Hanky-panky

The latest travel marketing craze: Unmarried aunts who want to spoil other people’s kids

November 4, 2013
Obsession
How We Buy
November 4, 2013

Travel operators have a new target: unmarried women with money to spend on their nieces, nephews, or god-children. This demographic, nicknamed “PANKs” (Professional Aunt, No Kids), has potential especially in the US, argues a new report (pdf) on global tourism trends by Euromonitor.

The PANK phenomenon itself isn’t new. A report last year by public-relations firm Weber Shandwick claimed to identify about 23 million women in the US who fit the category. Like all such reports aimed at helping marketers define a target group, it bulged with statistics, some of dubious usefulness (“32% of PANKs say their usage of Facebook has increased during the past six months”), and breathless descriptions (PANKs are “highly social”, “avid info-sharers” and “ahead of the online media consumption curve.”) But the firm says three-quarters of the 2,000 women it polled spent over $500 a year on each child in their life, which it says translates to about $9 billion a year for the whole country.

Advertisers for toys and other children’s products have already started marketing to PANKs around the holidays. With Euromonitor’s report, the PANK story gains traction in the travel industry too. Sites like Intrepid Travel, a small group adventure travel site, have already started to include aunts, as well as uncles and grandparents, in the marketing of their family vacations, Euromonitor notes. “PANKs want to have meaningful experiences with the children in their lives and develop strong bonds with them, which makes travel an ideal product for this demographic,” Melanie Notkin of the Savvy Auntie, a website for aunts and godmothers, told the research group. (Notkin coined and trademarked the term PANK and has signed advertising deals with companies from Ford to FAO Schwarz.) They’re interested in domestic travel to Hawaii and Disney resorts around the country, but also trips abroad, especially to the UK, according to Intrepid Travel.

Whether aunts become a real force in global tourism remains to be seen. But they are also part of a larger phenomenon, which is the changing makeup of the American family vacation. A 2006 survey of American Express travel agents found an increase in family members pairing up to travel—mother-daughter or father-son trips. And an increasing number of vacations included grandparents or uncles, aunts, and cousins.

Moreover, US families are increasingly headed by single parents and same-sex as well as multi-racial couples. Some observers have called on hotels and others in the travel industry to stop marketing with only images of the traditional nuclear family—the single-race family of four with an attractive middle-aged mother and father, and a boy and a girl. Perhaps a picture of an aunt obsessively sharing pictures of her nieces and nephews via Facebook would be a good place to start.

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