Holiday Decision Making: The Family Perspective
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The family market continues to be an important segment for the tourism industry and children have a huge influence on decisions about the family holiday or days out. This article considers demographics and trends and the characteristics of the family market, before going on to look at the participation of various family members in the decision-making process. It then explores how attractions can appeal to the family market by appealing to children.
Most tourism research focuses on individual travel motivations with little consideration of the negotiation and decision making that takes place when other people are involved. This article tries to establish the value and importance of children and families in planning tourism activities.
A quick trawl through the academic journals and databases proves there is limited research, and efforts to establish the current impact of children and families on the tourism industry are further hampered by the fact that most of what does exist dates back to the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2005 VisitBritain did produce an overview of quantitative research about family tourism which suggested that there had been a continual and steady increase in the value of the sector, although the number of UK-based family holidays was decreasing as travellers have taken advantage of budget airlines and lower accommodation costs overseas. In addition a previous Insights article from 2004, Meet the Family - Family Holidays in the UK, looked closely at this area.
In recent years there has been an explosion in family-focussed entertainment targeted at the day-trip and short-break markets, and this, combined with the impact of the current economic uncertainty in the airline industry, may start a return to UK holidays for more family groups. Other factors that emphasise the need to consider families as a key market segment include, as VisitBritain identified, the fact that there is a strong market with very young children who prefer to stay in the UK because it is easier than travelling overseas with youngsters.
There is therefore no doubt that family tourism in the UK is still a growing and potentially lucrative market. This article sets out to profile the role of family members in decision making, leading into a reinterpretation of the modern 'family visiting group' to provide recommendations for businesses based upon a profile of the recent growth in child-focussed entertainments.
The demographics of the family market have changed considerably over the last 50 years as social changes such as increased divorce rates, lower marriage rates and increased number of children born out of wedlock have completely transformed our view of the traditional nuclear family.
While family groups still account for 45% of the population, almost a quarter of families are now headed by a single parent, over 15% of families have parents that are not married and 10% of families have a parent who is not the mother/father of the children.
With Britain’s birthrate falling from almost three children per woman during the baby-boom in the 1960s to fewer than two children per woman today, the number of families in the UK is also on the decrease with forecasts by Mintel that the family market will decrease by around 1% per annum over the next five years.
Yet, while there has been a transformation in the shape of the family unit and the number of families is falling, this is still a very important market, accounting for a third of all domestic holidays in Britain during 2006 (source: Enjoy England).
In terms of general characteristics of the market, most families still look for seaside resorts and tend to prefer self-catering. They are forced to holiday during peak season because of school holidays so look for the best possible value for money, although there is a trend towards taking children out of school to enjoy lower prices, especially when holidaying in the UK where there is significant variation through the seasons.
With the financial pressures associated with raising a family, the family market is also one of the most cost-conscious, with around 15% of families unable to take annual holiday of 1-2 weeks and an estimated 10% of families unable to take a holiday at all.
Reflecting the need to be cautious with their finances and the volume of things they need to take with them for the children, family holidays also tend to be car-dependent, although they tend to stay for longer than average at a destination. Day trips and excursions will be independent and probably child focussed. This reflects the concerns of parents about children’s behaviour and the fact that the independence of self-catering offers families opportunities to change plans and choose activities carefully.
Other trends include a growth in younger families opting for camping and caravanning as a cheaper way to have more holidays, with the ready-made tent holiday offered in Europe offering an attractive overseas alternative, a market that is yet to really develop in the UK. 
Early research into the decision-making process for family holidays identified the man in the house as the lead decision maker and traditional ‘head of the household’ who would plan the family holiday. This was followed by a move towards the idea that women generally made shopping decisions and, therefore, the travel-buying decisions.
These findings were later supplanted by the idea of sub-decisions being made which break down a holiday into its various components, with men deciding cost, place and length of the break and women making decisions about how to travel and what activities and places to visit. 
However, more recent research now recognises that most travel decisions are made jointly between adults. Women tend to do the research about where to visit, but the adults as a group actually make the final decisions together. Researchers also tend to identify women as more active in the decision-making role when children are involved as they tend to empathise more with what the children may want to do.
Many researchers have not considered the role of the child as a decision-maker. Rather, the traditional view was that children were passive in the decision-making process with the adults making child-centric decisions. Yet even as youngsters, children can make suggestions about types of activities. This may not be very sophisticated and may be simply expressed as a desire to do a general activity, with the type and location of the activity being unimportant factors, eg wanting to go somewhere and play, without it being clear if they are thinking of the local park or a theme park. These are ideas, but not necessarily decisions, and children are likely to polarise experiences as good and bad, or fun and boring, attributes which the adult will apply to a place in empathy with the children.
As children become more mature, they become much more active in suggesting activities, but it takes some time for them to realise how much things cost or how long they take to get there. As their experiences develop and they develop favourite places and personal interests so the requests become more specific. Although a desire to see a train, for example, will not result in driving two hours to the nearest heritage steam railway, the parents may decide instead to go to the narrow-gauge railway in the park nearby, where they are likely to spend money on ice creams, the train ride and possibly other activities.
This is low-level tourism, but any 'local' attraction that can appeal to young audiences is likely to become a family favourite. Membership and loyalty schemes that offer cheap or free repeat visits can be very successful in developing secondary spend routes as yield management techniques.
In summary, adults (and especially mothers) remain the key decision makers when it comes to determining where the family will go for their holidays or days out. However, children do take an active part in the process by providing input on what they would like to do in more general terms. They are relatively passive in the specific decision-making of where exactly the family will go, although parents will, as already suggested, modify their decisions based on their child’s interests and tendencies.
Many parents gain considerable satisfaction from seeing their children having fun, especially if that fun is related to intellectual or physical stimulation and development, hence the growth in promotion of ‘edutainment’ as part of the visitor experience. They are also aware of the need to keep children happy and entertained in order to make the whole experience less stressful on the family as a whole.
One of the main ways for attractions to appeal to the family market is to focus on providing high-quality interpretation aimed at both children and their parents.
Zoos, museums and some sectors of the heritage market, for example, are particularly good at this, through hands-on exhibits or costumed tour guides and fun activities (the stately home that has a maze, or the castle with the recreation of a dungeon complete with torture equipment). Science and Discovery centres also provide a myriad of hands-on activities with the things that excite children most — water, electricity, fire, wind — and are more likely to generate repeat visits as the novelty value takes longer to wear off.
Any attraction that can provide high-quality edutainment has the added benefit of attracting education visits, which, whilst not necessarily generating the best level of admission fees, does result in good levels of cheaper souvenir sales and the likelihood that children who have enjoyed themselves will want to return with their family.
However, it is worth noting that all businesses that invest in this level of presentation have two challenges:
- maintenance and renewal costs
- the risk that once children have seen it and experienced it, it may be a case of ‘been there, done that’.
Therefore, the interpretation and activities need to be continually renewed, rotated or refreshed so that the offer does not become stale and that there is always a reason for families to return.
More affordable options include a focus on child-friendly interpretation, costumes and dressing-up rooms, toys corners and fun, child-friendly staff. Family events also bolster interest for families, but the impact of these isn’t necessarily ideal in the already busy summer months. Enhancing the quality of the experience and encouraging repeat visits can be an interesting starting point for an attraction. The provision of high-chairs in restaurants, activities and toys to play with, child-friendly shops and some play equipment are part of this process.
Opportunities for physical development are more rare and are traditionally found in sporting activities or through innovative uses of outdoor space. Over the last two decades there has been a massive growth in the innovation applied to traditional children’s playgrounds and play parks. This is also now complemented by the increasing number of indoor play barns.
Whilst they have been around for a number of years, many of these businesses now actively promote themselves in destination brochures. They are often incorporated into restaurants, resorts and, most importantly, as indoor features at predominately outdoor attractions, such as farm parks and theme parks, where they cater for younger children and provide a wet weather alternative.
A factor often overlooked is that parents have seemingly contradictory requirements when deciding where to go for their holiday – leisure with the family and leisure on their own. This dichotomy can be resolved by the provision of facilities that cater for both these needs at the same time. The beach is a classic example of this where there are activities that appeal to all members of the family – adults can sunbathe, read and relax while children can explore rockpools, build sandcastles and play games.
'Safe' play areas are similar in that they offer parents rare opportunities for socialisation, while regular attendance provides children with structure and opportunities to develop skills and confidence. Added to this is the knowledge that parents know that such places will offer all the facilities they need to look after children – baby changing, children’s meals and party facilities. These facilities are always expected by local families, but they are as relevant a part of the destination product as any other activity and in addition are now becoming a part of many family attractions.
Attractions are inevitably limited by what constitutes an affordable investment that will generate good returns (although some businesses are comfortable charging extra for soft-play facilities) and what is appropriate to their image and busines plans. For businesses keen to go down the play barn route —suppliers offer all sorts of financial support and business planning, but there is always the option of building your own. Numerous attractions have created innovative indoor activity facilities that can include pedal tractor circuits, creativity areas with pens, pencils and art equipment, china painting, play areas, or even a castle full of passageways built from straw.
From a destination’s perspective it is rather more complicated. Overtly promoting a child-friendly destination may be off-putting for traditional markets, although if the destination is serious about attracting these groups, separate themed campaigns should be encouraged. This is an opportunity to showcase play barns, family-friendly pubs and restaurants and hands-on activities, alongside opportunities for parents to have a break away from their children.
The unpredictable nature of summer weather has knocked consumer confidence in the traditional British holiday. Wet weather activities are therefore essential, as are the provision of baby changing, high-chairs, attractive, safe accommodation (no high balconies or glass picture windows) and flexible bedrooms for groups of different sizes. Family groups have a strong aversion for places with large numbers of single-sex groups or high crime levels and prefer resorts and accommodation with additional facilities such as a swimming pool and play area.
Local authorities involved in destination planning also need to recognise the value of family attractions and proactively support the development of children’s facilities within the destination and at individual attractions, to ensure that this valuable market return year on year and is offered something new each time. This helps the destination to be seen as modern and weather-proof.
The traditional family unit has evolved into a series of more complex relationships with cohabiting parents, different step-children living in different places, single parents and same-sex parents. While demographic changes mean that the family market is slowing shrinking, it will continue to remain a very large and important segment of the tourism market for many years to come.
There are also good economic reasons for businesses to continue to attract the family market, due to their longer length of stay at a destination and the fact they are a valuable source of secondary spend, often requiring refreshments and souvenirs. Therefore, the provision of visually attractive food and gifts is a good way to encourage mum and dad to answer the constant demands of their progeny.
Despite the financial strains that families face, leisure time is still highly valued and parents are prepared to spend money to have fun and a good family experience. Ultimately parents want simplicity, safety, convenience and independence, and as VisitBritain recommended in its 2005 report, they are keen to “save valuable time, money and hassle”. While the decision-making process is still in the hands of the parents, children have a growing role in setting the general scope of the holiday.
Therefore attractions that want to attract the family market need to appeal to children on an emotional level while also appealing to adults on a more practical level – does it provide value for money, is it easy to access, does it have family friendly facilities, is it “good” for the child’s upbringing (eg providing the child with educational, physical or social opportunities).
And finally, there is the need to ensure that the attraction continues to provide opportunities for the adults to have their own holiday within the family holiday – whether this is through adult-oriented activities, differing levels of interpretation at the one attraction or simply with the opportunity to take a break from looking after the children.
Overseas tour operators have been very quick to recognise and cater for the requirements of families and provide holiday packages that have benefits for all members of the family. However, with the increase in congestion at airports and the slowdown in the economy, there is now a real opportunity for the domestic tourism industry to regain a larger share of this market by providing the right tourism products.
Peter Robinson BA(Hons), MA, MTMI, MTS is a senior lecturer at University of Wolverhampton and Course Leader for Work Based Learning, Continuing Professional Development & Entertainment Industries Management, where he has won awards for development of a distance learning course and as an early practitioner in academia.
Previous experience in the public, private and voluntary sectors includes working in management teams in a range of roles that have included Tourism Development Officer, Visitor Services Manager and Tourism Projects Manager.
Peter has also worked as an independent tourism consultant for organisations including Shropshire & Derbyshire County Councils, the National Trust and a number of SMEs. Peter's research interest lies in the field of community-led tourism development, sociology of tourism marketing and pedagogy of distance learning, areas of study in which he is a building a strong portfolio of publications and conference papers.