Why targeting young, budget travellers makes long term sense

David Whitley 8

I’m about to give a rare bit of praise. Don’t worry – normal service will resume soon enough, but I think one particular promotional campaign is worthy of highlighting.

Last week New York City launched a campaign aimed specifically at travellers under the age of 30. The microsite is full of useful information on cultural events, live sport and shopping ideas, plus tips on where to get cheap eats, the best nightlife and useful mobile phone apps. It’s well thought out, has genuinely useful content that has been put together with editorial judgement, and it targets people that are all too easy to ignore.

About 18 months ago, I wrote a piece on India’s approach to tourism. To summarise, India wants wealthy upmarket travel, not the backpackers – and I think that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake I’m seeing increasingly when I talk to people within the travel industry about target markets. Everyone wants the well-heeled middle aged and older clientele that has got money to spend.

There’s an obvious logic to this – go where the money is. But it’s a dangerously short term approach.

Younger travellers don’t necessarily have the money, but they do have an integral part to play in shaping the perception of a destination. They’re the ones that fill the bars and nightclubs, the ones that give the streets that buzz and feeling of life.

They also tend to be the ones that make the discoveries. Do you think you’d be seeing five star resorts in South East Asian countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam if it wasn’t for the cumulative buzz generated by thousands of backpackers over the last fifteen to twenty years? Budget tourism creates a scene, higher end tourism spots an untapped market, and follows. Enough people need to tell the world that a beach is beautiful before a developer is going to risk spending millions on building a swish resort there.

The elephant in the room is that while older travellers spend the money, no-one wants to feel old. They might in practice go for the quieter terrace café rather than the standing room-only bar with loud music down the street, but they quite like being close to that rowdier bar. They may go to bed at 9.30pm, but it’s good to know that they could have stayed out until 2am if they wanted to. Vibrant is a good, attractive thing – sterile isn’t. People who go to bed at 9.30pm want to go somewhere that’s vibrant, but a place that only has people who go to bed at 9.30pm will not be vibrant.

It is far better not to get a reputation as stale, lifeless and staid in the first place than to desperately try and counter that reputation later on. Look at the likes of Malta and Madeira, two destinations desperate to show that they’re not essentially God’s waiting room. “It’s not like that really” is the sort of pitch that starts off on a losing footing.


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Discourage the younger travellers from coming, and it’s not just them that won’t come. Over time, precisely those you want to target won’t come either. That affluent 50-year-old won’t see a destination as sexy if they think it’s full of 70-year-olds. Whether it is or not is irrelevant; perception is key.

What New York City is doing isn’t just about attracting visitors; it’s about maintaining the product for those who are going anyway.

The other important thing is who those young visitors are. They’re young now, but they won’t remain that way. They’ll grow older, they’ll settle down, they’ll get jobs – possibly high paid ones. They are the affluent target market of the future.

If someone in their early 20s goes to New York now and has a great time, it’s a fair bet that they’ll want to come back. There’s a decent chance that they’ll come back repeatedly. Even if they don’t, they’ll probably speak fondly of New York for the rest of their life – that’s word of mouth publicity for 50, 60, maybe 70 years.

So while the NYC<30 initiative is essentially a 2012 marketing campaign, it’s also doing a significant part of the 2022 campaign’s job. And the 2032 campaign, and the 2042 campaign, and the 2052 campaign…

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    1. Jeremy Head March 14, 2012 at 11:01 -

      Great post David and I agree with you. Funny then that marketing campaigns always seem to target young sexy people rather than old duffers though?
      The ‘typical’ traveller from DMO and travel section perspective seems to be in their 30s or 40s with oodles of cash and no kids and some nice Chanel luggage. I’d like to see more DMOs target families too – just like backpackers they probably aren’t seen as that ‘valuable’ but blimey how wrong that is. OK I have just crossed the threshold from independent traveller to family man so I have a particular drum to bang… but just generally so much of the travel industry’s marketing seems to be so one dimensional

    2. David Whitley March 14, 2012 at 13:05 -

      Inadvertently, I think you may have backed up my point there.

      Marketing campaigns always seem to *feature* young sexy people. I’m not sure they actually target them though – such ads are always in mags with a significantly older ABC1 readership skew/ run during TV programmes that tend to attract older audiences. As I say – older people don’t like thinking of themselves as old.

    3. Gary Arndt March 14, 2012 at 13:47 -

      I agree with you fully. I’ve told this to many DMO’s when talking to them informally.

      Backpackers grow up and people often return to places they’ve been before. Look at the upscale market in Thailand. It is quite large now.

    4. richard March 15, 2012 at 17:22 -

      I have a weekly battle with the Colombian Tourism board about this very subject.

    5. Nate @yomadic March 16, 2012 at 02:34 -

      Completely agree David. I think one of the key issues is what sort of campaign do you run to attract the young crowd? There is a fair degree of going against the grain, and increasing cynicism, with the younger travellers. They will even choose *not* to go to a destination, if it has been heavily advertised using the wrong channels, in the wrong way.

      The rewards of successfully targeting the young are vast, but if you get your campaign wrong, it could be a big mistake.

    6. Barbara Weibel March 16, 2012 at 17:52 -

      AMEN! I’m a perpetual traveler with no home base who’s been on the road for 5.5 years and I’m about to turn 60. Every last word you wrote resonates with me. I stay in the hostel dorms because I LIKE being with young people. There is so much amazing energy in the hostels, and I find out about wonderful places (hidden gems, if you will) that I most likely would never have found on my own by searching the Internet. Plus, I really believe that international travel has as much potential to produce world peace as any other initiative, since it allows us to get to know other cultures and realize that we’re all more alike than we are different. Great post!

    7. John Malathronas March 18, 2012 at 16:06 -

      Just caught up with this, David, and I would like to add my voice to the universal consensus. I once had a discussion with Cyprus Tourism who wanted to downgrade Ayia Napa, a destination which is a youth brand as good as Ibiza. Their argument was that young people don’t spend much and they are a lot of trouble. My arguments, well, I am reading them in your post above :-) I didn’t persuade them then (back in 2006, but they seem to be changing their minds now.

    8. Andrew McEvoy March 28, 2012 at 05:38 -

      Thanks Grumpy Traveller. As someone working in tourism in Australia, the youth market, including backpackers and working holiday makers, have certainly helped create buzz about our destination. And there are places within Australia that were “discovered” by the youth/ surfie crowd 30 years ago that now command big rates for people to stay there now. The other big up side for the tourism industry here has been that working holiday makers are filling jobs in bars and restaurants and hotels that would be otherwise vacant. So travelling, spending money, filling important jobs, creating buzz and advocacy…pretty good market!