In the fall of 2012, U.S. Travel Association embarked on a multiyear research initiative aimed at better understanding not just the travel experience, but also the benefits of travel across many dimensions. The campaign, called Travel Effect, would take two parallel paths: A review of existing studies as well as original research through surveys, interviews and primary data sources, such as census information and historical economic reporting.
Now more than six months into that initiative, we’ve already compiled a wealth of information relevant for a broad spectrum of society, from CEOs and policymakers to students and parents. One of the through lines emerging from this body of research is that travel is an investment that yields immediate as well as long-term returns — a fact as true for families around the kitchen table as for directors around the board room.
But for me personally, there’s another theme that links so many of our findings: Of all of the ways that Americans can work towards healthier, engaged and meaningful lives as they age, travel may be unique in that it can positively impact such a wide range of issues important to baby boomers and older Americans and offers opportunities to thrive in all the spheres of our lives.
Cognitive & Physical Health
Arguably the most important challenge facing older Americans is maintaining good health, a need that underpins all other possibilities. While Travel Effect will have much more information on this topic in the months ahead, we know from a large body of extant research that travel can improve health, primarily by mitigating stress.
A number of studies support this idea through self-reporting: In academic, commercial and government studies conducted throughout the past 30 years, a majority of individuals consistently indicate that they feel better and are better able to cope with stress after travel — even brief and ordinary excursions. In fact, a 2011 study of more than 3,500 travelers found the greatest benefits to wellbeing from frequent travel experiences throughout the year.
While the consistency of these reports is telling, more compelling to me is quantitative research linking travel and health. A study of more than 12,000 men at high risk for heart disease, for example, found that those who traveled more frequently had fewer heart attacks and strokes and were at lower risk for coronary heart disease. Other researchers have used saliva testing to establish a correlation between travel and lower levels of stress hormones. Still another study showed that among women over 65, those who traveled more had less declines in cognitive functioning.
Relationships & Family Cohesion
Multigenerational travel, or “grand travel” as it’s come to be called, has increased significantly in the United States in recent years. Experts credit this partly to a dramatic rise in the number of grandparents with grandchildren under the age of 18 living with them (7.0 million in the 2010 census), but certainly the increase is also due to A) the fact that Americans are living longer and remaining healthy and active as they age, and B) changing ideas about the roles of grandparents.
A number of studies over the years have shown that family travel increases family bonding, improves family communication and strengthens family cohesion, but I was particularly pleased with the findings of our own recent research, a survey of 2,500 adults and 1,100 youth conducted by Harris Interactive, that adds to the body of knowledge on this this topic.
One of the standout findings debunks the cynical media image of kids — especially teens — reluctantly dragged through family vacations. In fact, we found that more than half of the youth surveyed felt strongly that vacations brought their families closer, and a full 93 percent described vacations as opportunities for quality time with their parents.
As it turns out, this is one of those rare points on which America’s youth and elders agree. Adults 55 and older are the biggest advocates for multigenerational travel and young people highly value travel with grandparents. Roughly 80 percent saw multigenerational travel as an opportunity for quality time with their grandparents, 60 percent reported feeling closer to their grandparents after traveling together and about half said that those travel experiences led to learning new things about their grandparents.
While I’m excited by our growing understanding of the impact that travel can have on our health and our families, when I think of my own trajectory, the most significant dimension of travel — its most transformative potential for older adults — is its promise of lifelong learning. Whether driving to a neighboring state to care for a loved one or exploring far-off islands on a month-long eco-cruise, travel is a repeated chain of experience and reflection, the two essential components of experiential education.
Importantly, this kind of education is available to everyone, because the content and context of the experience is unimportant — what matters is the process itself. While we are still exploring the connection between travel as a kind of cognitive firewall as I mentioned earlier, other research shows that seniors who travel, without exception, reported learning something from the experience. That learning was sometimes related to destination, e.g. culture or geography, but these older Americans also reported gaining self-knowledge through travel. Put another way, by taking us out of our daily routine, travel — no matter how mundane the journey — has the power to give us fresh insight even into that which we know better than anything else: Ourselves.
Extending this idea of travel as a means to lifelong learning just one step further, I’m fascinated by the implications of these findings in light of another study we recently completed with the help of Oxford Economics, this one into travel and business. Our inquiry focused on travel and organizational success, and the findings tell an impressive story. As just one example, decades of data show that for every $1 companies invest in business travel, they realize $2.90 in new profits — an ROI of nearly 300 percent.
But what interests me today — and an area where I hope to see more research in the future — is that nexus of travel, business and lifelong learning. We know, for example, that conferences and conventions account for more than 40 percent of business travel, and more than 75 percent of business travelers see those events as critical to building industry partnerships and gaining industry insights. Similarly more than 75 percent see travel for internal meetings as an important tool for internal communications and sharing ideas.
As Americans continue to work later in life, to what extent can travel be a part of their professional success and to the success they help bring to their organizations? For leaders in particular, business travel is not only one more way to stay relevant in the workforce but also to better disseminate the experience and institutional knowledge that older executives uniquely can offer their companies and industries. In this view, travel can and should be a two-way tool for older professionals, helping them both learn and teach, making them more highly-valuable employees and leaders even as they build functional capacity in generations of younger workers.
A Call to Lead
I’ve been fortunate for my many opportunities to lead people and organizations doing great work, and having worked in tourism and hospitality since I was a teenager, I admit that ideas about travel and leadership are, for me, overlapping. But I don’t believe one needs my combination of experiences to find this common import linking what we’re learning about travel and opportunities for older adults: A call to lead and a means to do so.
At a fundamental level, travel has a significant role to play in staying well, physically, mentally and emotionally. Only by taking care of these needs first can we have agency in the world around us. In the personal sphere, travel offers aging Americans a chance to take the lead in building stronger families and, by extension, stronger communities, creating experiences that bring generations of parents and children together. And in the personal as well as professional and public spheres, travel is a ticket to learn. In an organizational setting, it can mean senior leadership with not only a wellspring of experience but also more incisive and current industry knowledge. In a broader view, the most unique asset boomers and aging Americans have is what we know; travel is a means to continually grow that asset.
From an early age, I understood at in intuitive level how much travel gave me, but it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve recognized how much it enables me to give back. This is, after all, what we’re called to do as we gradually trade speed and stamina for perspective and wisdom. I’m excited at how the Travel Effect research has already informed my understanding of the ways that travel fits into that calculus, and I look forward to sharing what more of we learn in the months ahead.
About the author
Roger Dow is the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the national umbrella organization representing all segments of travel in American, which generate $2 trillion in economic output annually.
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the mission of the U.S. Travel Association is to increase travel to and within the United States.
Dow has served in his present position since 2005. Prior to joining U.S. Travel, Dow advanced through the ranks at Marriott International in a career that began as a summer lifeguard at the sixth Marriott hotel and spanned 34 years to become senior vice president of global and field sales.