Michael Gallinari
Mike is a US Travel and Leisure Reports Analyst at Mintel. Mike writes reports about consumer travel preferences as well as leisure market research.

Even as it limited many areas of the overall travel industry, the pandemic hasn’t dampened travelers’ desire to explore the outdoors on vacation. The market has a challenge in appealing to a spectrum of travelers, from casual summer hikers to serious ski bums, but therein also lies opportunity. By acting on many of the underlying motivations, providers can encourage more frequent and varied participation outdoor activities.

Outdoor activity participant overview

More than three in five adults have taken a vacation in the last two years that included an outdoor activity, according to Mintel research on outdoor vacation activities. Travelers who are the most likely to participate in outdoor vacation activities are young, affluent men. Among parents, the most ardent participants have more than one child. These demographic descriptions hold regardless of whether outdoor activities are the focus of the trip or just one activity in a varied itinerary. These demographics track generally with travel trends overall, with higher-income travelers doing the most travel and those under age 55 engaging in more physically demanding activities.

Outdoor vacation activities are widespread

Nearly two-thirds of adults participated in at least one outdoor activity while on vacation in the past two years, signaling their overall popularity. Moreover, outdoor activities are not just resigned to trips dedicated to them (like camping or ski trips); rather, they are equally enjoyed by travelers who aren’t taking activity-focused trips (such as taking time for a hike during a multi-day sightseeing trip in a city). Therefore, opportunities exist for travel providers to use outdoor activities as a way to engage and attract guests.

The family vacation sweet spot

In the eyes of travelers, backpacking, biking and sleeping outdoors share the characteristics of being both memorable and good group activities. This makes them strong candidates for family vacations, especially as parents want to steer their kids away from more touristy destinations, according to Mintel research on US family vacations. Relaxation and escape are strong motivators for outdoor vacations and family vacations, respectively. Promoting both ideas can help engage vacationers interested in a more casual outdoor trip. These activities are also strongly correlated with being worth traveling a long distance for; this gives providers of these activities leeway to make their offerings more unique, and perhaps charge more for them.

Biking also has an opportunity to position itself as a unique experience. According to Mintel research on experiential travelers, seven in 10 travelers feel that people that have unique travel experiences are more interesting. Promoting a location’s bike trails can assist families and childless travelers alike in their journey to create their own unique experiences.

Travelers are interested year-round but prefer summer

Outdoor activities that are primarily done in warm weather have more appeal than those done in cold weather, with water-based activities like swimming being the most popular. Winter activities like skiing are pretty far down on the list of popular activities, indicating that cold-weather activities have less appeal than warm-weather options. Moreover, just one in five travelers enjoy activities in both warm and cold seasons, which means it may be hard for providers to encourage crossover appeal.

COVID-19 and cash are the biggest barriers

In the short term, outdoor activity providers must contend with the persistent worry consumers have about contracting COVID-19. To this end, they must continue to do what successful travel brands have done in assuaging consumers’ fears, such as enforcing strong mask-wearing and social distancing policies. Beyond the pandemic, cost is a significant barrier for many consumers; addressing this issue can be instrumental in encouraging more outdoor travel activities.

Because the pandemic has unevenly affected household income across the country, it is possible that 2021 will bring a widening “vacation gap,” with travel being limited to more affluent groups. Providers will be forced to try and expand a shrinking market for outdoor activities with budget-friendly options.

Motivations are varied across ages

Activity providers must appeal to travelers’ dual desires to engage in activities they already know and love, and to try something entirely new. How providers address these motivations will depend on the age of their audience. Even into middle age, travelers seek novelty in their activities and can be motivated to try an activity based on that (which is a bonus for less popular activities like surfing). Over the age of 55, newness has less appeal. Older travelers have established which activities they like, and can be convinced to pursue those activities as a way to explore the area around them.

What we think

Outdoor vacation activities have broad appeal because they work on multiple levels: they can be relaxing or active, beginner-friendly or expert level, fun in the sun, or delightfully chilly. Finding a mix that appeals to the appropriate regional and demographic group can help travel providers attract outdoorsy guests. As post-pandemic travel picks back up toward the back half of 2021, outdoor activities can help travelers relax, refresh and reconnect with their travel companions.

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