Digital Tourism: Understanding the digital traveller

In this first of a new series of articles focusing on digital tourism, we look at the profile of tourists across different generations, and how technology affects their vacation planning and experience.

Undoubtedly, the way that tourists plan both their vacations as well as the activities that they engage in while travelling, has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. This is particularly evident across generations, with digital technology having a significantly greater impact on the behaviour of Millennial and Post-Millennial travellers (ages 18 – 34), compared to Gen X travellers (ages 35- 49) and Baby-Boomers (50 – 67).

Having said so, it would be a mistake to assume that behaviours have remained static even amongst older travellers. Though not to the same extent as with younger travellers, technology is also shaping the behaviours and plans of older tourists. Institutions cannot therefore ignore digital tourism engagement practices under the excuse that their own particular audience is of an older age group.

In this new series of articles, we will be examining ways in which tourism and culture institutions can communicate and engage more effectively with tourists and potential visitors using digital channels, presenting practical tips, advice, and actions that can be quickly and realistically implemented. To do this however, we would first need to understand the digital behaviour of tourists and travellers, which will be our focus in this first post.

What is it that travellers value: Purposeful travellers, culture and experience, vs relaxation abroad

Younger generations value new experiences and active vacations far more than their older counterparts.

In a report published by JP Morgan Chase and Co n 2015, 84% of Millennials answer that they are interested in traveling to participate in some kind of voluntary activity, compared with 68% of Gen Xers, and 51% of Baby Boomers.

Millennials also indicate that they are more likely to be interested in taking a charitable trip (Millennials: 32%, Gen Xers: 18%, Baby Boomers: 17%), and to consider traveling to a destination if it is considered to have a booming industry and culture (Millennials: 44%, Gen Xers: 33%, Boomers: 27%), or has been recently featured in a movie (Millennials: 20%, Gen Xers: 11%, Boomers: 7%).

Millennials are also much more active thrill seekers, valuing adventurous experiences over relaxing vacations abroad. They are far more likely to answer positively when asked if they would be attracted to a location if there is an opportunity for water sports (Millennials: 67%, Gen Xers: 55%, Boomers: 46%), interaction with wild animals (Millennials: 63%, Gen Xers: 60%, Boomers: 48%), or an active nightlife (Millennials: 28%, Gen Xers: 15%, Boomers: 6%).

Understanding this profile can help us understand how best to attract new tourists to the destination or institution that we manage, as well as the possible ways to re-brand ourselves. Newer generations have a renewed interest in experiencing new and unfamiliar cultures and are more open to avoiding destinations which ‘feel’ much more familiar to what they experience in their everyday life. Even smaller cultural institutions and communities can therefore attract tourists and visitors with a promise of immersion to different times and places, so long as they can find the right way to approach this potential audience.

Such institutions must ‘design’ their tourist offering in such a way as to make it as active and participatory an experience as possible. A museum cannot just be a passive display of cultural exhibits within a series of rooms. If you are for example managing a small museum focusing on folk art traditions, you may want to organise workshops or afternoon activities that visitors can sign up for, allowing them to actively practice a folk tradition. Similarly, a small municipality may invest in outdoor adventure sports and activities in order to enhance its tourist product.

How do travellers plan their vacations: Digital tools and channels

Improving or enhancing our tourism product to match the changing desires of new tourists is only half the picture. The internet and new digital tools have completely transformed the way that tourists seek to plan and run their vacations. Intermediaries such as travel agencies are becoming less and less important, whereas digital tools allow individuals to plan and organise their vacations on their own. It is imperative to understand how we can get in touch with potential tourists through these new channels.

Within the EU 28, when asked which tools they use to organize their vacation (where organising means searching for information, looking for prices, and booking accommodation, transportation, etc), responses by travellers break down as such:

  • Through the internet – 66%
  • Through someone they know – 21%
  • Over the counter at a travel agency- 19%
  • Over the phone – 15%
  • On-site (at the place of the holiday destination) – 12%
  • Over the counter at transportation company (airline, railway, etc.) – 6%
  • Via post – 3%

Obviously, online channels are one of the most important means by which tourists decide what they will do and where they will go in their vacation. If we go into a bit more depth, we can again see how attitudes towards digital technology vary based on generation. Younger generations are more likely to:

  • Use a mobile phone to plan travel (Millennials: 71.6%, Gen Xers: 53.2%, Boomers: 25.5%)
  • Use tablet computers to access travel info (Millennials: 50.1%, Gen Xers: 34.3%, Boomers: 19.3%)
  • Use an online Tourism Information website (Millennials: 34.7%, Gen Xers: 31.1%, Boomers:30.1%)
  • Use Instagram for travel planning (Millennials: 19.7%, Gen Xers: 8.9%, Boomers:1.1%)
  • Use Twitter for travel planning (Millennials: 21.9%, Gen Xers: 13.0%, Boomers:2.3%)
  • Use Facebook for travel planning (Millennials: 47.6%, Gen Xers: 30.5%, Boomers: 13.2%)

Perhaps more surprisingly, Millennials are also more likely to seek information from more traditional media. Millennials are more likely to read a newspaper travel section for trip planning (Millennials: 17.5%, Gen Xers: 14.4%, Boomers 16.6%), or to read a specialist lifestyle or travel magazine (Millennials: 25.9%, Gen Xers: 19.0%, Boomers 17.2%). This perhaps reflects Millennial interest in searching for interesting travel experiences to engage in, as compared to older generations which are more likely to be looking for a somewhat more quiet time.

For tourism institutions and destination managers, the lessons can be striking. No longer can we rely on organized trips, travel agencies, or inclusion on printed guides available from the tourist office. Institutions must be present and active in the new digital world, in order for tourists to both discover them and consider including a visit to their premises in their schedule.

At its most basic, this can start with making sure we have a presence in some of the most basic tools that tourists use – can our institution be found in Google and Apple Maps, do we have at least a basic website, an entry in Wikipedia, or TripAdvisor? These are some of the simplest steps that we can do to build our digital presence.

In the next few series articles, we will be looking at practical tips and advice for using various new digital channels to raise our visibility with our potential visitors.