Snowbird Travel: Flocking South or Not?

January 07, 2021
old woman with a little girl walking on a bridge

The usual flock of older North Americans, mostly Canadian, looking to travel this winter to  escape the cold, all agree on one thing: uncertainty. With very little clarity on the future among this group – called snowbirds – let’s focus in on what we all do know. These snowbirds still have time, resources and a desire to travel. It just won’t look like the same flock that we’re used to seeing each year.

Moving forward into the winter, DMOs and destinations need to be aware of a few things before they start targeting this ever-so coveted winter set of travelers. Rethinking how your destination frames travel for these seniors may help you drive the flock your way, eventually!

Know the People
According to Snowbird Advisor, there are three camps of snowbirds. There are those who have already decided to travel and won’t change. Those that have decided not to travel and are fixed in their choice. And then the rest, which includes the bulk of people who are waiting to see how COVID-19 shakes out as the vaccine does its thing. With cases continuing to rise, and borders still closing and opening with no regularity, the unknowns are too multiple for many people to make a choice just yet.

Add to this the fact that most snowbirds, traditionally at least, are seniors, and thus at higher risk for complications due to COVID-19. It’s a tricky situation for these individuals.

All of this uncertainty and risk doesn’t mean they don’t want to or aren’t going to travel. It just means that they will be more calculated in choosing a destination and how they get there. Understanding this is the first step for destinations to decide whether or not to pursue snowbirds at all.

The Challenges
There are hurdles everywhere, it seems. As stated above, travel restrictions and health concerns are just part of the picture. More than just convincing snowbirds that travel will be safe and possible, this group needs convincing, more than other groups might, that all the risk and strife is worth it. Issues with insurance and even returning to the country are all very real challenges to overcome before senior snowbirds will feel confident in their decision to hit the road or skies.

By promoting the concrete benefits of a destination for seniors and snowbirds, DMOs might be able to make the case that, in fact, the risk is minimal and the hassle is minor. It won’t be an easy sell, if we’re being honest. Seniors, many living on a fixed income, will be hard-pressed to choose a beach vacation over visiting their grandchildren, for example.

Those with resources to travel multiple times in comfort may not be so reticent, but still, your destination needs to speak clearly to snowbirds, to spell out in the simplest terms why they should come now and what to expect.

Another challenge, stated simply, may be to let the snowbirds stay home this winter. While not ideal, it’s something that destinations will have to accept should reality require it.

The Possibilities and Strategies
That said, where we see hurdles, we also see the chance to jump higher than ever. Challenges are meant to be overcome, after all.

While traditional snowbird travel may be up in the air, there may be a possibility for destinations to position themselves as multigenerational family vacation spots. By providing packages and experiences able to be shared by both grandparents and grandchildren, it removes the difficult choice that some seniors may have to make between escaping the cold and visiting their families. Why not merge the two worlds? Destinations like Barbados require quarantine and testing upon arrival, meaning everyone can be together safely.

This could be the booster shot for the gramping trend that was on the rise before COVID hit!

For other destinations who can wait a bit, delayed snowbird vacations, or more flexible packages, are the way forward. Promote something for later in the winter, when it will still be cold in the north, when people will still need an escape, and hope that a vaccine may arrive by then. If it doesn’t, be sure to avoid penalizing snowbirds or else you can bet they won’t fly your way in the future.

Another option is to explore senior-only experiences in your destination where travelers feel they are in a more controlled environment with like-minded people. The feeling of camaraderie, of knowing that there are others who are equally as cautious, may build a travel bubble that will allow some snowbirds to flock together and enjoy your destination. Where seniors used to hop on cruises to relax, maybe they can pop down south for a seniors-only week at a resort – we’re thinking outside of the box here!

What will be a game changer?
If the vaccine roll-out is effective and herd immunity comes more quickly than expected in 2021, it may not be inconceivable that some snowbirds will flock south a bit later than usual, but flock nonetheless. Realistically, however, it’s not prudent to depend on the vaccine or put all efforts on hold when possibilities exist. This is the time to get creative.

In the meantime, destinations also need to be patient. Vacation spots in the Caribbean and in places like Florida that traditionally rely on snowbird travel may, instead, focus efforts on locals who are also staying closer to home, who may be interested in exploring possibilities and experiences in their backyards in new ways.

The reassuring takeaway is that snowbirds aren’t lost forever. While so much of the travel industry will be forever changed, we can certainly count on the bitter cold to chase travelers south in the future, once the pandemic becomes a thing of the past!

Curious to rethink your strategies for attracting snowbird travel this upcoming winter? The usual tricks may not work, but DCI has 60 years of experience guiding destinations through recovery processes, and this will be no different. Get in touch with Kayla Leska at [email protected] to learn more about the unique demands and expectations of snowbird travelers during this pandemic.