Opportunity & savings
Tours and services catering to solo travelers were already booming in the past decade, and the scramble for new customers is sparking innovation and what may be the foundation for a true surge in this market. The Covid-19 crisis has poured accelerant on an already rising niche.
At Intrepid Travel, half of all customers are solo travelers.
“It’s a massive market for us,” said chief customer officer Leigh Barnes. “Some are looking to travel alone but also connect with like-minded people, some want [a greater] level of comfort, confidence and safety. It’s an especially cost-effective way for solo travelers to do some of the more challenging trips that don’t get a high volume of traffic, like Antarctica or the Galapagos.”
Janice Waugh has been an avid traveler since she was a teenager, but after her husband died in 2006, she began to again venture off on her own. By 2009, she turned her passion into a new vocation, launching Solo Traveler, a website and community for those who love to travel alone.
“The growth since I started has been amazing,” Waugh said. “Even the term ‘solo traveler’ wasn’t part of the common parlance and few operators really catered to solos. Since then, I’ve watched it expand year over year over year. Options for solo travelers have grown by leaps and bounds.”
Ten years ago, Waugh said, it was typical for a single supplement to be 100%, meaning a solo traveler paid double for their room. Today, a 30% to 50% supplement is much more common, and some companies have eliminated it all together. Additionally, as demand has risen, tour operators are carving out additional space on their trips for travelers on their own.
The pandemic has brought a new surge of solo customers. At Audley Travel, the percentage of all new bookings that are solo has doubled, to 18%, since March, according to head of sales Marc Dolman. Given lower travel demand in general, Audley is looking at popular destinations and experiences that would typically be packed with tourists but today offer a rare opportunity to see them without crowds.
“There is a plethora of special offers out there from airlines and suppliers on the ground,” Dolman said. “They’ve just gone through a period of no revenue and are keen to get people back and traveling. Short term, there will be great value.”
Solo travelers are more likely to be flexible. Without the need to coordinate with family and friends, they often can travel on short notice, and in the pandemic, can more easily deal with changing health regulations and quarantines.
To stimulate sales, cancellation policies have become looser than ever, with many companies shortening the cutoff date by half, or even shorter. But tour operators know that financial considerations and flexibility aren’t enough for many travelers.
“With Covid, people’s confidence is down and we had to find a solution to raise confidence when it comes to safety,” G Adventures U.S. sales manager Jeremy Brady said, echoing many other tour providers. “We’ve looked at a range of things. We’ve reduced group size, we’re using all private transportation, we’re offering more flexibility in accommodations and providing individual rooms.”
Travel advisors, too, see opportunity, leveraging their skills to take care of last-minute changes, cancellations and rebookings. Solo travelers, who may not have companions to help them face problems that could arise on the road might become especially reliant on advisors.
“Travel advisors are absolutely crucial at this time,” said KC Hoppe, director of industry partnerships at California-based Backroads. “Dealing with airline and tour operators for refunds and credits when you book online is grueling and time-consuming. Policies change weekly, and having an advisor there to assist you and be your advocate is critical.”
Riviera River Cruises caters to solo travelers, offering roughly 40 sailings in the coming year with no single supplement. The company also does not advertise directly to consumers, relying on travel advisors. If a client does come to them directly, Riviera matches them with an advisor who receives the commission.
“Our tours will appeal to people who don’t want to worry about social distancing,” said Marilyn Conroy, Riviera’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, North America. “We have vessels built for 169 passengers, but are taking only 88 people.”
Waugh said she expects solo travelers to benefit even more in 2021 as travel companies adjust, adapt and reboot.
“I expect to see companies that did not previously target solo travelers marketing to the niche next spring,” Waugh said. “After the 2008 crash, in the spring of 2009, I started to see changes to singles supplements and other incentives.”