By Carl Ribaudo and Lauren Schlau
Travel Analytics Group
Hiding in plain sight. While the world was dealing with the COVID -19 pandemic, and likely one of its outcomes, the United States was further polarizing around nearly every cultural issue. Red and blue, black and white, male and female, and young and old became more vividly divided.
As our divisions become starker, it seems like everyday decisions would be influenced by which side of the dividing line a person stands. That is, how much do social issues and political perspectives influence product and brand choices, and especially, where people choose to take a vacation?
Given this situation, we conducted research to help illuminate the extent that U.S. consumers' social/political positions and their perceptions of a destination's political/socio-orientation influenced decision-making to visit that destination.
What we found first was surprising, and with deeper analysis, the findings made sense in today's world. Political orientation, gender, race, and age, and the values within those segments are in play every day in the consumer marketplace. According to the 2020 Consumer Culture Report, "71% of consumers prefer buying from companies aligned with their values. Twenty-one percent of Baby Boomers surveyed say buying from brands that share their values and ideologies is essential; with Generation Xers, this rises to 50%, and for Millennials, even more, 62% believe it is important." (Consumer Culture Report, 2020)
The research underscores the importance of aligning brand, company values, and ethos with their existing and prospective customer's values in order to remain competitive and relevant.
Consumers not only purchase from companies and products aligned with their social or political beliefs, but two in three have boycotted a company they previously purchased from because of its stance on an issue.
Political orientation also influences where we live. A recent study by Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos suggests people live near others from the same political party. Using spatial data computation, the authors present evidence of extensive partisan segregation throughout the country. (New York Times, 2021)
If political alignment influences the products, we buy and where we live, wouldn't political orientation, gender, age, race, personal values, and purchase behavior influence tourism destination selection?
Our findings show that as much as 39% of those politically oriented to the right indicate a destination's political orientation influences the types of places they visit. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed on the left indicate the same. Those that identified themselves in the center politically were the least influenced by the political orientation of a destination they would consider visiting.
Political Orientation Influence on Types of Places You Would Visit
Source: Travel Analytics Group, Social Issues and Values Survey
These findings suggest significant implications for tourism destinations. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for destination marketing organizations is that they do not have total control over messages that visitors and potential visitors receive. A destination's political perception is shaped Internally by residents, politicians, and externally by others outside of tourism, such as media and social media influencers. Examples of this are found at every level.
At the state level, in Georgia consumers have reacted to the to changes in voting regulations. This has so far resulted in Major League Baseball withdrawing the All-Star game, as well as critical responses from Delta Airlines and Coca Cola, two of Georgia's most venerable headquarters corporations, now joined by a host of other companies based in and outside the state.
How much impact does ongoing protests in Portland influence consumer decisions to or not to travel there? In California's trendy and desirable Huntington Beach, , this city recently was the location of a KKK rally. How many consumers will decide whether this is or is not a coastal resort they want to visit?
The political orientation issue can also be regionalized as DMOs in the South have had to reassess issues related to public confrontations over confederate monuments by those both for and against their removal.
Amidst this polarization and politicization, DMOs must still promote the destination. While they are crafting inviting messages to visit, some are being undermined by political events beyond their control, that may or may not be influencing decision making, potentially gaining support from some or losing interest to visit among others.
More recently, some DMOs indicate they want to attract the "right kind of visitors," that is, those who match their destination's values. Which side of the divide will consumers perceive they are on in taking this positioning and is it the logical extension of a divided country?
Historically the tourism industry has been about communicating destination attributes and largely avoiding politics, but it seems inevitable that polarization would reach the tourism industry. In this new territory destinations will need to be very nuanced moving forward. Be careful; taking a position can turn off some of the significant visitor segments or align with others. It could attract entirely new visitor segments looking for a place where they feel comfortable or lose segments it has taken years to develop. But not taking a position can have the same impact in this divided society. The key is to learn who is coming to the destination and why through thorough research and then building loyalty with messaging and positioning based on solid data.
About the Authors
LAUREN SCHLAU is a tourism industry market researcher and, known for her expertise and experience in the travel/tourism, hospitality, downtown districts, retail, and cultural arts sectors, related to economic development.
Carl Ribaudo is a thought leader, analyst and strategist serving the tourism industry.