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Twenty-five years ago, when most tour operators were striking the word “tour” from their brands, afraid that the escorted tour was falling into obsolescence, if you had said the next generation would like escorted tours, most travel professionals probably would have looked at you like you were crazy.

Nevertheless, that is what happened. MMGY Global, the gold standard in travel market research, made it official recently in a study commissioned by the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) about Americans traveling internationally. One of its conclusions was that Millennials like traveling on “guided vacations.” Same game, different name.

Well, not quite the same game. Tour operators have evolved, renamed their products “guided vacations” and adapted them to keep pace with the growing interest in the traveling public in immersing themselves in destinations, having authentic experiences of different cultures, and getting behind the scenes and interacting with locals. It turns out that the guided style of travel is well-suited to the needs of the evolving American traveler.

MMGY’s Julie Cuesta presented a summary of the study’s results at the recent USTOA Digital Marketing Academy at the New York Marriott Marquis, with some interesting highlights, maybe even some surprises.

MMGY is known for its annual “Portrait of the American Traveler,” which slices, dices and segments the U.S. travel market in a thousand ways, presenting an interpretation of data that makes some sense of the giant and diverse American travel market and creates a prism of insight for travel industry professionals.

The USTOA International “Travelers Research Study,” which was conducted in June 2018, similarly examines its subject with penetrating detail, but differs from the “Portrait of the American Traveler” in its range. The USTOA study focuses exclusively on affluent Americans traveling internationally. The “Portrait of the American Traveler” focuses on both domestic and international travel.

The cream of the U.S. travel market
“Obviously, research does have a relatively short life in this day and age,” said Cuesta, “So keep in mind, we’ve had bit of a stock market correction in that time and shutdown issues affecting the way people feel about travel. But I definitely feel that the overall sentiment is that things are very positive in our space. People are really interested in long-haul travel and they’re looking for recommendations and suggestions.”

MMGY narrowed its focus specifically to active travelers with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more, the prime market for USTOA tour operators. It also selected families who spend at least $10,000 a year on vacations. Of the sample population, 74 percent were married and 45 percent had graduate degrees. One third of the group were Millennials.

“We found that those who were interested in guided vacations had a much higher propensity to have that advanced degree,” said Cuesta.

MMGY’s results forecast a growth year for tour operators, with the study’s subjects expecting to take an average of two international vacations in the next 12 months, up slightly from 1.9 last year. The group expects to spend an average of $7,000 more on travel this year than last.

Where they want to go
Of those polled, 72 percent have traveled to Europe; 31 percent have been to the Caribbean; and 31 percent have seen Asia.

As for where they want to go, 75 percent are interested in visiting Europe; 42 percent Asia; 39 percent the Caribbean; and 39 percent Canada.

In Europe specifically, 42 percent want to visit Italy; while 38 percent are interested in England; and 37 percent are looking to France.

In Asia, 28 percent want to go to Japan; while 20 percent are interested in China; and 19 percent want to visit Thailand.

What they want to do
While relaxation is always either the first- or second-ranked travel motivator in the “Portrait of the American Traveler,” Cuesta said, it was not in the USTOA study. The top motivators for international travelers are experiencing different cultures and exploration/adventure.

Another primary motivator, with 90 percent of respondents, is making memories over acquiring things. Seventy percent travel for self-discovery. And, 60 percent believe the destinations they visit “say a lot about who they are.”

While at their travel destination, 93 percent like to experience beautiful scenery; 91 percent like to see historical sites; 91 percent seek out local experiences; and 88 percent visit notable architectural sites.

Culinary experiences also continue to boom in popularity. When they travel, 80 percent of those surveyed want to experience new cuisines. Seventy percent are interested in cuisine-intensive experiences, such as  food tours, food trucks, and winery tours. And, the most popular culinary experiences are local, new, and unique food experiences.

When it comes to the type of travel, guided vacations are growing, with 37 percent saying they had taken guided vacations in the last 12 months. Almost half (47 percent) are interested in taking guided vacations, with Millennials being more interested than Generation Xers.

Who they turn to for advice
The top place travelers turn to for advice today is travel review websites (59 percent). Fifty percent use search engines; and 49 percent pay attention to destination websites.

Forty-two percent use online travel agencies, while 40 percent go to travel agents to help plan their trips. And, 43 percent are influenced by advice from friends and family.

The majority (60 percent) said they refer to more sources of advice than ever when making travel decisions.

How they plan
According to the survey, 30 percent select the destination first when they travel, and 10 percent set the vacation budget first.

When it comes to expenses, 57 percent prefer to see costs listed as all-inclusive; and 43 percent like to see separate air and land costs.

Most travelers (83 percent) pay attention to travel advisories.

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