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The Emerging “Digital Elite”

A new class of dedicated traveler is changing the ways hoteliers should conduct business. Here’s how.

Friday, April 11, 2014
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Breaking news: We live in a digital world.

OK, so that would have been a good lead for a story 15 years ago, but it’s something that needs to be heard. We have finally hit the point here in the United States where people interact with their screens as much, if not more than, with people in the same room. I see it all the time with younger folks who were raised with the internet close at hand. And these days literally in the palm of everyone’s hands.

This new digital reality is inexorably altering the way people behave and interact, even in hotels. While hotels are still a great meeting place for real live human beings, most of them are tethered to devices in your hotels. And more of them than ever, but fewer than will be tomorrow.

As you have seen in your hotels people are no longer bringing just a smart phone or a laptop with them, they are bringing two, three or more devices to every hotel room they visit and sucking up bandwidth in record braking amounts. And the biggest problem has been providing ever increasing access to the internet with good connection speeds, which is of course increasing hotel expenses.

Fortunately evidence is emerging this new wave of travelers are visiting hotels more often than their non-digitally obsessed peers. That’s giving hoteliers the opportunity to find new ways to emotionally connect with guests and build loyalty.

That same desire and obsession to stay connected can be leveraged outside the hotel as well as inside to make more money from the same guests over and over again. So that higher bill you are needing to pay for the internet may not be a bad thing; look at the flip side, they are potentially spending more money in your hotel.

The real question is actually what are you doing to attract this new digital traveler?

But don’t believe me. A survey from MMGY Global/Harrison Group has uncovered the emergence of this new traveler, which the survey dubs the “Digital Elite.”

According to the survey, individuals owning and using at least two digital devices (a smartphone and tablet) to plan and purchase travel services, is soaring. In fact, the survey shows this segment has jumped from five percent of all active travelers in 2011 to fully one third (33 percent) today, an increase of over 600 percent.

That’s the sort of numbers that should make you pause and think about the massive sea change taking place in the way Americans consumer and utilize information.

“The travel industry should certainly study the emergence of this new group very carefully, as in many respects they represent the ‘next generation’ of travelers,” explains Steve Cohen, vice president of insights at MMGY Global, an integrated marketing firm that specializes in the travel industry. “We’ve found that the ‘Digital Elite’ not only travel and spend significantly more than other travelers, but they plan to spend even more in the year ahead.”

Check out this eyebrow raising facts gleaned from the survey.

  • A BURGEONING MARKET: The “Digital Elite” are defined as travelers who either own or access the internet on both a smartphone and tablet. Smartphone usage among active travelers has nearly tripled in just two years - from 23 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2013. Tablet adoption has been even more rapid, with only seven percent of travelers using them to access the internet in 2011, up six-fold to 43 percent this year.

  • FAMILY MATTERS: Half of the “Digital Elite” have children in their household (50 percent), compared with just 37 percent of less-connected travelers, consistent with their younger age, and revealing a discernible family focus. They are also much more likely to have traveled with their kids (51 compared to 38 percent) – and their kids have greater influence on practically all family activity decisions than in other households. For example, the “Digital Elite” are significantly more likely to agree that their children influence the actual selection of vacation destinations (78 vs. 70 percent).

  • DIGITAL TRAVELERS HAVE MORE FUN: Perhaps surprisingly, while on vacation the “Digital Elite” are considerably more likely to try to relax while staying in touch with the office (40 vs. 30 percent). As such, they desire more time to relax and unwind (86 vs. 81 percent), and engage in “relaxing” activities more on vacation than they do at home, including drinking alcoholic beverages (53 vs. 43 percent), making love (41 vs. 35 percent), sleeping (38 to 32 percent) and reading (38 to 34 percent).

  • HAVE DEVICES, WILL TRAVEL: During the past year, the “Digital Elite” took significantly more leisure trips than their counterparts - 4.1 compared to 3.7 – including weekend trips (2.1 vs. 1.8) and long trips (1.4 vs. 1.2). They were also much more likely to take a last-minute trip (31 vs. 22 percent) and a staycation (31 vs. 23 percent). These travelers also spent far more - an average of $4,988 compared to $3,812 than less-connected travelers - and intend to spend an average of $5,210 on leisure travel in the year ahead, compared to just $3,690 for their counterparts.

  • INTERNATIONAL INTERESTS: “The Digital Elite” are significantly more inclined to travel internationally, with more than half (53 percent) having taken at least one leisure trip outside the continental U.S. during the past year, compared with only 38 percent of less-connected travelers. Among them, six in 10 took a long-haul trip where the flight time exceeded eight hours (61 percent), while only 55 percent of travelers who own and use fewer devices have done so. And they are more likely to have visited Western Europe (39 vs. 29 percent) and the Caribbean (34 vs. 29 percent).

  • SOCIAL CONNECTIONS: The online social activities of the “Digital Elite” paint a far different picture than that of less-connected travelers. Eight in 10 are on Facebook (81 percent) compared to just 70 percent of those who own and use fewer digital devices, and nearly half are on LinkedIn (48 percent vs. 28 percent). More than three in 10 are active on Twitter (33 percent) compared to just 19 percent of their counterparts, and nearly one quarter (23 percent) is on YouTube (versus 19 percent) and Google (23 vs. 13 percent). Twice as many are on Pinterest (19 percent vs. 9 percent).

  • KEY TRAITS: Beyond their use of these devices, their personalities differ, too - the “Digital Elite” are significantly more likely to say they are “happy” (82 percent) than travelers who own and use fewer digital devices (72 percent). They are also much more likely to describe themselves as “fun” (54 vs. 46 percent), “confident” (52 vs. 47 percent) and “sociable” (47 vs. 40 percent). More describe themselves as “healthy” (50 percent) and “fit” (32 percent) than less-connected travelers (44 and 25 percent, respectively), and many more plan to “become healthier” (62 vs. 56 percent) and “improve their appearance” (42 vs. 34 percent) in the coming year.

  • SHOPPING HABITS: When it comes to finding the best prices for travel services, the “Digital Elite” more often turn to an online travel agency (OTA), with 53 percent doing so compared to 45 percent of less-connected travelers. The same goes for booking travel services, with significantly more of the “Digital Elite” believing that OTAs provide the most convenient way to arrange travel plans (49 percent) - significantly more than their travelers with fewer digital devices (43 percent).

  • PUSHING FOR BETTER WEB EXPERIENCE: The “Digital Elite” are driving the demand for better web content from the travel industry, with nine in 10 having made travel reservations online last year – 10 percent more than less-connected travelers. They are highly likely to find more sophisticated content, often designed specifically for the web shopping experience, as desirable. For example, think interactive maps that explore the destination (65 vs. 60 percent); downloadable coupons for savings on air tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars and vacation packages (62 vs. 56 percent); user-generated reviews or commentary from past visitors (58 vs. 47 percent); websites optimized for mobile (57 vs. 31 percent) and virtual tours of the area (56 vs. 52 percent). They are also significantly more likely to want an easy-to-use booking feature (76 vs. 72 percent), photos of the area (76 vs. to 72 percent) and the ability to preview room locations (74 vs. 65 percent).

The survey is fully reported in MMGY Global/Harrison Group 2013 Portrait of Digital Travelers™, a nationally representative survey of 1,258 U.S. households who are active users of digital devices.

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