Arrivals: How to meet the travel expectations of Gen Z

The tourism industry is facing a double reckoning; its carbon footprint, and a generational shift in travel behavior. As they prioritise travel spending, Gen Z are expanding their horizons and exerting their cultural influence and expectations on the tourism and leisure sector. According to a Pew Research survey, Gen Z are the most active generation yet when it comes to addressing climate change, and 67% believe climate should be a top priority to preserve the planet for future generations — a clear indication they expect nothing less than climate action, now. For tourism and leisure, this non-negotiable attitude towards sustainability is a wake up call – change is now not only needed to preserve value for the future but is essential in fulfilling the travel desires of this latest generation of travellers, too.

Think of young adults or students going on vacation, and what comes to mind? Clubbing and partying without much regard for the local customs wouldn’t be an unfair assumption. But this is based on their age and life-stage,  and it completely overlooks the preferences driven by their generational value system. Given that Gen Z say they travel to experience a new culture (68%), try a new cuisine (59%) or explore nature (58%)  – it is these preferences that are indicative of the kind of traveller Gen Z will be when they enter their prime spending years.

Gen Zers’ discerning attitude to their travel preferences can be attributed to their digital native identities, with online platforms such as YouTube and TikTok revolutionising not only the way they receive information, but the way they find and experience the places they visit.  After all, they have grown up with a world of travel discovery at their fingertips — more likely to save ideas on their Instagram account or follow a travel influencer’s channel than find inspiration in a travel guidebook. The era of budget airlines normalized travel for the masses and with it, the habit of taking more than one or two vacations abroad a year. Now, this generation are rejecting the notion of limited travel and with it, the black-and-white differentiation between vacation days and work days, aspiring instead to mix the two and take longer trips to become temporary locals for a few months, rather than just tourists.

But beyond their digital identities, Gen Z are the first generation to grow up witnessing the unfolding reality of the climate and biodiversity crises; from habitat loss to extreme weather events. It’s understandable why this conscious cohort shows strong commitment to environmental values, and the desire to do right by people and the planet. Most significantly for tourism a study by IBM revealed, more than any other generation, 56% of Gen Zers believe that businesses should take responsibility for environmental issues, and 72% believe that companies should be held accountable for their environmental impact. As Gen Z’s influence on the global tourism markets grows so destination and tourism businesses will need to evolve their practices to take more responsibility, prioritise regeneration and make sustainability non-negotiable.  Here are some practical ideas to consider in evolving travel offerings to meet their expectations:

 

Be who you say you are – Authenticity matters — 82% of Gen Z trust brands more when they use real customers and stories, which means operations have to match up and deliver the customer experiences in reality these travellers expect. Gen Z have no qualms about calling out or boycotting brands for false or empty claims, so destinations and tourism businesses need to swap grand ‘carbon-neutral’ promises for small but tangible actions that have a positive impact in a way that’s both demonstrably effective, and authentic. If a green, urban setting is important to your hotel business, redistribute funds to support nearby urban park regeneration projects for locals. If quality, local fish is important, advocate for better protection, funding and support for regeneration of the natural habitats that maintain healthy populations. No destination or tourism business is ever quite the same; from location history to local community, there are ample opportunities to develop initiatives that are meaningful and impactful for both you and your audience. 

 

Take them on the journey – Transparency is the minimum baseline destinations and businesses should be working from. Destinations and businesses not only need to behave differently, but develop a different kind of dialogue if they’re going to engage Gen Z travellers – one that is frank about the need for change, and clear about plans and progress made. The good news is Gen Z responds well to this approach as they understand the day-to-day challenges of changing habits – only 37% saying addressing climate action is their top personal concern. Considering Gen Z job preferences show they favour companies with social impact, it’s clear they want to be part of the solution. By communicating what  ambitions are, acknowledging current impacts and proactively reporting on progress, brands can make purposeful travellers feel like they are part of the journey towards preservation and regeneration.

 

Promote rejuvenation and reconnection – Appetite for wellness travel among Gen Z is just as significant as it is among other travellers, as they look to take care of their mental health. Considering 69% report feeling anxious about the future, and 91% say they feel stressed, destinations and businesses who promote opportunities to reconnect with nature, to their sense of self, and to friends and family will appeal to young adults looking to restore a sense of wellbeing and connection. More meaningful experiences always stem from engagement with people or nature, and there are opportunities for brands to expand on this appetite for wellbeing, by bringing opportunities for social and nature-connection further into the core of their offering.

 

Close the action gap – Given that 67% of Gen Z say they have talked about the need for climate action, but only 32% have personally taken any, there is an opportunity for tourism brands to step up and close the intention-action gap. The key to supporting this audience in their ambitions is by making sustainability easy, in the way Slovenia made travelling on public transport free, or the default like Google Maps did when they made directions by foot as the default response to search queries, over directions by car. By analysing the customer journey, and minimising difficult choices, both destinations and business can design the experience to direct travellers down the most sustainable route, therefore supporting traveller intentions to minimise their impact.

 

Find the sweet spot between value and values – There is a clear business case for social and environmental impact given that 56% of Gen Z will pay more for companies and experiences that adopt environmentally friendly philosophies and practices. But the relationship between value and values can go further. The combination of inflation and early-career salaries means this generation is travelling on a budget, and this ultimately determines their choices. But, there are an abundance of sweet spots where low impact options are also the most affordable and fulfilling – such as eating local food in local restaurants, thrifting unique clothes and souvenirs from local markets, or exploring landscapes or natural attractions on foot instead of expensive energy-intensive vehicle tours.

Meeting the expectations of conscious Gen Z tourists is a prerequisite for travel businesses of the future, and so too then, is the need to change industry norms to put regeneration and sustainability at the very core of tourism operations and development. Destinations and businesses can start exploring opportunities now to be prepared for the time when this generation will become the dominant force in the travel and leisure marketplace. With net-zero targets firmly on the horizon, evolving to meet these demands will not only support future tourism development, but satisfy today’s generation of travellers.

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