Comment: Niche travel presents a big opportunity

Nicky Bullard, group chief creative officer at creative communication agency MullenLowe, says brands that can’t look beyond the mass market will be left behind

At last. After some of the industry’s most brutal years, travel is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Brands have responded quickly to its return; Insider Intelligence estimates that digital ad spend within the travel sector in the US alone grew by 14.3% in 2023 to $6.79bn.

Anyone would think we all need a break. But in an era of unprecedented connectivity and an ever-growing competition pool, some of the world’s most beloved travel brands – from hotels and tour operators to travel agents and online booking platforms – have struggled to adapt to today’s dynamic landscape.

Why? In one of the most significant behaviour shifts within the sector, travellers, particularly the younger generations, are no longer seeking generic, one-size-fits-all package holidays. They’ve never got used to brands providing experiences that are curated and personalised for their exact interests and needs.

And this trend (unlike any baggage carousel I have ever arrived at) is moving fast. A recent report from booking platform WeTravel indicates that consumers are starting to want more personalisation, customisation and automation when planning travel than before the pandemic.

Over half (56%) of tour operators report increased demand for bespoke tours over all-inclusive packages.

So, while those travel brands catering to niche travel markets are primed for a bright future, those specialising in appealing to the masses are at a growing risk of losing relevancy.

The challenge is clear: capturing the attention and loyalty of increasingly diverse audiences with unique needs and desires.

As the travel landscape evolves, future-thinking brands are adopting a challenger mindset, identifying new growth audiences in niche tourism markets, and connecting with those consumers in bold and engaging ways.

The niche opportunity

Niche travel refers to specialised forms of tourism that cater to specific interests, preferences, or demographics rather than catering to broader, mass-market appeal. Markets range from cultural or heritage tourism to adventure travel, eco-tourism, culinary tourism and wellness tourism, while demographic-focused groups might include solo travellers or young families.

Some of these niches are well-established, and some are just emerging. With hybrid and remote working now the norm, the digital nomad market is growing fast; meanwhile, amid the rising cost of living, budget-oriented travellers are looking to get the most bang for their buck in every moment of their travel experience.

Travel brands that can identify and access these niches, especially those that are emerging and untapped, have the opportunity to stay relevant with today’s demanding consumers and build stronger connections with their audiences, fostering a sense of community and loyalty. They can offer better experiences for travellers, increase customer satisfaction, and achieve differentiation in a cluttered travel industry.

Intrepid Travel offers an excellent example of a brand that has successfully identified and capitalised on a niche market. Recognising the rising interest in sustainable and responsible travel, the brand has tailored its offerings to cater specifically to eco-conscious adventurers. The company provides carbon-neutral tours, minimises environmental impact, fosters community engagement, and is well-positioned to reach $1bn of total transactional value by 2025.

Brands that want to attract a more extensive customer base can still tap into niche travel audiences and cater to their specialised interests. A hotel brand, for example, might create a campaign focusing on solo travellers, highlighting its safety credentials, friendly nearby bars, and locally operated group tours and activities.

Using research and insight, brands must get into the heads of these niche travellers, understand what they want from a curated travel experience, and cultivate their brand story so that it speaks to them.

Social media and influencer partnerships are often effective channels for targeting and engaging these audiences with content that sparks their passion for travel. Highly visual platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok lend themselves perfectly to travel campaigns for brands big and small, and their audiences naturally skew young.

A recent YouGov poll found that 39% of Gen Z use social media platforms like TikTok to help plan their holidays, with one-fifth following travel influencers on social media.

Staying ahead

Figures from the World Trade Organisation suggest 2024 is likely to be the world’s biggest year for travel yet. The pandemic hangover is waning, and travellers are more excited to explore new destinations and experiences than ever. Bring it on I say.

In that climate, niche travel markets will continue to evolve. Eco-tourism is just one market set for growth; according to Statista, over 80% of global travellers say sustainable tourism is important to them and are willing to adopt sustainable travel incentives. Analysts expect the eco-tourism market to reach $599bn by 2030.

Identifying these groups as they emerge and staying in tune with their evolving interests will be critical for travel brands in future. That means watching trends, staying on top of your data, evaluating what your brand can offer these travellers and seeking advice from experts where necessary.

Most importantly, it means adopting a positively dissatisfied mindset, whereby a brand strives consistently to do better than before and always has one eye on what might be coming around the corner.

Whether an icon of the past or a new challenger in the market, knowing your growth audiences is critical for success.

Brands that can’t look beyond the mass market will be left behind. Like my son’s holiday luggage last year. Sigh.

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