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Travel Footwear Report: How Brands Can Capitalize on Millennials’ Wanderlust

Wanderlust is more than a romanticized expression to describe a love for travel. All signs point to wanderlust as a full-fledge character trait of millennial consumers that footwear brands and retailers should embrace.

According to the 2016 “Millennial Brief on Travel & Lodging” from FutureCast, millennials spend more than $200 billion annually on travel and this amount is set to grow as the generation reaches its most lucrative spending years. In fact, FutureCast found that travel is so important to millennials that it ranks higher than paying off student debt, purchasing big ticket items, improving relationships with family and friends or starting a family of their own.

And whereas past generations used fashion and footwear for self expression, millennials favor a densely stamped passport in their pocket. “Traveling is a part of their identity—a vital experience that helps them understand, grow and continuously reinvent their sense of self,” FutureCast reported.

Airline passenger counts are at all-time highs, events and festivals are growing and the marketing around festival fashion is bigger than the spring season in total, says Beth Goldstein, accessories and footwear analyst for the NPD Group.

“These things are big deals and the luggage market is starting to grow for those reasons. We’re seeing a lot of start-up brands in the luggage space and growth in that industry we haven’t seen in long time,” she said.

Millennials’ nomadic nature is giving the $32 billion luggage market a boost and the category is responding with millennial-friendly innovations and design. Last year, Away, the luggage brand that makes sleek suitcases with an external phone charger and an unbreakable exterior (as well as millennial pink colorways that instantly sell out), raised $20 million in a Series B funding round.

At the 2017 FDRA Summit in May, Sarah Quinlan, Mastercard senior vice president of Market Insights, confirmed that millennial’s discretionary spending is trending toward experiences, not apparel or footwear. In fact, she said airline tickets were the most popular holiday gift in 2016, followed by hotel stays.

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However, footwear brands can capitalize on millennials’ zeal for travel by being where they go on vacation. As Quinlan pointed out, most vacationers spend a day shopping no matter where they are. “Make certain your brand can be found on holiday,” she said.

Few footwear retailers have done this as well as Flip Flop Shops. The company’s locations in tourist destinations are comping higher than traditional mall-based locations.

Launched in 2004, the company operates shops globally, including stores located in travel hotspots like Honolulu, Orlando and Las Vegas. Australia, Mexico, Europe and the Middle East are the next destinations on the company’s bucket list.

Whereas most retailers are balking about sales, Flip Flop Shops president and founder Brian Curin believes the company’s retail lifestyle concept has filled a major gap in the casual footwear category. In the past 10 years, it launched a franchise model, scaled the brand globally, got acquired and launched a digital platform. And in 2017, the company introduced new flexible formats like its “floating retail” kiosks and shop-in-shop models to bring footwear to where the people are, be that theme parks and cruise ships or airports and malls.

“When you think travel footwear you think of flips flop and sandals. We attract that customer naturally because that’s what we do, but even outside traditional travel areas like travel destinations and airports, customers are still coming to us to get ready for their trips,” Curin said. “They’re looking for this product before their trip and then getting product that they couldn’t find in their hometown during the trip.”

From Cole Haan’s Zerogrand, a collection of athleisure knit footwear geared toward business travelers and foldable flats by Tory Burch, to Rothy’s line of lightweight washable flats, there’s a new wave of travel footwear that breaks away from the traditional euro comfort shoe.

[Read more about footwear: Infographic: See How Much US Footwear Imports Dipped in First 10 Months of 2017]

“The travel shoe has evolved. Comfort, versatility and season-less styles translate to being good for travel,” Goldstein said. “Comfort has taken on a much bigger meaning and more fashion brands are including comfort.”

Birkenstock’s colorful EVA program and Reef’s Voyage and Rover product lines with Swellular Technology—a combination of contoured foam, medium-density midsole and high-density rubber outsole for tractions—are among Flip Flop Shop’s bestsellers.

“Every brand that we deal with has a comfort story, I don’t think it’s a differentiator anymore,” Curin added.

While the expectation is that, of course, the ideal travel shoe will be comfortable, Curin says savvy millennials are seeking technical and protective attributes that allow them greater freedom. Specifically, they are trying to travel light. Instead of traveling with three to four pairs, Curin sees a trend toward vacationing with one all-around travel shoe that can slip-on and off easily at the airport, be worn to the beach, on a hike, in the city and later to dinner.

“There’s an uptick on that piece and we’re seeing core brand partners meeting that demand by designing this product,” Curin reported. “[Customers] ask, ‘Will it protect my foot? Can I take it on a hike? Does it actually have a durable insole and a bottom that will not fall apart?’ That’s the key trend with millennials, they don’t want to buy as much crap. Instead they want more experiences, but they are willing to spend a lot of money and they are pretty discerning that the footwear they buy embodies that.”

Interest and innovation in insoles technologies are heating up, too. “Olukai has really been doing a great job in sandals, flip flops and the Nohea—lightweight casual footwear that feels like a sandal,” Curin said.

The island lifestyle brand builds its footwear on anatomically contoured footbeds to ensure proper medial and lateral arch support, long-term comfort and a personal fit right out of the box. And it sources its design inspiration straight from Hawaii.

“We’re uniquely positioned to target this segment. Hawaiians wear one pair and they don’t change them between activities, whether its running errands, hiking, surfing or getting coffee. The footwear needs to be multi-purpose,” said Melissa Ziegler, Olukai director of marketing.

One of the brand’s most successful styles for the modern-day travel is the Nohea Moku, a vegan-friendly lace-up with the brand’s signature drop-in heel that offers both a shoe and slide functionality. The shoe is made with quick-drying, breathable uppers and medial drainage ports to eliminate water.

Sanuk is stretching its legs in the closed-toe category with the spring launch of the Chiba Quest. Sanuk GM/VP Magnus Wedhammar describes the shoe as the next evolution of Sanuk’s cult hit, the minimalist Sidewalk Slipper.

“Its built on the same principles as the original, simple construction but with 21st century tech to improve,” he said.

The new unisex slip-on is made with a knit upper, dual density EVA footbed and rubber outsole with flex grooves, yet features the same roomy feel as the Sidewalk Slipper. “Our wider last represents this freedom of movement. It’s wider than traditional running shoe, a perfect travel companion,” Wedhammar added.

“We do see brands starting to market for travel, especially if it’s foldable or packable. Footwear can benefit from this travel trend,” Goldstein said.

“They’ve definitely caught the travel bug,” Edna De Pamphili, Bearpaw’s global marketing director, said about the brand’s millennial customer base.

The boot brand capitalized on the travel trend with the introduction of its first travel boot in Fall ’15. Packaged with its own travel bag, the slouchy boot is treated with the brand’s NeverWet technology which wicks away liquid, stains and dirt.

Yosi Samra understood the need for packable shoes nearly a decade ago. Samra launched his eponymous line of women’s footwear in 2009 with five colors of foldable flats.

The concept for the brand was born on the dance floor, literally, when he saw women take off their shoes at the end of long nights at nightclubs in New York City.

“It was meant to be as an accessory, not worn all day long, but overtime we made the shoes a lot more durable,” he said. “We’re at the point now, that there’s so many foldable ballet flats that have launched since I launched the brand, it’s become a category in footwear now that everyone brand has.”

Samra has maintained relevance in the category he helped develop by adding silhouettes that speak to the fashionable traveling consumer. His collection has ballooned to include block heel pumps, sandals, loafers, slides and boots with upgraded components including Ortholite memory foam and premium high-grade leather sock lining for comfort.

“We have a huge customer base that is a traveling customer. Some even order our shoes to their hotels,” Samra added.

As with most millennial spending trends, social media is a driving force. However, social media is also changing the way millennials travel, creating a new crop of digitally-inspired travelers that look to immerse themselves in new cultures through social activities, courses and alternative lodging like Airbnb.

Millennials discover new places, experiences and brands online. FutureCast’s survey found that 86 percent of millennial travelers were inspired to book a trip based on content they viewed online and 87 percent use Facebook for travel inspiration; more than 50 percent use Twitter or Pinterest.

Meanwhile, Instagram—with more than 700 million monthly active users and more than 250 million active daily users on Instagram Stories—is the modern-day travel catalog, chock-full of inspiring, editorial-quality photos of regular travelers with geo tags. In fact, social media software company Social Sprout says posts with location have 79 percent more engagement than those without.

Millennials are paying close attention to geo tags, hashtags and branded content. For example, National Geographic reported that between 2009 and 2014, visitors to Odda, Norway, a tiny village in the southern end of the Sørfjorden, increased from 500 to 40,000 due to a wave of social media-fueled tourism. The draw? Photos of hikers perched on Trolltunga, a cliff above Lake Ringedalsvatne.

Bhutan, the Greek Islands, Myanmar, Cuba and Portugal are also among the countries that have received notable tourism booms since Instagram launched, Travel + Leisure reported.

Likewise, Iceland, which feared a drop in tourism dollars after the eruption of its Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, is now grappling with floods of tourists thanks to millennials discovering the country’s unique geography on social media platforms. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, the total number of foreign overnight visitors to Iceland was around 1.8 million in 2016, a 40.1% increase from 2015, when foreign visitors numbered around 1.3 million.

Footwear brands can tap into that same online audience—and thirst—for adventure by positioning their products in travel-related content. “Experiences are very important and shoe brands need to figure out how to be a part of those experiences,” Goldstein said.

Taking its name from the Thai word for “fun,” Sanuk is conscious of consumers’ need for excitement. The company’s mission statement is “the journey to your happy place begins with Sanuk.”

One of the insights Sanuk found is that where consumers discover the brand is normally while on vacation in sunny locations in Hawaii, California and Florida. “They discover us on the road in their happy place—that has been a key insight for us,” Wedhammar said. “The journey represents our customer’s desire for travel, adventure and exploration. And then the happy place can be anything—surfing, yoga or hanging out at a concert.”

Sanuk is planning to launch a social media campaign in February that maintains that sunny disposition by seeding surfers, influencers and other brand ambassadors with the new Chiba Quest product line. Wedhammar believes they’ll do a better job at telling the brand story than traditional advertising.

Olukai caters to its core consumers’ travel adventure mentality by building adventurous storylines around its product, starting at the grassroots level. “We have an event strategy that takes us to music festival and outdoor events where people are trading up their shoes and looking for something that is functional and stylish,” Ziegler said.

The company carries that wanderlust messaging into its social media channels by photographing and filming brand ambassadors that live a true adventurous life. “It comes across our marketing and we work with social influencers that are outdoor-minded and are a big part of Hawaiian culture,” Ziegler said.

Goldstein said Chaco grew its brand recognition in 2017 by sending the “Chaco Footwear’s Traveling Tacqueria” to festivals across the U.S., including destinations like the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis.

Inspired by the fact that tacos are one of the most hashtagged foods on Instagram and authentic cuisine is one of the most compelling reasons to travel, the tour aimed to introduce Chaco to new consumers in new places. And it worked.

By incorporating food with festivals, Goldstein said the brand evolved from being known primarily as an outdoor water sandal to an all-around travel shoe. “It is still true to the roots, but moving toward a young, casual consumer,” she said about the shift.

Experiences is where money is going, but Goldstein points out that the photos that get posted on social media are the tangible outcomes of these experiences.

“I think brands have an opportunity to convince consumers that for those experiences, they need the right product,” she said.