This week’s musings, reflections and observations…

1. I think Cruises Inc’s aggressive push to recruit new travel agents from among the ranks of Generation X and Generation Y travelers is a much-needed (and long overdue) wake-up call to the cruise industry.  According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the average age of today’s North American cruiser is 46 years, down from 50 years back in 2000 (and a full 10 years younger than in 1986).  Recognizing that the average age of their existing cruise agents is 50 years old and rising, to assure that its business not only remains profitable but also grows, Cruises Inc concluded that it had to attract fresh blood into the ranks of its cruise professionals.

There are 51 million Gen Xers (born between the years 1965 and 1980) and another 75 million Gen Y / Millennials (generally accepted by most marketers as having been born between the early 1980s and early 1990s), and each cohort has very little in common with the Baby Boomers who have dominated the travel – and the overall business and social worlds – since the late 1960s.

With respect to travel, according to D.K Shifflet & Associates, Gen Xers surpassed the Boomers in annual travel spend back in 2004, spending on average an estimated $2,140 per capita on overall travel involving a hotel stay, vs. $2,016 for Boomers.  In its January 2009 survey, The Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that “Generation X is the most likely group to bank, shop and look for travel and health information online” and, though they have yet to reach their full economic potential, Generation Y is just as likely to make travel reservations online as are their Baby Boomer parents.

So it’s not surprising to Travel Dividends that Cruises Inc is trying to attract Gen Xers and Millennials to enroll as newcomer travel agents in the host-agency’s model.  What is surprising is the unorthodox approach Cruises Inc sees these ‘newbie travel agents’ taking in selling their cruise product versus that of the current travel agents who ply their trade for Cruises Inc or most of the other online and bricks and mortar cruise-only travel agencies.  In a recent Travel Weekly interview, Cruises Inc.’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Dwain Wall, elaborated on that point by saying that they are not looking to “recruit people into what one might consider a traditional travel agent role.”  Instead they’re seeking candidates that can sell cruises “…through a laptop…from the beach…they can do it from Starbucks, from their sofa while watching their favorite TV show.”  If we didn’t know any better, this ‘job description’ looks very similar to that of a travel affiliate marketer.

Cruises Inc doesn’t offer a travel affiliate program, so if as a travel affiliate marketer, you find their Millennial business proposition attractive, you’ll have to pony up the $495 enrollment fee to become a Cruises Inc travel agent.  However, their sister company, CruisesOnly.com, does offer a travel affiliate program and it’s free to join! Both sites appear to offer the same ships, itineraries and ancillary products, so, except for their ‘membership requirement’, there seems to be no fundamental difference between the two.

Granted, the commission structure is not as attractive for travel affiliates as it is for travel agents.  For example, commission on a sale on CruisesOnly is capped at 3% versus paying upward (potentially) of 12% for the same booking to a travel agent on Cruises Inc. However, unlike travel agents, travel affiliates don’t get involved in the traveler cruise booking process.  Thus from that perspective, avoiding the costliest element of the cruise sales cycle should be incentive enough for most travel affiliates to sign-up for CruisesOnly’s affiliate program.

TravelDividends strongly suggests that if Cruises Inc or other online cruise-only sites – and indeed, the cruise industry as a whole – want to “…engage this younger ‘millennial’ audience that we believe is very important to bring into the industry,” then they should offer travel affiliate programs in addition to the traditional travel agent model.

2. I think the just released YPartnership statistics from its February – March 2009 National Travel Monitor provides some very useful insights about the search habits and patterns of U.S. travel consumers that travel affiliate marketers and travel suppliers can use to help refine and optimize their product portfolios, ad campaigns and overall marketing efforts.

Here are several of the major findings of this ongoing annual survey of the travel habits, preferences and intentions of the American consumer:

When considering travel destination alternatives…

  • Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN are visited first by 34% of all travelers
  • Websites of National Tourist Offices (NTOs) and Convention and Visitor Bureaus (CVBs) come in second at 23%, just beating out…
  • Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Lastminute, etc, which was the online starting point for 22% of all travelers
  • Hotel chain websites placed fourth, garnering just 8% of all searches, squeaking by
  • …Individual hotel and resort websites, which accounted for 7% of total destination searches
  • Despite the growing popularity of travel blogs, curiously, only 1% of all travelers start their vacation destination search from a web log

When looking to select an airline, consumer search habits are markedly different…

Similarly, hotels and resort searches show much different search patterns…

  • OTAs again snagged the top spot, accounting for 36% of total searches,
  • Search engines lagged far behind, nabbing a 26% share
  • Hotel chain websites were a close third, garnering 21% of all searches
  • Individual hotel and resort websites came in at fourth place, with a 10% share
  • Travel meta search engines placed last, with a 5% share

Great stuff, this, with lots of implications for players in the travel affiliate marketing industry.

For example, if I were a travel affiliate marketer, I’d be very interested in knowing how to capitalize on the 23% market share that NTOs and CVBs hold in the travel consumer’s destination alternatives search process.  Also, depending on my product portfolio, I’d look at and assess how aligned my campaign spend for travel destinations, air or hotels / resorts is with the consumer’s patterns, and whether it needs to be recalibrated.

Even if it’s only a 1% share, if I’m a travel supplier, I’d still be curious in understanding which travel blogs are driving bookings, and whether those blogs could generate incremental bookings for my company.  And if I’m playing (or not playing) in the travel meta search space, I’d be looking at quantifying the benefits, particularly if I’m a company in the lodging industry.

There are other elements of YPartnership’s 2009 National Travel Monitor findings that I’d be keen to explore, as I’m sure many of TravelDividends’ readers would as well.  So with that in mind, how about it, folks…what in these findings piques your interest?  What takeaways have you gleaned from the survey, either as a travel affiliate or a travel supplier?  We appreciate your sharing your thoughts and ideas with the other members of our travel affiliate community.  Drop us an email and let us know; we very much appreciate hearing you.  Thanks!

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