Analysis: Can agents cash in on the solo travel boom?

Analysis: Can agents cash in on the solo travel boom?

There was a time when the phrase ‘solo traveler’ would have conjured images of backpacking youths or the well-heeled doing the Grand Tour courtesy of a private income. It’s a bit different today.

BRMB data, drawn from 25,000 UK adults surveyed by GB TGI, appears to back-up the traditional profile by indicating there is 30% more chance a solo holiday maker will be male compared with 27% female and that they are less likely to book package holidays.

But the experience of specialist solo operators is different again.  Their customer base tends to be over 40 years of age with 60:40 ratio in favour of women. The fact is, the market for solo holidays is becoming more diverse – thanks to the changing face of the UK population.

Whether it’s by choice or circumstance an increasing proportion of Brits are going it alone in life. According to the Town and Country Planning Association 31% of UK households are single occupancy and, as the Office of National Statistics recently revealed, marriage is at its lowest rate since records began.

We are living longer – in less than 25 years’ time one in four of us will be over 65 and so are more likely to experience the bereavement of a spouse or martial break-up and even those in relationships now find it acceptable to pursue their own interests when on holiday.

How this will impact the travel industry remains to be seen, but for the proactive agent, being prepared for an increased demand for holidaying alone is a prudent move in current market conditions.

For one specialist, Solo Holidays, the demographic shift means there is all to play for. The company has been trading direct with consumers for 27 years but recently, for the first time, decided to sell through the trade.

“Our customers are very loyal and come back year after year – we have 90% repeat business. We want to add to that and the high street will give us access to different customers,” said Andrew Williams, md, Solo Holidays. 

“The big challenge is that, traditionally, companies such as ours have not worked with agents.  Although agents will be well used to booking singles in the mainstream market, our customers may be single but they will not be travelling on their own – that’s what we have to get over to the trade,” said Williams.

The same male/female ratio applies at the Adventure Company, where 50% of its Worldwide Adventures clients are single travellers. There are lots of reasons why people choose to travel alone, said Vicky Gallear, agency sales manager.

“Some just prefer to, you get a certain freedom when you aren’t travelling with a friend or spouse,” she said. “Others just like different types of holidays to their friends so they go their separate ways when it comes to going away. Some people (for one reason or another) have no one else to travel with, and that can be for a multitude of reasons from time constraints to bereavement/divorce.”

The key for these specialists is to gain the confidence of potential clients by ensuring they will feel comfortable being part of a group and to know they have the freedom to do what they want – and that is something agents need to understand if they are to grab a piece of the solo action.

Justin Coles, agency sales manager, Mark Warner agreed the biggest bar to solo travel is the fear of fitting in. “Single guests are not made to sit alone at the same table for every mealtime so are free to mingle with other guests.

"Indeed we try to facilitate this further by organizing a weekly “social” meal for those adults travelling alone or with other friends to eat together and meet new people, often accompanied by light-hearted low-key entertainment,” she said.

Growth in solo holidays is not limited to adventure and activity breaks as Andy Harmer director of business development, ACE, explained.

“The number of single travellers is on the increase, although still small. It was around 5% of bookings in 2007, which looks small but is now against a large number of total passengers as cruising has also grown over the past few years.

"The growth is being driven by the exceptional value that cruising offers, and the opportunity to holiday with link-minded people,” he said.

“There are a number of travel agencies that work hard to attract single travellers, such as someone2travelwith. They can see that the single market is growing and that with often a higher disposable income they are a good target market.

"With agents looking for areas of the market where they can specialise, or add value, or target new customers, single travellers certainly offer new opportunities both for agencies and cruise lines,” said Harmer.

Of course, there remain financial deterrents to solo travel – single supplement being one – although some specialists get round this by offering shared occupancy and last minute deals reducing the surcharge.

On the plus side, solo travelers do not have the added expense of a child or partner and so may be more willing to indulge themselves with add-ons  – as BMBR statistics show, the average cost of a solo holiday is £612 compared with £778 for a couple.

The recession may be nipping at the industry’s heels, but as Williams at Solo Holidays points out the solo market has a good deal of potential. “We have customers who book two or three holidays a year – they might have a long haul a short haul and a weekend break in the UK.

"Now they may only book one or two instead of two or three but, in the main, they are still prepared to spend money on a holiday for themselves,” he said.


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