With steady growth seen in solo travel for several years, suppliers and operators are finally taking note, reports Maria Lenhart
Once largely overlooked and overcharged, the solo traveler is now sought by suppliers and travel agents alike. While traveling solo is still relatively costly, rising demand from a broadening range of single travelers is having a strong influence on how tour operators and cruise lines design their products and programs.
Many suppliers are reporting a double-digit increase in business from solo travelers in recent years, with further growth anticipated. “The demand for solo travel has doubled over the past five years, and this trend is continuing,” says Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar. He adds that solo travelers now comprise 10% of the tour company’s overall business.
At Alexander + Roberts, bookings from solo travelers have grown from 5% to 15%, according to president Robert Drumm. Tauk reports that solo travel grew by over 10% in 2014 alone, while SITA World Tours says solo bookings jumped by 64% between 2011 and 2014.
Why are solo travelers on the increase? Some suppliers point to the Baby Boomer generation, which has increasing time for travel and is more likely to be single than previous generations. “In the US, 10,000 people are retiring every day, and a lot of those people are single,” Wiseman says. “And they still love to travel.”
Suppliers and agents are also finding the solo market often includes married people. “Being a solo traveler isn’t about being unmarried or having no friends,” says Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing for the Globus family of brands. “In many cases, they are married, but the spouse doesn’t want to travel. Or they might have time off when others don’t.”
Halboth and others observe that women comprise the majority of solo travelers. They also say that tours to exotic destinations draw the highest numbers of solo travelers overall. “Where we really see a high concentration of solo travelers, as many as 30% to 40%, is to exotic places like Cambodia,” she says. “The group tour offers a sense of safety and the chance to share the experience.”
The fast-moving market for solo travelers is creating a prime sales opportunity for travel agents. Agents need only take the time to understand the needs and demographics of a changing market and familiarize themselves with suppliers’ range of products and pricing for individual travelers.
Travel agents may even have an edge in this fast-growth market. According to a report by Mintel, a market research firm based in the UK, solo travelers are more likely than other travelers to seek assistance from travel agents, rather than book online.
Among agents who find this to be true is Patricia Klippel, CTA, of Cardoza Bungey Travel, an ASTA-member agency in Palo Alto, CA. “The needs of solo travelers are more complex and are usually not served by going online,” she says.
For Klippel, selling successfully to solo clients starts with having a thorough knowledge of what suppliers offer. “There’s a big difference among suppliers in how they serve the solo market,” she says. “For instance, some cruise lines are much more accommodating to solo travelers than others. You have to know which ones to stay away from.”
If clients have hesitations about traveling solo, agents can play a valuable role in educating them about what to expect, according to Drumm. He notes that clients may assume that all of their fellow travelers will be couples or that they may feel lost among the crowd.
“It’s important to let them know that there are a lot more single people traveling these days and they won’t feel ostracized,” he says. “In particular, small group tours are hospitable to singles. Our guides are trained to pay attention to the needs of solo travelers, to make sure they feel engaged.”
Halboth recommends that agents seeking to develop more solo travel business get the word out that the niche is among their specialties. Agents should make their expertise visible on their websites or social media platforms, while actively promoting special deals for solo travelers through email blasts and other marketing means, she says.
Halboth believes there’s a lot of untapped solo business that agents are missing, including the opportunity to book single accommodations for an additional person. “If you are booking a couple on a tour or a cruise, ask if there’s a friend
or relative they might want to bring along,” she says. “Perhaps the mother-in-law would like to join them on a river cruise — in her own stateroom, of course. These situations are becoming more common.”
Agents should also consider approaching one of the growing number of clubs for solo travelers or even consider starting one of their own, according to Wiseman. The solo travel clubs offer agents the chance to earn especially lucrative commissions, he adds.
“Agents can earn an average commission of up to $5,840 per group,” says Wiseman. “We’re happy to work with our agent partners to book and offer special group rates and benefits for these clubs.”
Single supplements: A growing number of tour operators and cruise lines are waiving or reducing single supplement charges on selected departures or for bookings made during selected periods. Examples include Cosmos, which is offering $200 off the single supplement on all tours booked between September and December 2015, while Alexander + Roberts is waiving the supplement on several departures to Egypt.
Studio staterooms: Norwegian Cruise Line, which introduced Studio staterooms for solo travelers on the Epic a few years ago, is adding them to other ships, including the Escape, scheduled to debut in October. The staterooms have no single supplement charges and include access to a special lounge. Other lines introducing single staterooms on new ships include Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises.
Boomer market: Tour operators expect Baby Boomers, who are now retiring and include more singles than previous generations, to drive demand for solo travel in the years ahead — particularly the female boomers, who are seasoned travelers. A&K has conducted research showing that 70% of its solo customers are female, with more than half of them between the ages of 55 and 69.