People were amazed when it first became apparent in the late 1990s, that Durham, North Carolina drew a higher percentage of visitors through the jointly owned Raleigh-Durham International Airport than any other city in its vast service area.
Studies a few years earlier had also confirmed that the vast majority of these visitors as well as overall visitation to Durham were point-to-point, meaning that the “Bull City” was their ultimate destination and they were not just passing through nor only tacking it on as a stopover.
Many DMOs and even more state and local officials obsess with airports as gateways, but on average, nationwide, including places such as Durham, more than 85% of domestic person-trips taken, including the overwhelming majority of those taken for business including conferences, are done as road trips.
This isn’t counting visitors from within a 50 miles radius, although studies show that Southerners are inclined to travel as far as 244 miles round trip for a day trip, or up to 122 miles each way.
This is the sweet spot that many Destination marketers miss, especially small, emerging destinations where it should be the strategic focus.
It is useful to focus on Gen X and Baby Boomers because more than half of Millennials feel they don’t have the time for even a day trip, and even then it is primilary a foodie trip (35%.)
So studies of road-trippers focus on people who are 45+ years old where the incidence for leisure road trips is between 85% and 89% although it is people in their 60s who are the most active road-trippers.
Only a third of road-trippers fully plan their trips in advance and only half try new new destinations. But while for men driving it is the destination that matters, women are more given to relaxation and rejuvenation.
An exception may be road-trippers who use vacation rentals, where half of women drivers put the “pedal to the metal” while 29% of male drivers are open to the “long and leisurely” route.
Outside of trips for year-end holidays, road trips potential overall is evenly spread from May through October.
Making road-trippers unlikely to being “intercepted” enroute is that 72% stick only to the main roads - while 5% take scenic routes and 23% take a combination.
Billboards are especially useless for this purpose because 73% of road-trippers now use GPS including 43% who have in-dash systems. Google is the other preferred app for pit stops along the way.
It is more likely that a destination can appeal to the 30% of road-trippers who look beyond the ultimate destination by reaching them online as they search popular end-desintations, more so on the outbound leg than the return.
Cities or towns town are the most popular destinations, followed by a friend or family members home. Cities in the South are twice as popular as beaches and seven times more popular as mountains.
Only 2% take cross country road trips such as you have read about on this blog and only 1% starts off with no particular destination in mind.
For those who are open to stop-overs, a destination might appeal to 29% for a park or beach for a little over three hours. The same percentage is open to stopping in a city or town along the way for up to 4 hours.
Local culture falls next in popularity with museums appealing to 15%, winery tours (8%), concerts/theater (5%) and sporting events (3%.)
But remember, even in these instances, any stops in route are more likely outbound than on the return and 4-in-10 make absolutely no stops enroute.
For nearly three-quarters, road trips are their favorite way to travel and 87% make them three times a year.
DMOs for unfamiliar destinations are best advised to focus on nearby cities for demand and then for day trips and short weekends until that demand can justify additional capacity.
Any advertising done by a DMO trying to encourage stops enroute or in an an attempt to draw day trips or short weekend road trips from residents of nearby cities needs to be online, not on billboards, with a focus on search results.
Remember 3-in-4 use GPS and more and more move that direction each year. They are more and more likely to be annoyed by roadside blight.
So a priority must be ensuring the regular submission of indepth GPS data for streets and highways as well as continually prodding and assisting all tourism related businesses, organizations and events to secure and “own” their online/GPS “real estate.”
Many states, including North Carolina, still seem to perpetuate the illusion that road trips are serial in nature and/or that visitors to a destination can be lured into driving to other communities for things easily found where they are visiting.
In part, this is why so many communities still engage in predatory marketing.
But that model hasn’t been aligned with consumer behavior for 50-70 years, if ever. Travelers via all modes very rarely venture more than seven miles even within their primary destination.
DMO marketing doesn’t have to be “rocket science” but hubris, including that among local officials as well as misinformation from other DMOs, can make it a lot more difficult.
Focusing on instate road-trippers may lack sex appeal but it is a very lucrative strategy for destinations of any size.