An insight from Gap360's Managing Director, David Stitt, on the growth of the gap year industry and what the future holds
(TRAVPR.COM) UK - July 26th, 2012 - It all started with Sergeant Pepper… 1960’s: After The Beatles went to India for meditation, hippies paved the way for the intrepid overland travellers route to Istanbul, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.
1970’s: The Magic Bus, Intertrek, Penn Overland and others started operating transport services from London to Kathmandu, a 10 week trips cost just £250!
1980’s – 1990’s: Travellers first started referring to the “gap year”. First organisers were largely non-profits or charities, organised by academics or former military officers. Most of their participants were public school educated with well heeled parents. The programmes, organised by companies like Gap Activity Projects and Raleigh Expeditions, took the young people out into the world, where they enjoyed adventurous expeditions or volunteered with needy third world communities.
2000 - 2008: A new type of organisation sprang up as tour operators realised the potential for gap year travel. These offered much cheaper options and shorter durations, and thus appealed to youngsters who could not afford either the time or the money to undertake the longer volunteer and adventure programmes.
The gap year “industry” boomed. Larger numbers of young school leavers and graduates started heading off every year. By now however, the “gappers” were not just volunteering or going on organised expeditions, but were travelling on shorter trips, and doing things like getting paid jobs, learning new skills like diving or taking Spanish lessons, and just heading off travelling to have fun.
2009 – present: As the economic downturn had its effect, and universities introduced higher fees, more gappers turned to organisations who could find them paid work abroad. Travelling to Australia became the most popular trip, and the working holiday visa scheme allowed young people age 18 – 30 to spend a year in Australia, working to help pay their way.
By now, it was all about the internet, and while the older organisations largely still depended on the public schools networks for their clients, newer companies buzzed ahead with a huge variety of trips, with fewer than 50% of the participants opting to volunteer.
By 2008, almost 250,000 gappers were heading off each year
Mintel and Gapyear.com estimated that by 2008 around 230,000 travellers a year were heading off on gap years from the UK. Flight providers like STA and Flight Centre were handling huge amounts of flight tickets and the bigger gap year operators grew fast. In 2008, the largest gap operator, Real Gap, was sold to the UK’s biggest travel firm TUI Travel and thus gap years became mainstream.
The older organisations started to criticise the brash newcomers, accusing them of sending volunteers where they were not needed, or worse, taking jobs from the local people. This criticism was unjustified and in large part an act of desperation, as the older companies saw their market share drain away.
The head of VSO, which receives a whopping funding from the UK government, wrote an article further criticising the newer organisations, which appeared on the cover of the Times.
The article backfired badly for VSO and they issued a “clarification”, but they missed the main point, which should have been why were the older organisations charging so much for their services, and why were VSO so poorly organised that they used up millions of pounds of funding from the government to handle only 2000 bookings a year?
A further new type of organisation emerged, led by Original Volunteers, who offered volunteering abroad for really low prices…advertised for as low as £12 a week. This was ground-breaking. Tour operators started to reduce their prices, but could not compete, and Original and others attracted thousands of applicants.
By 2011, the combined effect of the poor economy and university tuition fee rises caused the number of people booking gap year travel to fall, and most of the gap year organisations saw a fall in numbers. There surely will be a consolidation in the industry as organisations fail to attract sufficient numbers to pay their expenses.
In these tough economic times, a well structured gap year makes huge sense
UCAS has released data about university applications, showing the number of applicants down by 8.9% over 2011. No doubt this is largely due to the £9000 annual tuition fees, but it is also because of the poor job market for graduates. School leavers are concerned that the big investment in getting a degree will not be worth it.
So what are the 8.9% and others going to do? Most will not be able to find a suitable job in the poor economy, and many will look to heading off on a gap trip. Employers are certainly aware that a well-structured gap year shows that an individual possesses confidence, decision-making abilities, courage and maturity. Gap years boost your CV, and give you the edge over those who leave school and university with little real world experience.
Now the question is what new gap year form will emerge? It is likely that those companies offering paid work will attract many applicants, but paid work in places other than Australia is not easy to find. As ever though, new ideas and travel products will be created…watch this space!
[The author, David Stitt took a gap year in 1972, travelling through the Middle East, then got his first travel job, driving an expedition truck with 22 passengers through Europe, Asia Minor and onto Afghanistan, India and Nepal. David was the founder of Real Gap, the UK’s largest UK Gap Year provider, and in 2011 launched a new service: www.gap360.com]