Young, hip and very clean

At 60 years old, Contiki continues to be the trendiest tour company for young ones, with fingers on top spots and experiences. Now, it boasts 100 per cent carbon neutral trips. Adam Armstrong, global CEO, Contiki, takes Karen Yue through the company’s progress.

Contiki is positioned for a young travelling community but the brand is 60 years old this year. How does a grand old dame ensure she is always connected with the 18-35 year-olds?
Well, I’ve never heard of Contiki being called a grand old dame before (laughs). She is 60 years young. We have quite a young team and that connects us to what the 18-35 year-olds are doing, what holidays they are searching for, and how they are consuming media.

We also ask travellers themselves (via) surveys. We get excellent feedback from our travellers through our trip managers, and research from internal and external sources.

We created the Contiki Travel Lounge on Facebook during the pandemic. The idea is for it to be a departure lounge, where people would wait before they could fly and trade travel stories.

All these information help our teams to shape our new itineraries as well as our sustainability journey.

Can you walk me down memory lane and tell me how travel motivations of this age group have changed through the decades?
That’s going to be quite a walk! Back in 1962, our founder John Anderson took a group of 16 around in a minibus, and they camped every night on their long journey which was advertised on a poster in a university bar.

The motivations remain the same – travellers want an unforgettable journey, see many destinations, discover culture, and they want to do this with like-minded people and make some lifelong connections.

What has changed is the demographic – our customers today are more educated. Social media did not exist back in the 60s. Now, travellers can get a lot of information on the destination through social media, and that sets their expectations high.

In previous generations, travellers want to go to all the marquee destinations, go for a drink at night, and do it all again the next few days. Trips had more of a party atmosphere.

Today, it is less about the party and more about getting under the skin of the destination. A lot of our travellers now do not drink alcohol and have different dietary requirements. They also have a genuine interest to get beyond the stereotypical marquee destinations. That means a desire to meet local people and eat in local restaurants, rather than just being on the tourist trail. But, at the same time, they still enjoy having their photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Contiki has learnt to be really good at getting that mix right between the big tourist sights and off-the-beaten-track experiences.

Another demographic change is the global mix of travellers. Contiki’s clientele was initially predominantly Aussies and Kiwis. Now, we are far more likely to see North Americans, Asians, Europeans and Africans together in a group.

How have your programmes evolved then?
On all our trips of more than seven days, which is the majority, we will fit in one Make Travel Matter experience. That is developed by our Contiki Cares initiative, which is part of The TreadRight Foundation, a non-profit organisation established by our parent company, The Travel Corporation (TTC). These experiences get our groups to interact with people, planet and wildlife.

We run an included walking tour in Berlin that is led by a Syrian refugee, so our travellers get to see the city sights but also hear a different narrative from someone who has come to live in Germany.

Our product has moved away from camping as an accommodation style, and onwards to hostels and hotels. We still do glamping in some locations, though. We have added new destinations, like Africa. One of our goals is to take people to more of the off-the-beaten-track, developing areas. We have also retired destinations that are no longer safe to go. We have created shorter itineraries, even weekend trips, and introduced rail journeys.

I guess the biggest change for us is making 100 per cent of our trips carbon-neutral this year.

How do travellers in your target age bracket regard responsible tourism, and how do their environmental expectations impact their travel choices with Contiki?
Going carbon neutral is just the latest in our long journey to sustainability. There is a lot of data about the growing importance of sustainability. Most Gen Zs choose brands based on their sustainability credentials. Going carbon neutral is therefore good for the environment and for the business.

It has been an interesting experience for us in shaping our carbon neutral messaging. I thought that Contiki going 100 per cent carbon neutral is a great message, and we should talk about it loud and proud. But the engagement we got has been muted. So, my conclusion is that people expect it and don’t need you to be banging on drums to talk about it. To the 18, 19-year-olds today, it is great that you are responsible, but they want to get back to the fundamentals of the product.

What else is being done to ensure that every trip is hugely meaningful with the smallest environment impact?
We have food waste reduction programmes in the two hotels that Contiki owns, and expect the same of our hotel and restaurant partners; we use renewable and clean energy for our offices and coaches; we have eliminated single-use plastics, etc.

Our journey to carbon neutrality requires a lot of work. First, we have to measure. Then, there is a load of initiatives around reducing emissions. After that, we offset what we cannot reduce and invest in carbon capture initiatives.

The Chateau Big Weekender is Contiki’s big anniversary party – why is this special?
The Château by Contiki is very special to us. It is one of only two properties that are exclusive to Contiki. We had a big round of renovation just before Covid, but it remained empty for two years. It will be the first time we are getting people into it with the party.

We will have good food and wine, great DJs spinning, pool parties, painting classes, yoga sessions, wine tasting, and more. Activities will be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, and food will be sourced locally within France.

Most of the people attending the party will be paying travellers – the lifeblood of Contiki.

What’s next after this milestone?
Celebrations are spread across a 12-month calendar, starting in April.

For the rest of the year, we will continue to focus on returning to normal operations; bringing on destinations that we wanted to launch before the pandemic; building the next stage towards net zero; finding new customers, especially from Asia; and re-engaging travel agents, as many have left the industry during the pandemic.

Travel is experiencing accessibility challenges. How do these obstacles impact Contiki’s ability to engage the young adults and get them to explore the world?
It is a challenging year. On one hand you have immense pent-up travel demand, and on the other hand great difficulties to travel – or so says the mainstream media.

I have been travelling the last couple of months. It isn’t as straightforward as it used to be but it is doable.

In terms of airlift, there are pricing and capacity issues but our customers will fly complex routes if the price is right. Flight limitations have not impacted us much.

In terms of political impact on travel, I see the volatile global environment deterring some customers in our target age group. This demographic is very aware of world events. For example, bookings from our European and Australian guests for the US have not been quite the same as the past. The situation in Ukraine has also led demand for Europe to shift slightly towards the Western region and away from the East.

Here’s one thing that is important – the younger end of our target market has been badly impacted by the pandemic. They are starting their career, and are most affected by redundancies and furloughs. They are most impacted by virtual living. They are therefore desperate to travel but lack the money to do so. They will have to delay their travels, or stay closer to home.

Despite these challenges, we are having a fairly good year.

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