The changing travel culture from millennials to Gen Z

When it comes to travel, millennials are the largest consumers today, generating over $180 billion as tourism revenue annually. Within the generation there are differences in attitude & behaviour, preferences & habits; making it impossible to cluster them as one homogeneous set. But a few trends do make them similar in some ways.

For one, they are digitally savvy. Having grown up in the internet era, a significant part of their travel research and inspiration originates online. They plan well, consult both online and offline resources and leave room for flexibility. They are heavily inspired by social media, meticulously curating their own travels to be Facebook friendly and perfectly Instagram-able. Social media validation is often their ultimate travel goal.

However, while most brands are busy decoding millennials, it is Gen Z that is silently but swiftly rewriting the rules in travel. They are the digital natives who define the mobile generation. While they may not be financially independent yet (though some are), that doesn’t stop them from travelling. Because in the University of Life, travel is their education and technology their guide. From social interactions to live streaming, booking cabs & tickets, attending university, watching movies & shows, shopping, ordering in, or making restaurant reservations; everything happens via the smartphone. Algorithms are their agents and Google Trips is their travel companion. Any new experience is just a password authentication away. The world is indeed in their pocket.

Gen Zers are sorted, focussed and in many ways more pragmatic than millennials. They have a mysterious ability to remain curious, self motivated and are well informed about things they follow. Travel decisions in families with Gen Zers are often left to them, and that makes them hugely influential.

They find their travel inspiration everywhere – in books, conversations, history, political strife, sports, cult movies, peer travellers, YouTubers or even their favourite show hosts. For them social media validation isn’t important. Self validation is. They effortlessly fit into the shared economy, and do not believe in displaying brazen consumerism. They are more comfortable blending in than standing out. They thrive and bond over shared interests – be it food, art, adventure, football, music, fashion or culture. Perspectives are global, yet they seek experiences that are immersive and local; staying a safe distance away from fluffy touristy trappings. Their plans are always fickle and so are loyalties. Everything is about here and now.

Gen Zers are already the world’s fastest growing consumer group. From China to India to Ghana, youth travel is on the rise. And that opens up a huge challenge for established travel & hospitality brands to adapt to this shifting travel culture. Hotels now face competition from quirky & chic hostels, AirB&Bs and homestay experiences. WOW Air is suddenly an option thanks to its cool Icelandic positioning and insanely low prices. Travel companies like Contiki are successfully curating experiences only for the 18-35 year olds. The buzz around some of these new age brands remains high, and their digital accessibility makes them attractive.

Established travel and hospitality behemoths may find it an uphill task to remain relevant in the new milieu. Ask any Gen Zer and they will tell you why they find the hostel experience far more liberating and enriching, than a claustrophobic hotel stay. Of course they are cheaper. But it is the familiarity and vibe that they find authentic, which cannot be replicated by say, appointing a ‘Chief Vibe Officer’ in a hotel. While some hotels are making genuine efforts to build engagement and relevance through experiences that resonate with the young (boutique hotels are doing better in this space), it will be sometime before they can replicate the spontaniety and vibrance of a hostel within their sanitized environments.

When it comes to choice of airlines, legacy brands again, hold little value for Gen Z. What they look for is a flying experience that is integral to their personal journey and they are open to experimenting. Many airlines are now exploring unconventional marketing opportunities that build influence and relevance amongst younger travellers. A few even hire Gen Z influencers to help build a stronger narrative in their favour.

Our recent experience with India’s flag bearer airline Air India gave us a glimpse of their determination to attract young travellers of today, who would hopefully become regular patrons of tomorrow. Targeting a customer set that is neither cynical nor weighed down by any pre-conceived notions is a smart move. It is the experience they live through that shapes their perspective. If they like it, they share it. And word of mouth influence can be a steady reputation builder within the community.

Our experience aboard the 787 Dreamliner from Delhi to Paris was refreshing. From the easy-to-navigate app, smooth web check-in and friendly ground staff, to the indulgent Maharaja lounge and excellent in-flight service, everything was on point. Departure and arrival was on-time, and the 9-hour flight was made comfortable with a wide selection of food, beverages and in-flight entertainment. For this generation that is what matters. Not the quality of wine or how many times the cabin crew smiled.

While the First & Business Class need no endorsement (most seasoned travellers prefer Air India to fly into the continent) it is the Economy Class where Air India offers one of the most priceless luxuries on air. The luxury of personal space. With legroom upto 33”, seat width upto 18”, and a 3x3x3 seat configuration resulting in wider aisles, it makes for a more comfortable and fatigue free journey. In long haul flights every inch matters.

With a fleet of young wide-body Airbus and Boeing aircrafts, Air India is already flying across continents, with new sectors added regularly. In Europe alone, it flies nonstop to 10 destinations. More destinations are being added through an expanded codeshare partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, EGYPTAIR, Air Mauritius and others, and there are nonstop flights on sectors like San Francisco and Sydney. Being a member of Star Alliance has its advantages too, with seamless international transfers, added frequent flyer miles and access to over 1000 lounges worldwide.

Innovative route planning is another thing that stands out. The airline is going the extra mile to cut travel time, and the San Francisco and Tel Aviv routes are good examples here. In what is a first, the airline has been granted permission by Saudi Arabia to use their airspace to fly to Tel Aviv, turning an 8 hour flight to just 5 and a half.

For young travellers, there is more. Students get a 50% discount on the basic fare between their hometown and place of study. And the Maharaja Scholars’ offer gives free excess baggage allowance to students on international routes.

These efforts may be in the right direction, but for many old world brands to adapt to the changing travel culture, they need to think like Gen Zers. Perhaps even deconstruct and re-emerge with more relevance and context. The shift has to be in the mindset.

Millennials and Gen Zers aren’t the same. While millennials espouse a sense of entitlement, Gen Zers tend to display a spirit of gratitude. They believe in utility, simplicity and take pride in their informed, knowledgeable choices. They are somewhat more responsible and sensitive towards the world around them. They are not brand conscious, but are more likely to endorse brands with a conscience. They wouldn’t blindly follow brands unless it fits into their personal story. For them brands are merely enablers that help achieve their personal mission – however big or small it may be.

Brands that talk to Gen Zers and don’t talk down to them, are more likely to succeed. Digital engagement, brevity, authenticity and responsiveness are critical elements in the mix. Established brands need to understand this and adapt accordingly. It is brave of Air India to move in this direction. And for others, it is never too early to start a dialogue with a group that is poised to be the largest generation of consumers by 2020.

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