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Family Travel: It's Back, But It Never Went Away

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 6/23/2016
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, Family Travel

Family travel is the most natural thing in the world. Before the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, family travel didn't have a name. It was just "life." When we talk about family travel, we are getting very close to the core of human existence. We modern humans are evolved from people who travelled in extended family groups their whole lives.

There are human tribes in Africa, Australia and South America that are still hunter gatherers. The fact that they are so similar even though they are so isolated from each other, gives credence to the idea that they probably do live as our species lived prehistorically. Humans are family travellers.

Family TravelOur species is not alone in that. Family travel is the pattern for most animals. They migrate in herds, packs, prides or other extended family groups. We are told that they travel in search of food. But I don't think it's just about food.

Sure, food is at the center of the activities of all animals, including us foodie humans. But I think life is much more than that, even for the beasts. I've seen the impala and wildebeests frolicking in the wilderness, running, dancing and fighting. It looks to me like they enjoy their migrations. It's their way of life, a ritual of their species. Every year they follow the migratory cycle. It's their participation in the wheel of life.

We don't know how animals experience things, but we know how we experience travel. We love it. We find it exhilarating. The new experiences push us out of our ruts, make us feel truly alive and alert. The travel industry never lacks for customers because it is built on the fact that human beings are migratory animals, and to keep us restrained within borders is in opposition to our nature. We get cabin fever. We have to get out and move.

I suspect that our ancestors enjoyed the scenery and the natural beauty of the earth as we do. My guess is that they enjoyed travelling, moving around and looking at things along the way. Life was one big family travel experience.

The Surging Popularity of Family Travel

Today family travel is a big business.

Families have always been a part of the group tour market. But tour operators have recognized that there is a great demand for family travel services and it requires specialized practices to serve it. So they have developed programs dedicated to that market.

The underlying objective of family tours is the same as for other group tours: to create a plan, an itinerary and a program of activities that will help guests get the most possible out of their limited time in a special place. Tour planners must figure out ways to structure the itinerary so it gives guests the richest possible experience of the destination. Planning for family groups presents special challenges.

The landscape of family travel changed profoundly at the turn of the millennium.

According to the market research of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, the top priority in the minds of the majority of Americans in 2000 was making money. But that year the stock market tech bubble burst and the market lost a third of its value, wiping away many people’s retirement savings.

Before that shock had fully sunk in, Americans experienced 9/11. By the time the dust had settled, the priorities of Americans had shifted. Seven out of 10 said they had become more introspective and wished they had more time to spend with their families.

The shift created a surge in demand for family travel and tour operators were alert to the trend. They saw increasing numbers of multigenerational groups on their regular tours, so they began developing specialized tours for families. One of the leaders was Tauck, which went into research and development mode and came out with a new tour brand called Bridges. The idea was to create bridges between travellers and local cultures, and between different generations.

Most family travel programs before were based on providing special activities to occupy the children and free the parents for some time on their own. What Tauck realized was that families did not want only separate activities for parents and children. What they wanted most were activities that all age groups could enjoy together, that would create bonding experiences and shared memories. Tauck called it "shared enrichment."

In 2008 another stock market crash sent repercussions through American society, crippling many businesses. But instead of slowing the demand for family travel, the crash intensified the need for people to spend time with their families.

Now as baby boomers move into their retirement and their peak travel years, they are the prime movers of travel markets. And what boomers want most of all is to travel with their children and grandchildren.

People today are less interested in material things than experiences. They want to create shared experiences and memories with their loved ones. Today’s travellers are more experienced than ever, and they want to share travel experiences with their families.

The Growth of Family Travel

Although the demand for family travel is strong, servicing it is no cinch. It is not as simple as just designating specific tour departures for families. Organizing a family trip, as most people know who have tried, is a complex task, with some inevitable snares.

A kid's definition of a great holiday and an adult's are worlds apart. Parents and grandparents also have differences. To be successful a family trip must have plenty of things kids love to do, plenty for adults to do, and plenty for the different age groups to enjoy together.

Anyone who has ever taken a family holiday knows it can be very difficult to organize everything and keep everyone harmonious in spite of different preferences. When a group is together for an extended period, little problems can boil up into bigger problems. There are always decisions to be made and problems to solve when travelling. The problems will fall into the lap of whoever is organizing the trip, and that person may need another holiday when the trip is over. 

A tour operator's job is, as Tauck's President Jennifer Tombaugh has said, to "remove all that hassle, all those challenging points of trying to navigate the map, and satisfy everyone in your family for what they're going to do the next day. It's especially for the moms, because they are typically the ones doing the planning. To be able to throw off that weight and let the planning and the choreography, all the details, headaches and hassles be taken care of by someone else gives you a unique opportunity to be present in the moment with your family."

As the market evolves tour operators are competing to find new and better ways to set the stage for transcendent bonding experiences among family members.

Gorilla Families on the Move

I have never encountered any hunter gatherers, but an intriguing encounter with mountain gorillas in the rainforest in Virunga Massif in East Africa gave me food for thought about the travelling lifestyle of our ancestors.

The gorillas are beautiful creatures, one of the closest animal relatives to humans. I found them to be highly intriguing and beautiful creatures and felt a deep kinship with them.

After hiking for hours through the mountain rainforest, my group came upon a gorilla family with about 20 members. It was a special day, a new baby had been born. We could see the little thing at its mother's breast, though we had to keep our distance to protect it from germs.

Their lifestyle is to travel every day. They roam across the mountainscape and find a nice tree to sleep in for the night. One stands watch on the ground while the other family members sleep in the tree. The next morning they move on to another spot.

They are vegetarians and they find fresh food everywhere. They eat grasses, roots, vines and stalks with relish. As I watched them it occurred to me that what they reminded me of was a human family on holiday. They were just hanging out, enjoying the environment, helping themselves to a cornucopia of fine culinary delicacies. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. For them, the holiday never ends and they never go back to work. I have no idea what goes on in their heads, but they did seem to be enjoying themselves.

That night, when I went back to the lodge I walked outside and looked up at the clear African sky packed with an explosion of stars more abundant than I had ever seen. I thought of my gorilla friends and the new baby. By then they were probably sleeping. As I thought of them, their way of life appealed to me.

They have this, I thought. Every night they have these stars, this big sky, the fresh air that fills your lungs with vitality. They have that fantastically gorgeous environment in the Virunga Mountains, where a row of eight volcanoes created a patch of some of the most fertile land in the world, producing rich vegetation in a dazzlingly colourful landscape. And it changes every day as they travel from place to place.

That lifestyle is our history. It's a big part of who we are today. At our core we are all just family travellers.

Until we meet again I remain,

Your Humble Servant,

A. Colin Treadwell

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