Reasons to travelOK, now that it is finally 2012, it’s time to ask that question of questions burning a hole into the back screens of agents’ computers around North America: What does the American leisure traveler of 2012 want?

Travel industry pundit Peter Yesawich, now of MMGY Global, has been out surveying 2,500 American households that can provide this insight and has offered up a “windshield” view of what travel may be in the year 2012. His annual study of the industry: Portrait Of American Travelers, zeros in on who is traveling, what’s influencing them and how they make their travel plans.

Travel Angst

Leading off the report, discussed at a travel conference last month in Los Angeles, are the findings that half the U.S. population is planning a vacation and while that number is more or less the same as the year before, the study noted an increased frequency of trips planned this year even if the number of people traveling remained flat. What concerns to travelers have about the prospect of traveling? In a word: oil. While the price of gas concerned 53% of travelers in 2011, this year that worry has shot up to 68%.

From 2007 to 2011 travel went through a roller coaster of austerity and popularity swings, starting in October 2008 when travel reached its most recent nadir (and only 72.2% of households queried had plans for traveling) to February 2009, when that number jumped to more than 90% of the respondents. But that was the year, according to Yesawich and many others in the industry with 20/20 hindsight, that everything went on sale. That exuberance and deal grabbing lasted through the first quarter of 2011 before succumbing to increased consumer anxiety.Reasons to travel

“It all went down,” says Yesawich, “affordability, money and time. The recession was not over, according to the American consumer.”

Cheap Chic

And while sitting on the sidelines, the American consumer became more sophisticated with how they procured travel and engaged in travel promotions. The survey’s most recent numbers indicate 34% of traveling consumers use direct online coupons and direct market offers, 30% of travelers wait for sales and 28% do their booking online.

“What we’re seeing is ‘the new frugal,’” says Yesawich. “Cheaper is chicer.”

The typical adult today takes at least four leisure trips a year, one or more of those trips resulting from a last minute decision booked within a week of departure. This practice has been exacerbated by flash sales, especially as distributed by airlines and hotels to their databases. And some 20% of leisure travelers are buying off unsolicited promotions that come through their email window – up from 16% a year ago.

One of the great variables driving travel this year is something Yesawich has coined “Share of Clock.” Reasons to travelThese can also be recognized as “Speed Vacations,” such as weekend trips. In fact, weekend trips will comprise 50% of all trips Americans take this year, he adds.

“There is an inherent potential in trips taken closer to home. Call them “Staycations.” Still, 30% of American travelers will choose a trip within 50 miles of home as an alternative to a leisure vacation this year and this is not because of the cost of gasoline. It’s because of time,” says Yesawich.

Travel Directions

For the year ahead, the survey shows that 57% of Americans want to take a special vacation this year. They want to go to Europe first and foremost (61%), then the Caribbean (46%), then it’s Oceania (34%), Mexico (28%) and Asia (24%). Of those Americans who want to travel, although most have no children (66%), some 40% of adults who took vacations last year, took those vacations with children. Travel with children is the largest sector of the travel industry pie and is growing steadily.

Also growing is the number of adults who say they are stressed out and want to travel as a means toward reducing stress. Some 76% of survey respondents – the highest number ever – said they needed to find stress-busters. Spa travel has spiked as a result.

“Travelers want to be comfortable and because the journey has become so stressful for a lot of people, the destination should not be,” says Yesawich. “Travelers now expect good beds, high threadcount sheets, soft lightings, even aromatherapies.”

Enter the Travel Agent

So how do they find what they want and get the assurance of the soft sheets they expect? Sure, travelers use the Internet. But they are also using travel agents, says Yesawich. The percentage of travelers using traditional travel agents has been going up, not down, over the past three years. Unfortunately, the percentage is still low, though. The survey indicates that two in ten active travelers use the services of a traditional agency – a figure that went up from 15% to 18% over the past two years. Millennials (26%) are more likely than Xers (22%) or boomers (12%) to use a travel agent. And Xers are more likely than Matures (20%) to do so.

Regarding the perceived influence of traditional travel agents, roughly six in ten leisure travelers who have used these services say the agent is most influential when it comes to recommendations on hotels or resorts, vacation packages or tours, airlines or specific destinations.

Five in ten leisure travelers who use agents find them to be particularly influential when selecting a cruise line or travel insurance. Some four in ten say their travel agent influenced their decision about a car rental. And a third of leisure travelers found their travel agent to be influential when selecting travel by rail.

Around half, or a little less, of the households surveyed conveyed a confidence and comfort in booking their travel online through an online agency. They were most likely to make decisions based on recommendations of family and friends (79%), but also made decisions based on information from guidebooks (59%), online agency information (55%), social media reviews (53%) and online articles on company or destination websites (48%).

Reasons to travel

Fare Compare

“What American travelers want to be able to do most is check prices, get a lowest price guarantee and compare fees and rates,” says Yesawich. “Meta-search now reflects the way people like to buy. If I search for ‘where can I go for $400’ vs. ‘where do I want to go,’ the game changes completely. People are not just planning by destination but also by budget and you have sites such as Yapta, SniqueAway, DealBase Groupon, and TravelAlertz that speak to those questions.”

What this means for travel agents who want to compete in a world of instant information is one word: transparency.

“Consumers need to see price transparency through their interactions,” says Yesawich. “And agents can speak to this by offering the best price on travel for their customer’s time.”