Family travel continues to grow as a segment of the travel industry—so much so that a fledgling industry organization held a conference in the Sonoran Desert this week to celebrate and analyze it.
That group, the Family Travel Association (FTA), brought together suppliers, outfitters, service providers, travel agents, and members of the media for four days at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa in Tucson as part of its second annual summit.
The conversations ranged far and wide, with keynotes that touched on the importance of storytelling, conservation, and traveling with a purpose. Breakout sessions drilled down even deeper, spotlighting issues such as multigenerational travel, marketing to traveling families, voluntourism, the evolution of the sharing economy, and dude ranch vacations.
AFAR’s own editor in chief, Julia Cosgrove, participated in a panel discussion with yours truly (full disclosure: I sit on the FTA Board of Advisors) in a standing-room-only session that grappled with the subject of understanding Millennial travelers.
One of the highpoints of the summit was a speech by Estee Rivera Murdock, who coordinates the “Every Kid in a Park” program for the National Park Service. This program gives free year-long park passes to fourth graders and their families, and Murdock’s talk emphasized the importance of families exploring nature together.
“What makes this program special is that it is an invitation for many kids to visit parks for the first time,” she said. “Fourth grade is when students learn about local and regional history and is a critical period that you can capture kids if they haven’t ever been excited about these experiences.”
Another highlight: a keynote by Bill Street, corporate curator of conservation and education for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Street spoke about Sea World’s renewed commitment to teaching people about the environment and wowed the audience with details about the company’s “Youth Council,” a group of young people that Sea World mines for feedback, ideas, and suggestions about the future.
“Getting the opinions of young people is critical,” said Street, who noted the current council has more than a dozen youth members from all over the country. “Often they share ideas and impressions we grown-ups never even would have thought about.”
In addition to hosting these great talks, the FTA also released brand new family travel data that emerged from the second phase of an ongoing research collaboration with New York University’s School of Professional Studies Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. The data covered a variety of topics but overall noted that at least among travel providers, family travel is a healthy segment of the market that is expected to continue to grow.
Research data also drew a very clear picture of the most popular destinations for families. Number one on the list: the Caribbean and Central America, at almost 40 percent. Others on the list were Europe (34.9 percent), the U.S. West (26.7 percent), the U.S. South (19.8 percent), South America (15.1 percent), and Africa (14 percent).
The summit even included organized activities out and about in the area, including hikes in Sabino Canyon National Park, horseback riding at White Stallion Ranch, and dine-around in downtown Tucson, which last year was designated as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.
Looking forward, summit attendees discussed potential strategies for the future, including a formal Family Travel Day in 2017 to raise awareness about the importance of traveling as a clan. Stay tuned.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.