Role children play within tourism decision making process

23 Mar 2015

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Marketing and consumer behaviour research identifies children as active and experienced consumers able to exert substantial influence on purchase decisions made by their parents (Bakir et al., 2006). Interestingly, tourism literature has largely ignored children's 'real' impact on family holiday purchases by reducing children's involvement in the process to passive participation. Until recently researchers were predominantly concerned with the husband-wife decision-making practice, consequently downplaying the importance of children's input in the process (Wang et al., 2004). However, lately, the view postulating that children's involvement is not limited to submitting to parents' final choices, but suggesting that children do take an active part in making holiday-related decisions has received attention.

The paper attempts to critically assess the role tweens, i.e. children inbetween childhood and adolescence, play within the stages of the tourism decision-making practice. In order to achieve this aim, the essay begins with outlining the particulars of the family holiday decision-making process and identifies the general position of children within it. Next, the paper provides the definition of 'tweens' and analyses their role in the tourism decision-making process. Subsequently, the document recognises the major factors determining the extent of children's participation in family tourism decision-making. Research limitations as well as opportunities for further exploration are identified at the conclusion.

The generic consumer decision-making model consisting of four key stages (i.e. need recognition, information search, alternatives evaluation and final purchase) is commonly adapted to holiday-related choices analysis (e.g. Dunne, 1999; Bronner & de Hoog, 2008). However, contrary to standard purchase situation concerned with making single, informed decision between the identified alternatives, tourism decision-making process is more complex. The original recognition of the need 'to go on holidays' triggers a variety of smaller sub-decisions to be agreed on, such as the destination, package provider, accommodation, means of transport, or the activities undertaken at the destination (Blichfeldt, 2008). Additionally, often consuming a large portion of family's income and carrying risk due to intangibility of the core product the process involves substantial research beforehand (Dunne, 1999).

Recent studies propose that as tourism-related activities are predominantly shared experiences typically undertaken within the family unit, the decision-making process is in fact a cooperative practice. The process is believed to be organised around jointly achieving a consensus between divergent needs of individual family members in reference to the sub-decisions (Bronner & de Hoog, 2008).

Furthermore, the academics' perceptions of the degree of decision power assigned to spouses in the family decision-making practice have changed. Initially, family tourism decision-making was believed to be either husband or wife-dominated (Jenkins, 1978). Changes in traditional family structure, such as breakdown of gender role stereotypes enforced alteration of the common view (Nanda et al., 2006). Recent studies suggest that the choice of leisure activities is typically a process where both husband and wife share equal powers (Fodness, 1992; Bronner and De Hoog, 2008). Consequently, the identified democratisation of spousal decision-making and rise in popularity of liberal upbringing model (du Bois-Reymond et al., 2001) has influenced the perception of children's role in the decision-making process by condoning their active participation.

Additionally, 'guilt factor' is believed to make parents more responsive to children's needs and wants (McNeal, 1999) while deciding on holiday purchase. Where often both parents are pursuing full-time occupations, going on holidays with children serves the purpose of re-strengthening emotional parent-child bounds and often compensates for the limited time spent together outside of prearranged leisure activities (Nickerson and Jurowski, 2001). That way, in the tourism decision-making process being primarily concerned with conflict resolution and finding consensus between individual needs (Thornton et al., 1997; Bronner & De Hoog, 2008) children's needs receive considerable attention compared to the needs of the adults.

Appreciation of children's preferences in reference to holiday purchases occurs in a twofold way. Firstly, children can indirectly influence the decisions reached by the parents by simply indicating what they prefer (Gram, 2006). Satisfying children's needs (even the ones parents only assume to be) has been identified as a powerful motivation for holiday endeavours and factor significantly influencing the subsequent decisions made by the parents, such as the choice of accommodation providing the type of food the child is accustomed to. Parents often give children's preferences priority, even at the costs of enjoying themselves less (Dunne, 1999; Thornton et al., 1997; Cullingford, 1995). By doing so, parents attempt to protect themselves from adverse consequences of not fully meeting children's needs, i.e. ruined holidays. Although reported powerful throughout the various age groups, the indirect influence is the most prominent in decisions involving younger children (Dunne, 1999). This is motivated by the fact that younger children cannot provide and care for themselves, and are less aware of the active part in the process they could play. Furthermore, research suggests that children can exert direct influence on the tourism decision-making process by acting as active agents and negotiators. The extent of children's direct involvement is believed to increase with age (Jenkins, 1978; Darley and Lim, 1986; Swinyard and Sim, 1987). Perhaps this arises from child's greater exposure to decision-making practices in outer-family environment and emotional maturing.

Tweens, an age group consisting of children in between adolescence and childhood (7-11 or 8-12 year-olds), constitutes a particularly interesting topic in reference to active participation in tourism decision-making. McNeal (1999) characterises tweens as children who seek identification and acknowledgement among their peers rather than parents, but nevertheless remain attached to the family for safety and comfort purposes. Importantly, exposed to heavy advertising and secondary socialisation, tweens constitute a vigilant and experienced consumer group with clarified tastes (Blichfeldt et al., 2010). Additionally, tweens are reported to develop faster in the emotional sphere than their age would indicate (Lindstrom, 2003). They are found to be experienced and culture-aware tourists open to unfamiliar environments; not easily entertained and looking for attractions other than play opportunities; and aware of adult-related push factors as motivators for going on holiday (Blichfeldt et al., 2010). Nevertheless, tweens still require the reassurance of their basic needs (Dunne, 1999). Thereof, reared in the sociocultural environment which grants them the right to participate in the family decisions, fashion-conscious and experienced in tourist consumption tweens play a significantly active role within the decision-making process. The extent of their effective participation exceeds the levels that could be assumed when solely assessing their physical age. Secondly, tweens execute substantial indirect influence on the tourism decisions by still belonging to the age group requiring the greatest attention in ensuring safe environment.

Although the amount of children's general involvement in the process is believed to increase with age, the researchers agree that the level of active participation diminishes as the decision-making process progresses (Swinyard and Sim, 1987; Wang et al., 2004). The particulars of the tourism decisions: high risk that needs to be offset by searching for external information and costs associated with the purchase result in parents exercising greater control when approaching the final decision. On aggregate, tweens are found to be the most actively participating in the early stages of the tourism decision-making process.

In particular, research portrays consistent findings as to tweens' involvement in the need recognition (i.e. primal) stage of the process (e.g. Dunne, 1999). This can be motivated by the fact that holidaying provides a sense of recognition and belonging to the peer group as leisure activities are a frequent topic of tweens' conversations. Thereof, opinion-conscious tweens have a personal stake in the holiday decision coming true, thus become actively involved in ensuring that such need is recognised. Furthermore, as parents are reported to consider holidays are primary for children to benefit of, they encourage tweens' input to ensure that the experience is enjoyable (Swinyard and Sim, 1987; Dunne, 1999; Blichfeldt, 2008).

Considerable direct participation is also reported in the information search stage (Blichfeldt et al., 2010). Tweens are said to join their parents in investigating the possible alternatives for a variety of decisions. Despite the fact that parents are said to be receptive of children's input (Dunne, 1999) reports reveal that tweens often resort to negotiations or blackmail as a way of exercising the influence on the choice of alternative (Gram, 2006; Nanda et al., 2006). Furthermore, it is noted that tweens' impact can advance to evaluation stage where they voice their opinions on the options available. Interestingly, studies further report that the information stage is in some instances delegated to children and remains their responsibility (Blichfeldt et al., 2010). Thus tweens' position can be elevated to the level of the parent in the information search stage.

Nevertheless, the general extent to which children actively shape tourism decisions reached by the family, remains controversial (Wang et al., 2004). The research findings are consistent in the notion that children's influence does not outweigh parents' overall authority; however discrepancy can be observed in the findings on the particular sub-decisions tweens participate most actively in. Some academics propose that tweens act as dynamic agents throughout the totality of holiday decisions; whereas others report their active influence on inexpensive and relatively insignificant elements such as restaurant choice (Szybillo and Sosanie, 1977; Jenkins, 1979), or the activities undertaken while at the destination. Considering tweens' fashion-consciousness and marketing awareness the notion that tweens do actively seek to influence the more significant decisions such as choice of package in a particular fashionable and popular area/accommodation seems appealing.

Additionally, research identifies a number of factors possibly having an influence on the degree of children's in general, and tweens' in particular participation in the tourism decision-making process outside of the aforementioned nature of the decision subject. Culture constitutes an important variable, as it warrants the roles assigned to individuals within the family (Bakir et al., 2006). Western cultures propagating individuality and development of independent thought as the core values subsequently influence parents in appreciation of the child questioning reality, thus allowing more proactive participation in the family decision-making process.

Linked with culture, the intra-familial communication pattern further influences children's participation in the tourism decision-making. Children brought up in the environments fostering for democratic approach to information exchange are found to play more proactive role in the decision-making process (Bakir et al., 2006). Perhaps this arises from the approach to conflict resolution through negotiation rather than enforcement of one's point of view on the other family members; hence children active participation in consensus-reaching is appreciated.

Marital status constitutes other variable believed to influence children's role in the decision-making process. Decisions made within single-parent households are believed to include children to larger extent (Darley and Lim, 1986). This can be motivated by the 'guilt factor' identified in the introduction, further reinforced by the fact that single parents need to 'share' the child between themselves, consequently spending even less time together. Therefore, greater tweens' participation ensures that the holidays will make up for the diminished everyday contact.

However, the studies on children's and tweens' involvement in the tourism decision-making process suffer from several pitfalls. The divergence of findings reported arises from the defects of the research methods used: most studies apply qualitative surveys to parent sample (e.g. Wang et al., 2004); thereof the information received is subjective and somewhat distorted by projecting only parents' image of children's participation. Studies employing children as the sample group (e.g. Cullingford, 1995) also suffer from the limited statistical representativeness because of largely relying on qualitative inquiry methods.

Furthermore, the studies investigating children's participation in the tourism-decision making process have been conducted in the western (e.g. Gram, 2006; Blichfeldt et al., 2010) or westernised (e.g. Wang et al., 2004) cultures that propagate more lenient approach to upbringing and parenthood emphasising the need to be receptive to child's contribution (Bakir et al., 2006). Consequently, tweens' characteristics are based to the extent on their exposure to advertising and mass media as well as consumerism, which are uncommon in developing nations. Therefore, the findings regarding tweens' participation might not be generally applicable. The research into the role of children in tourism decision-making requires consistent approach organised around statistically representative data aggregating both the parents' and children's perceptions. Furthermore, the data should be gathered cross-culturally and appreciate a variety of factors affecting children's impact to ensure representativeness.

In the final analysis it is justifiable to say that the change of perceptions of the nature of the tourism decision-making process, and spouses' role in it have impacted the opinion on the children's participation within the practice. Lenient upbringing and guilt issues trigger parents to be more responsive to children's holiday preferences. Tweens due to their consumer awareness and exposure to heavy advertising, but nevertheless remaining under extensive parental care constitute a particularly interesting tourist consumer group. In the tourism decision-making practice tweens are believed to exert active influence in particular in the initial stages of the process. Interestingly, the overall degree of tweens' influence on the process remains controversial and is said to be warranted by factors such as culture and communication patterns. However, existing research suffers from methodological shortcomings that make it difficult to generalise the findings. The subject of tweens' role in tourism decision-making requires more indepth analysis.

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