich in time and poor in cash, she says.
“They are seeking inexpensive destinations such as Thailand or Mexico, whereas Africa would be more of a bucket-list trip,” Bartlett added. “Or, if they do spend the money to fly to a pricier destination, they won’t spend money on five-star accommodations. They will, however, spend the money on five-star experiences.”
STA Travel works exclusively with students and young adults, and senior marketing manager Tiffany Harrison says they also enjoy memorable activities in the company of friends, including music festivals, interactive food tours and more.
“It’s not only about the destination any longer,” she said. “About 10 years ago, it was just about getting to the place. Now, it’s about what we can we do while we’re there.”
According to U.S. generational data gathered by Expedia Media Solutions in September, Gen Z is more likely than any other generation to travel outside the U.S., and 80 percent of Gen Z travelers want to be outdoors and favor destinations off the beaten path. More than one-third will hop on a flight for concerts, sports games and other events.
And these attributes apply to the full spectrum of ages within Gen Z. Julia O’Brien, Tauck’s senior brand manager for land journeys, says that young guests don’t want to settle for run-of-the-mill sightseeing — they like getting their hands dirty, too. For example, during two family-focused Tauck Bridges land tours, Gen Z clients are invited to join a scavenger hunt at the Louvre in Paris. On another itinerary in Umbria, Italy, children can hunt for truffles with the help of a trained dog.
In response to the changing demands of young voyagers, Contiki launched its Independent Insider series last September. The new trip style offers clients a chance to further curate their guided trip, with a choice of start and end cities as well as extended free time for independent exploration. (More than 20 percent of the tour operator’s current customers are Gen Zers.)
Like Contiki, A&K’s Family Journeys also include ample leisure time in each of their featured destinations. Families are then able to explore each place in their own way, which is especially necessary for youthful travelers.
“This way, they also can get the pictures necessary for sharing their experiences on social media,” Schmudde said.
You guessed it: Access to social media is nonnegotiable when it comes to Gen Z, a peer group that doesn’t know a time when technology wasn’t at their fingertips.
Generational expert Dorsey says these digital nomads need to be able to access technology each step of the way during a trip.
“We see them viewing social media as actual media,” Dorsey said. “Also, they are much more visually focused as learners, trip planners and sharers of experiences. They prefer in-the-moment sharing such as Snapchat versus Facebook, and they love video.”
But Gen Z’s obsession with technology doesn’t have to be a roadblock in attracting their business. Instead, the most successful agents will use it to their advantage.
How to Reach Them
Gen Z is a group even more independent than millennials, and they’re used to doing things themselves, says Austyn Rask, research analyst and consultant for BridgeWorks.
“Advisors will have to find a way to get in front of Gen Z; prove they can be relatable and informative; and demonstrate how they can help Gen Z save money, time and stress,” she said. “Whether that means forming partnerships with travel-focused influencers or revamping your social media strategy, the key will be developing a strong digital presence.”
Additionally, when selling to this generation, agents may have to adjust their approach to client communication, such as perhaps texting instead of calling.
“The biggest difference is the immediacy factor,” said Taylor of Coastline Travel Advisors. “They’ve been raised with Snapchat and Vine; they want that instant gratification and prompt response. How do we make sure we are proactively communicating with them on their level?”
They may be digital natives, she adds, but they know how to get their point across.
“Talk to them, and listen to them,” Taylor said. “Start the conversation, and ask those clarifying questions.”
STA Travel’s Harrison reminds agents that Gen Zers are savvy customers as well as savvy travelers.
“It has to be more about telling a story rather than selling something,” she said. “It boils down not only to the authentic experiences they’re looking for, but also how you talk about it.”
Intrepid Travel’s Barnes recommends tapping into the emotional aspect of traveling. Gen Z has access to all sorts of information on the internet, but what they don’t know is how this trip will change and impact them, he says.
Last but not least, GenZGuru’s Stillman says that if travel agents can prove their value, Gen Z will spend the money.
“Just give Gen Z a chance,” he said. “We’re going to shake up the world.”