Thought Leadership Sponsored by Apple Leisure Group Redefining Romance Key trends and strategies to boost your romance bookings March 16, 2018 Share 1 -- Romance isn’t what it used to be. And neither is romance travel, thanks to an array of generational, social and even technological changes. Travel agents who sell this niche, of course, have had to change too—and those who keep their finger on the pulse of shifting client preferences are reaping the rewards, selling more romance-oriented trips for a growing variety of motivations and desires. According to a recent trend report in The Knot, honeymooners crave increasingly diverse experiences, incorporating elements ranging from volunteer work to adventure activities and destination-specific culture and cuisine. “Gone are the days when couples settle for a week of doing nothing but lounging on the beach,” says Shelli Nornes, president and CEO of Romance Travel Group, an agency in Mankato, Minnesota. “Romance travel today is all about sharing authentic local experiences and capturing awe-inspiring moments unique to each destination.”Suppliers are taking note, too. “Today's couples are different from generations past,” says Timothy Mullen, president of Apple Vacations. “They're more active, splitting their time between quiet moments alone and active exploration of their destination. They're still doing couples’ spa treatments and many of the traditional activities, but they're also interested in culture, diving and other excursions they can experience together.”The new needs of modern romance travelers provide a perfect opportunity for advisors to demonstrate the range of their planning skills and the value of their expertise—read on for a look at the evolving trends you need to know when selling this niche.Love in the AirToday, romance-planning travel advisors have a wider business base than ever before, spanning a variety of generations, occasions and interests. For one thing, John Werner, president and COO at MAST Travel Network in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, says that the demographics of romance travelers are especially diverse today. “This type of travel is so desirable right now—it’s not a generational thing,” he says. “And the under 35 age group in particular is interested in celebrating every milestone in life by taking a trip, if they have the money and can take time away from work.”This new mindset represents increased opportunity for agents—but it doesn’t mean they should sit back and wait around for couples to come to them. To make sure they don’t miss any opportunities, “travel agents should have in-depth profiles of their customers, so they know who is marking a milestone in their life,” advises Werner. “Then they must remember to use that information to excite their customers, so they want to take a trip to celebrate.”Celebrating a milestone is a big motivator for romance trips, but it’s far from the only reason today’s couples are looking to travel together. “Culinary experiences are one of the primary motivations for romance travel decisions,” says Mullen. “Adventure getaways are also gaining steam as couples are becoming more active. This segment is poised for significant growth and will be a lucrative niche for savvy agents who specialize.”A couple’s interests and reasons for travel will certainly play a role in the destination they choose for their getaway. But regardless of the specifics, Werner finds that Mexico is an especially good fit for romance-minded vacationers. “Mexico is a huge romance travel destination, with so many beach resorts—many that are all-inclusive—as well as charming colonial cities,” he explains. “It’s not far from the U.S., with nonstop flights from many cities. It’s also very affordable.” This mix of appeals proves a winning combination for many couples, giving them access to a huge variety of activities, environments and properties at appealing price points.Wedding and Honeymoon TrendsThe way that clients approach destination weddings and honeymoons has also evolved over time. One change is that destination weddings and even honeymoons increasingly involve ever-larger numbers of travelers. “The interesting new request is the group honeymoon, where couples invite their friends to go with them on their honeymoon,” says Jennifer Doncsecz, CTIE, president of VIP Vacations, headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Werner, too, has seen this transition. “This segment has turned into a group trip,” he says. “So a travel advisor needs to be skilled at managing group travel and getting everyone from various origin points to the destination.”While price is always a factor, it’s not necessarily the only influence when it comes to choosing destinations and inclusions. For example, Nornes says that her clients are often more concerned with the overall experience than with the price tag for a wedding or honeymoon. “Price itself is not always the determining factor,” she explains. “The services, inclusions and expertise an agent offers to a wedding couple all determine the overall value. Do more, include more and know more to sell more.”Doncsecz is also seeing increased emphasis on the experience aspect of the destination weddings she plans, in some cases leading couples to eschew some of the usual trappings of an on-site wedding in favor of more experiential inclusions. “Today’s destination wedding couples are not as interested in the flowers, the cake and the etiquette of a traditional wedding,” she says. “They would prefer to have their guests walk away having had a great time. This means that they want fun, they want group excursions, they will spend more money on the experience features—like a cigar bar or a bonfire on the beach—and they want to capture these experiences with high-end photography as well as drone videos.”Mexico, which is always a top-selling destination for wedding travel, serves as an ideal example of these evolving wedding trends. According to Nornes, couples are still choosing the country for their nuptials, but want new things to do there; elements such as “unique wedding ceremony locations, themes and group activities are very important,” she says. “Couples are looking for ways to elevate the destination wedding experience.” What’s more, Nornes is finding that “many couples plan a more exotic honeymoon after their destination wedding”—another one of the ways the honeymoon scene is evolving for modern couples.Another change from honeymoon tradition is the importance of achieving a well-planned balance of contrasting experiences, instead of just relaxation and downtime. This is key to client satisfaction for Kendra Thornton, president of Royal Travel & Tours in Winnetka, Illinois, who says that “couples seem to be interested in combining active adventure and sightseeing with quiet beach time. Many of our honeymoon couples who are millennials are leaning toward adventure, global travel and culinary experiences. They want to explore parts of the world they have never seen before and experience different cultures and lifestyles.”Doncsecz also finds that a couple’s age and travel experience plays a role in what they want on their honeymoons: “Many honeymooners now are older and more well-traveled, so qualifying clients on their previous travels is key, asking what they liked or didn’t like on other vacations,” she says. “Asking for their key wishes or wants also can help narrow down options.”Maximize the Romance PotentialAs travelers and suppliers continue to expand the definition of romance travel, this increasingly broad category is limited only by the imaginations of those who sell it and those who buy it. From proposal trips and bachelor and bachelorette parties to anniversary celebration vacations and babymoons, there are plenty of occasions agents should be booking beyond traditional weddings and honeymoons. “This is a rapidly growing segment of the market,” says Werner. “Travel is about making memories, and what better way is there to celebrate the milestones in your life that you will remember forever.”Doncsecz confirms that travel concepts like babymoons, proposal trips and bachelorette parties have been popular at her agency for some time: “These types of escapes have been on the rise for many years.” In addition to selling the full roster of romantic trip types, recommending additional amenities and services can be a lucrative way for travel agents to maximize the potential of selling romance travel. Werner often suggests customized excursions and private limo transfers with champagne, while Thornton recommends boat charters and couples’ spa treatments. Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, says that excursions and trip extensions are perfect add-ons for couples and romance-oriented groups. “Nothing brings people together more than sharing an experience together,” he says. “Depending on the couple’s vacation style, this can be anything from sunset catamaran cruises to jungle ziplining adventures, cenote [underground caverns in Mexico] diving or the traditional private dinner on the beach. Pre- or post-trip additions can also be a great way to thank the parents of a wedding couple, and adding on an extra day or two can be an ideal way to increase the bonding time between the new friends that wedding parties create.”The Value of Travel AgentsConsumers have a lot of romantic travel choices at their fingertips today—so it’s up to travel agents to emphasize the value of the services they offer, and how their expertise will help their clients have the best possible experience.“Travel agents can not only tell their clients the best place to stay that matches their personalities, but can also can help their clients imagine how their dreams will be fulfilled,” Werner explains. “And of course, logistically, managing all the travel for the group that may be accompanying the couple is a huge burden lifted off the couple’s shoulders.”Nornes also stresses the value of her agency’s relationships with hotels and knowledge of top destinations. “It has taken us years of traveling the world to build our network of resort contacts, but it is so important for agents to do this,” she says. “Agents should go on at least three FAM trips per year. Staying current with the resorts, staff and DMCs is critical, and sets us apart from the online travel agency. Saying ‘I’ve been there!’ wins every time.”Like many savvy travel agents, Thornton also uses her professional relationships to create added value for clients—a huge benefit for couples in particular, and one that distinguishes the travel experience from anything they could have planned on their own. What’s more, providing the romantic perks that make a couple’s trip that much more memorable in turn encourages client loyalty and repeat business. “When we arrange for an unexpected surprise or extra amenity—chocolate-covered strawberries, rose petal bath or turndown, a bottle of champagne—to surprise and delight our clients on a romantic getaway, they are always so grateful and appreciative,” Thornton says. Apple Leisure Group Woos Travelers and Agents Apple Leisure Group, with its high-profile brands including Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions and AMResorts, offers a whole lot of romantic vacation options for travelers—as well as plenty of sales opportunities for travel agents. To further support the romance market, Travel Impressions, one of the nation's largest leisure tour operators, offering FIT vacations to over 200 destinations, has unveiled several innovations designed to enhance the process of booking destination weddings. “We’ve recently introduced Flex Groups, perfect for smaller and more intimate weddings and anniversaries, as well as launched our Destination Weddings calendar, which provides real-time live availability and instant date reservation for select suppliers,” says Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions. “In addition, we’ve partnered with Softrip, which will put control in our agent partners’ hands with new self-service technology that will allow them to edit bookings at their convenience.”Wiseman says the goal is to put travel agents in the best possible position to grow their business. “We treat agents as no less than our travel partners—which means we work to give them every possible advantage in the marketplace,” he explains. “We host FAMs, both in person and online, with our #OnLocaTIon series. We have programs like the Webcast Interactives and #WeekendLearning Series as part of our EducaTIon First initiative, and we have recently started to roll out access to our TI360° marketing hub. On top of that, we’re the leaders in destination weddings in Mexico and the Caribbean, and access to our knowledgeable staff further empowers agents to make the right recommendations.”Apple Vacations, a top-selling leader in all-inclusive vacations, is also a key player in the romance market, for individual romance trips as well as group bookings. In fact, according to Timothy Mullen, president of Apple Vacations, in 2017, destination weddings made up 40 percent of the brand’s total group sales. “And we’ve seen an increase in celebratory groups—girls’ getaways, birthdays and more,” he adds. To help travel agents get the word out, Mullen points out new enhanced digital offerings from Apple Vacations designed for travel agents. “As part of our ongoing digital marketing initiative to equip travel agents with easy-to-use social media tools and tips, Apple Vacations recently launched a Social Media Board exclusively for agents, accessible via the revamped Travel Agent Café,” he says. “Agents can take advantage of ready-made posts developed by marketing experts that are instantly shareable on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. With one click, agents can share engaging content to enhance their online presence and inspire bookings.”When it comes to locations and amenities, AMResorts boasts exceptional locales for destination weddings and honeymoons spread throughout six brands in Mexico, the Caribbean, Costa Rica and Panama: ultra-luxurious Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resorts; adults-only Secrets Resorts & Spas; exceptional Breathless Resorts & Spas; luxurious Dreams Resorts & Spas; vibrant and contemporary Now Resorts & Spas; and fun-filled Sunscape Resorts & Spas. Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. Look for competitive vacation and wedding packages at all these resorts. To learn more about Apple Leisure Group’s romance travel offerings, agent tools and more, visit AppleLeisureGroup.com.