The travel industry needs to understand the mindset of its Millennial employees, not just its customers

As Millennials occupy a larger share of the global workforce, is the travel industry doing enough to adapt to the mindset of Millennial employees, as well as its customers?

It’s conference season again, a frenetic time for those of us who work in the travel industry as events, forums and seminars pop up in rapid succession in different corners of the globe. As well as connecting people and bringing them up to date with trends, most of the big tourism industry conferences and exhibitions include a seminars and workshops dedicated to the people – i.e., the workforce- who make the industry work day-in, day-out.

However it has always seemed to me that such workshops seem to be tacked onto the programme as an afterthought, with students only allowed into the big exhibitions on the closing days and seminars dedicated to human resources shunted to fringes of the conference schedule. I suppose this happens because these big events are mostly geared towards marketing and product development, with other aspects of business operation taking second place. Still, it’s ironic for and industry which, as we are often reminded, is about ‘people to people relationships’ and which needs skilled, dynamic, tech savvy and globally-minded employees more than ever.

At the end of last month I attended an event in China that got me thinking. I had been invited to speak at the UNWTO-PATA Forum on Asia Tourism Trends & Outlook, a two-day event in the picturesque city of Guilin in southern China. Joining a panel on emerging consumer trends in the travel industry, I was asked to paint a picture of how Millennials as consumers are shaping marketing and product development in tourism. This is something I’ve spoken about widely, and you can find more resources on my own website).

On occasions, as is common in such events, some older speakers and members of this very international audience seemed to refer to Millennials as almost another species; an incomprehensible tech-addicted tribe who seem only to pose a threat to the way things have progressed in the travel industry until now.

Most of their comments weren’t meant negatively, but I could detect a note of apprehension among some of the older delegates about quite what this tribe was doing to the travel industry. Would their addiction to technology lead to a shift towards preferring virtual experiences vs. real life? Would artificial intelligence (eg. computers answering queries instead of humans) wipe out more jobs and the essential ‘human’ dimension to customer service? Will anyone put the brakes on sharing economy services (driven at least early on, by Millennials as both users and providers) which circumvent regulations and marginalise traditional tourism businesses?

We don’t yet know the full answer to those questions, though while it’s easy to get excited about gadgets and startled by the rapid progress of start-ups, surely it’s also wise to come back down to earth and consider the here-and-now. It’s also probably wise not to tarnish a whole generation with one brush and instead work out why Millennials exhibit certain patterns of behaviour and approach their consumer decisions in a certain way. Besides, Millennials are diverse – we’re talking about a whole age segment from 15-35 years from all corners of the globe, after all.   millennials-planning-soc

Later in the programme, Hong Kong Polytechnic University presented a panel with four young participants who were just starting out in the travel industry as employees. The speakers, all Millennials from Australia, China, Germany and South Korea were quick to draw parallels between their experience as Millennial customers and employees as travel companies. The key lesson was that businesses that want to recruit and retain talented young staff increasingly need to reflect on their behaviour as sellers, as employers and as investors too, because potential Millennial employees pay attention to all these things and are ready to call out behaviour which they find distasteful, immoral or unfair. Millennials as consumers, employees and investors themselves are showing similar patterns of concern when spending their money and deciding where they’d like to work. After all, Millennials grew up as the first wave of social media users and amid the era of 24-hour news. As a result they are far more in tune with the impact of their actions on the local community and those further afield, not to mention their own health and wellbeing.

Leonie Bowles, a former UNWTO colleague of mine, and now Lecturer at University of Queensland made several interesting observations as a Millennial herself and as someone who works with tourism students:

  • Millennials are interested in social entrepreneurship and want to make a difference. If you can’t offer them that, they’ll create it themselves, or seek it elsewhere.
  • Tertiary education matters. Prospective employers should engage with higher education institutions and use the opportunity to ask young people about their values, work out what really matters to them and what they want to do in the future.
  • Through seeking to create a positive impact on their local community (in Australia, volunteering among young people is at an all-time high), Millennials are oten creating change and improving the lives of others where nobody was bothering before, or where public services have ceased to get involved.
  • Social entrepreneurship (as well as many other sectors such as startups, NGOs) are now career propositions which often seem more attractive than the corporate world since they seem far more cutting-edge and offer the chance to make some demonstrable impact. As consumers, Millennials are also prepared to pay more for goods that come with good, honest and fair credentials.
  • Rewarding Millennials doesn’t have to cost a lot of money in terms of salaries (though this is a generation under pressure). Non-monetary compensation; time off to engage in local initiatives, personal development and the opportunity to build life skills all help to build loyalty among employees.
  • Businesses need to demonstrate flexibility, individuality and empowerment. Organisations by their nature rally against change, but they it’s only by striking out and being different that they will stand out as good prospective employers.
  • You don’t have to be a Millennial to work well with Millennials but if you take the time to listen to them and understand their point of view, it can pay back hugely.

As I listened to this group talk honestly, and without arrogance or a personal agenda about how travel and tourism businesses could show better understanding and support for their Millennial employees in return for a healthy dose of passion and a desire to make a difference, something important occurred to me: Having Millennial employees who want to give their views known on how the business is run isn’t a threat, it’s a privilege. This will prove essential for helping employers to adapt, and survive in the future.

Still, the challenges for the travel industry are clear. Of course many of the start-ups and huge online businesses that have emerged in recent years depend on having a young, dynamic tech-savvy workforce, and put in place respectable measures to retain them. Trivago seems to be a good example. There are many smaller companies too, and I have many friends and colleagues in the travel industry who go out of their way to bring inexperienced young people into their organisations and put them in a position where they can flourish.

Still, on the whole, changing HR practices to suit the next generation of employees can present a huge challenge. Earlier this year I was invited to explain to the members of the Air Travel Action Group (made up of the world’s biggest airlines, airport groups and aircraft manufacturers) in the Group’s annual report how they would need to change their thinking:

As an industry defined by punishing schedules and the challenge of delivering profitability, the air transport industry may struggle to meet millennials in the middle when it comes to fulfilling those expectations on social responsibility and a better work-life balance, especially since they are now shared across the globe. Breaking down the silos and gender imbalances that still persist within the industry will be vital too since millennials’ attitudes towards diversity are strikingly different to older generations.

Airlines work hard to show a welcoming, diverse face to their customers, but can the same yet be said of the image they present to their potential employees? They can surely do more to show that they respect and welcome differences in age, gender, race and sexuality because millennials increasingly expect it. In short, if recruiting the best talent is necessary to remain competitive (after all, employees are one of the few elements that truly stand out in an industry which offers a standardised product) then the industry will have to take note of millennials’ deeply-felt aspirations and demonstrate what it can do to help this generation meet its personal and professional ambitions in a meaningful way.
(View the full report here)

Do you think there is a fundamental difference in the way that businesses in the tourism sector engage with Millennials as customers and as employees? Which industries risk falling behind?  There is clearly much more to discuss on the similarities and differences in the way that travel and tourism businesses interact with Millennials and I hope to return to the subject soon. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your own opinions.

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