The figures speak for themselves – with over half the adult population now classifying themselves as single, solo travel is becoming more and more popular. Sam Ballard speaks to industry insiders about the huge opportunities, but also why lone travellers should be treated just like any other customer
It may not surprise you – given that you are reading a magazine dedicated to solo travel – but the market for single travellers is booming. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics reported that 51 per cent of people aged over 16 in England and Wales classified themselves as single.
It was the first time on record that our living habits had showed this type of demographic shift. What’s more, the evidence suggests that the trend is continuing.
In Abta’s 2016 Holiday Habits Report, the trade body said that 13 per cent of people holidayed alone last year. The reason cited? Solo travel allowed people the opportunity to do what they wanted while on holiday, which was crucial to 79 per cent of those who went solo. For 25 to 34-year-olds that figure rose to 90 per cent.
The report adds: “Those over the age of 65 are most likely to holiday alone (18 per cent) and for them, ‘travelling to a new destination’ is a key driver with 45 per cent stating this as a reason.”
The most interesting point about that last statistic is how unexceptional it is. Think about it: while there are many areas where agents are desperate to try and unlock the single market – and find out what makes the solo traveller tick – the reality is that solo travellers are looking for what the majority of us are seeking: authentic experiences to bucket-list destinations.
For the experts, who are already selling to the sector well, it is all about knowing that many of the same travel desires exist in singles as they do in couples or groups of friends. From there, you can tailor their experiences accordingly.
“Solo travellers must be treated the same as any other traveller. They are subjected to the same trends as anyone else,” explains Rob Hitchings, the owner of Nomadic Travel. “Having said that, the solo travel industry is better than it’s ever been before. There is more awareness about what is needed for the market. When you look at what holidays were like in the 1970s and 1980s – as in mainly Mediterranean, family holidays – there are now far more opportunities for worldwide travel.”
Hitchings, who says that his three most popular destinations for solo travellers are Costa Rica, Peru and Vietnam, adds that the key to cracking the market is flexibility.
“You have to be able to offer a range of choice to your clients,” he says. “Not only for destinations, but also about how independent they want to be. Would they like to travel in a group or do they want to go on their own? How social are they? The product line-up now manages to accommodate so much that there is a holiday out there for everybody.”
Elaine Hopkinson, of Footloose Travel, agrees, adding that one demographic in particular is feeling more confident after the industry-wide improvements: “We are seeing a huge number of solo female enquiries. Which is great,” she explains. “As women now feel more comfortable travelling on their own. They usually prefer to go on group holidays, where you meet
a group of people (up to around 16 people) and travel around together.
“Our demographic is usually between 40 and 60 and we have seen a huge increase in them wanting to travel in this way,” she says. “They are keen to make friends and most are happy to be on a sharing basis with someone of the same sex during the trips. I think this is because travel is so much more accessible now, the comfort that tour companies bring, such as meet and greet services and transfers to and from airports, travelling in numbers and having an English-speaking guide all contributes to giving them the confidence they need to go a little out of their comfort zones and explore different countries and cultures.”
For those dealing with a client who is recently single – either because of separation or bereavement – then travel agents can have a role to play in their road to recovery, Hitchings explains.
“A lot of customers are recently bereaved and might be lacking in confidence if they’re taking their first holiday,” he says. “They might be feeling a bit low and taking that first holiday on their own is an important step to take. There is certainly a counselling aspect to it.”
All of this comes less down to trends but more about the groundwork an agency needs to do if it wants to take its solo business seriously. The statistics show that it’s worth it, too. One company, G Adventures, estimates that more than 50 per cent of its bookings are for singles. Fred Olsen Cruise Lines dedicates 10 per cent of every sailing to solo passengers.
For Hopkinson and Footloose it’s all about getting into the mindset of a solo traveller.
“We have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be a solo traveller as all of the Footloose staff have travelled on their own and experienced a range of destinations by themselves in Africa, South America and Asia,” she explains. “This helps when instilling confidence into nervous first time solo travellers or people who want to branch out on their own but just don’t have any friends or relatives that want to experience the same things as they do.”
For those agents that are prepared are prepared to do the work then it will pay off. Bryan Young, the managing director of G Adventures EMEA, explains: “Eighty per cent of our bookings come through the trade. For us it is a massive part of our business and it is all about understanding what the customer wants.”
As our travel habits change and more and more people venture out on holiday on their own, the more opportunities there will be for travel agents to capitalise on the industry.