Selling Dreams to a Generation of Realists: How Travel Marketers Can Tap Gen Z

Selling Dreams to a Generation of Realists: How Travel Marketers Can Tap Gen Z

By Tarirai Chivore, VP, Strategy & Analytics at Big Spaceship

With skinny jeans, avocado toast, and filtered photos on the way out, brands must shift strategies to reach younger demographics in a meaningful way. But how?

To understand Gen Z’s relationship with travel, let’s start with how they engage on social media. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z has the desire to not come across as oversharing publicly. This mindset marks a departure from millennials, whose paragraph-long captions and posed Positano posts came to define the ideal Instagram back in 2017. Travel brands hopped on the fixation, offering sponsored deals to promote everything from hotels to airlines through hyper-curated, aspirational content. Now, brands must shift their approaches, finding organic ways to sell to a generation that hates feeling sold to.

Marketers can understand Gen Z’s travel experience through four key touchpoints in the consumer journey: Dreaming, Planning, Booking, and Experiencing.


Where Millennials idolize influencers and aspire toward exclusivity, Gen Z responds to people who look, sound, and feel like them. That means brands need to look, sound, and feel like Gen Z, toeing the line between aspirational and inspirational. They prioritize posts from friends, trusted sources, and, in a true generational shift, the algorithm, perhaps the most trusted friend of all.

Budget airline Ryanair has embraced this approach and emerged as one of TikTok’s most successful travel brands. With an audience of over 1.9 million and a view count of nearly 750K on several videos, Ryanair’s strategy succeeds according to Econsultancy because it “pokes fun at the reality of the travel industry (and its own reputation), referencing everything from difficult passengers to canceled flights…[proving] that younger consumers prefer honesty and relatability rather than polished content on social.”


Speaking of budget airlines, one Gen Zer said: “I would fly underneath the plane with all of the luggage if it was cheaper. I have zero brand loyalty.” Gen Zers will fly Southwest Airlines to avoid bag fees, but won’t fall for a mileage program that offers free bag checks after spending $20,000 on a brand-sponsored credit card. Compared to Millennials, Gen Z is 1.6 times less likely to belong to an airline loyalty program and nearly twice as unwilling to stay loyal to a hotel, according to Think by Google. Practical and savvy, Gen Z suffers zero fools and stays highly attuned to insider information. Brands need to prove loyalty by becoming one of those insiders.


According to The National Retail Federation, Gen Z spends four and a half hours online compared to their Millennial counterparts, making finding that one negative review the equivalent of finding hay in a haystack. As a result, brands need to actively work to build positive perceptions. One approach? User generated content. Delta Airlines embraced this mindset with the launch of its first-ever TikTok campaign, #FavoriteTripHashtagChallenge. The brand invited TikTokers to share videos about their favorite trips with the hashtag, generating engagement and positive sentiment around the brand. According to Skift, the campaign “garnered over 19.5 million views in its first 36 hours, thanks partly to a partnership with TikTok.”


Gen Z seeks authentic experiences, favoring local and underrated destinations over aesthetics and trends. Customized, values-driven recommendations go a long way, and brands should share these tips by embodying the same tone as Gen Z’s preferred insider: itself. Orbitz showcased its understanding of this mindset in 2021 with the launch of “Travel as You Are,” an LGBTQ+-focused campaign consisting of a film and microsite with search tools to find hotels that signed an inclusion pledge. The spot featured an all-LGBTQ+ cast filmed by LGBTQ+ director and photographer Cass Bird set to a cover of Lesley Gore’s 1964 hit, “You Don’t Own Me,” by experimental Brooklyn-based gay musician Serpentwithfeet.

Despite its debut in tandem with Pride Month, “Travel As You Are” marked a far cry from the rainbow-washing members of the LGBTQ+ community condemn. As The Drum notes: “The brand has a rich history of LGBTQ+ allyship; its advertising and marketing efforts have not only highlighted LGBTQ+ celebrities but have often commented on major social and political moments, including the 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 2019.” This reaffirmation of allyship is just the kind of thing Gen Z looks for when shaping its experience.

Pitfalls and Promise: Rethinking Commerce to Reach Gen Z

Sometimes, brands get it right: that perfect balance between aspirational and inspirational, speaking-to and speaking-with, overtly selling and making a friend. But, often, they crack and come back to the commerce of it all. Previous generations might tolerate an overtly capitalistic approach, but Gen Z will not. If you claim to have fabulous service, a trending TikTok will put your subpar snacks on blast. There’s only one way to grab hold of Gen Z: provide good experiences and then amplify those offerings within the language of social media. Because when it comes to travel, Gen Z means business.