Designing PaxEx around the Nonexistent Millennial

If you listen to one hotel brand, the travel experience millennials want in the Netherlands is to be helicoptered privately from their Amsterdam hotel to a UNESCO-listed tulip field and fed a picnic from a Michelin-starred restaurant. I wish this were the lead-in to a funny joke, but it was an actual example of What Millennial Travelers Want given at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg earlier this year.

Let’s be clear: The helicopter-tulip-Michelin-picnic is another example of the industry creating things for nonexistent millennials, driven by the sort of social media influencers that the industry itself has created. The industry has built a product with no demand, given it away “for exposure”, and then pointed to that exposure as demand.

This experience was roundly mocked at the time by the millennials in the room for many reasons, and deservedly so. For a start, and admitting that any generational discussion is a generalization, the vast majority of millennials do not have the money for this kind of wasteful, polluting demonstrative consumption.

Rather, this generation is socially, fiscally and environmentally conscious, enjoys authenticity of experiences rather than fake tourist veneers, and delights as a rule more in street food than in haute cuisine.

For the RKOI (rich kids of Instagram) market, it’s private jet or go home. Image: Bombardier

Hands up: your author is one of those oldest millennials, often called in the US the “Oregon Trail Generation” for being in the niche where that computer game was a mainstay of school computer labs (another generational marker). Let’s not forget that the oldest millennials are approaching 40, and the youngest are now out of school.

It took a matter of seconds for three millennials sitting nearby during the presentation to think up what would actually be a better way to achieve this Dutch travel experience: a local-knowledge eco-tour package with a bike rental, a train ticket, a map and instructions to get to the tulip fields, and options for finding the best coffee, stroopwafels and poffertjes on the way, and some small-batch artisanal beer on the way back.

But what’s the airline equivalent of that #PaxEx? Is it replacing expensive wines that don’t perform well at altitude with a revolving artisanal wine list, decent beers, and signature cocktails? Is it giving people the information they need to make educated public transportation decisions on their destination? Is it even about bringing smart, focused ancillaries like an eco-tour into the inflight entertainment system, together with onboard retail purchasing?

Yes, there is a premium travel market for millennials. But more than ever, this must provide value for travelers’ money, must move beyond the Baby Boomer focus (hopefully not, as usual, omitting Generation X) and must provide something they can’t get elsewhere, a moment they can capture — and, yes, share. While self-created Instagram influencer-driven products are not the key to success, actual organic interest in a particular part of passenger experience can be gauged by social media sharing.

That’s not bad news for aviation. Soaring five miles high is the perfect opportunity for a snap out the window, and airlines are starting to provide Instagram-worthy vignette opportunities, particularly in premium cabins and especially on halo products. And there’s certainly something to be said there from a cynical marketing perspective: who thinks of Etihad without the Residence? Of Emirates without the A380 bar?

Qatar Airways did well with its Qsuite Instagrammable tableau. Image: John Walton

But what can airlines do to bring ‘gramworthy passenger experience design to more passengers? Halo products are very much not within the reach of all, or even most millennials, even those with the means to fly premium. And the aviation industry needs to figure out how to design passenger experience along the lines of trains, bikes and stroopwafels rather than (or at the very least in addition to) helicopters and Michelin-starred picnics.


Despite the age of the older cohorts in the millennial generation, unrestrained consumption and unbridled luxury is not a characteristic of most of their desires, not least because of their financial situation. If they want Michelin-starred — and that’s a big if — they’re more likely to go for Tim Ho Wan than The Fat Duck. If they’re in the market for a luxury car, it’s a Tesla, not a Humvee.

For airlines, it’s about using their uniqueness, it’s about being eye-catching, it’s about thinking visually, it’s about having enough diversity to create new ideas, and it’s about knowing your brand and how people relate to it.

Even for the more staid airlines, there are enough older brands out there that millennials love, and there’s no reason why airlines shouldn’t be among them.

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