Seven and a half years since taking over the leadership of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, Terry Dale has signed a three-year extension of his contract as president and CEO of the tour operator organization.
In a time of tumultuous change, USTOA has strived to stay on top of the wave and provide leadership to the industry. The organization has changed radically since 2011, when Dale was appointed by the association’s board of directors to lead it into a new era.
USTOA is now riding the wave of prosperity that has built steadily since the U.S. economy pulled out of the Great Recession of 2008. Times have never been better for the tour operator segment.
“Travel right now is so strong,” said Dale, “I don’t have a single member who is not doing really well. Historically, there would be one segment of business that was strong. Then, I’d have another segment that would say, ‘We’re stable, up one or two percentage points’; and another segment that would say, ‘We’re flat.’ This year when I ask that question, every single segment of our membership is at historic levels.”
While the New York Times reported last week that Vanguard, the $5 trillion asset management firm, is predicting a likely correction in the next couple of years, the economy for now is firing on all cylinders. Tour operators are enjoying the benefits of a traveling public riding high on economic well-being. “Vanguard is able to tick off reasons why there will be a downturn,” said Dale. “Everything is cyclical and you don’t have this kind of ride forever. But, when things are good, it does help.”
Meanwhile, USTOA has made strides into its new era and feels strong and ready to weather whatever comes next.
Heightened advocacy efforts
Dale’s term with USTOA started when the association, stunned by the sudden loss of its 32-year president Bob Whitley, turned to Dale to lead the organization. Dale took over in January 2011. When he talks about the association’s progress, he starts with praise for Whitley.
“He was extremely successful at building camaraderie and the sense of this association of people enjoying working together,” said Dale. “That’s an art. So, I feel like I inherited a really unique association. Bob had a lot to do with creating that environment.”
When the USTOA board sought out Dale, they had specific objectives in mind. “I came in with a clear mandate for creating advocacy,” said Dale, “and a face and voice in the beltway to educate legislators and regulators about who our membership is and how what they do can have consequences and ramifications for USTOA.”
Through his work as head of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), Dale knew the ropes of political advocacy in Washington. “The first priority was to engage a government affairs firm; make sure we have some policy experts on our team on DOT issues; and go down there on a consistent basis with our members to knock on doors and build relationships,” said Dale. “That has been one of more rewarding parts of that seven and a half years, because I have seen in that relatively brief period how it has really paid off for our members.”
One of the first tests was when tour operators were struggling to get licenses to operate tours to Cuba. “Some of our members were having trouble securing licenses, and through our relationship with Congressman Farr from California, we were able to expedite those licenses virtually overnight,” said Dale.
The advocacy work never ends, because Congress is always changing. Congressman Farr retired in 2015. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has been a strong ally to the travel industry, is retiring at the end of this year. But, though the work is ongoing, it does produce lasting results.
“It can be rewarding and it certainly can make a difference for our members,” said Dale. “I look at advocacy as an area in which we have made tremendous growth, and we’ll need to continue to make it a priority.”
Economic impact studies
When USTOA board members told Dale they wanted advocacy to be a high priority, he asked what kind of economic clout they could bring to bear in discussions with government officials. “I said, ‘Tell me about your economic footprint, the numbers of jobs provided by USTOA members.’ They looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we’re not sure.’”
They knew the members moved a lot of people, but didn’t have specifics. “I said, ‘Well, we need to be sure,’” said Dale. “You can’t knock on doors without being able to say how large an industry you are and how many jobs you represent.”
The association started a relationship with PricewaterhouseCoopers to compile reliable information on its economic impact on a regular basis. “We just finished, last week, our fourth economic impact study,” said Dale. “We’ll have those new statistics to share at the conference this year.”
As of previous assessments, the association represents about a $15 million business providing 13,000 jobs. “We have to have confidence in knowing who we are financially and economically to be able to sit at the table across from a regulator or a legislator,” said Dale. “So, that’s been a very important project that we undertake every other year.”
Website itineraries and customer reviews
Under Dale’s leadership, USTOA has built its own specialized version of TripAdvisor on its website, providing extensive product information from member tour operators and illuminating it with customer reviews.
“We have more than 31,000 USTOA member itineraries, and more than 21,000 consumer reviews,” said Dale. “We are firm believers that today’s traveler likes to hear from other people who have traveled on a specific itinerary. They want to hear directly from that consumer. We think it is a way we can provide critical, timely information about the travel experience that travel agents and consumers can access. That is forward-looking and certainly helps with our relevance.”
Research partnership with Cornell
Soon after taking over in 2011, Dale spearheaded an initiative to partner with Cornell University’s MBA school to do research projects about the travel market.
“Every year, we have a team of extraordinarily bright MBA candidates tackle a project for us and report their findings to our organization,” said Dale. “We’re now into our sixth year and we’ve covered things from Millennial travel to mapping the consumer purchasing journey, what has changed over the last decade and how will it change over the next decade. So, this partnership provides more value to our members and sets us apart as doing things that allow us to differentiate ourselves.”
Partnership with USA Today
As Dale sought new ways to “identify innovative ways of providing benefits to our members to help them run their businesses and be competitive in this landscape,” he led an initiative with USA Today.
“We were the first trade association to ever have a partnership with USA Today, and that has proven to be extremely beneficial,” he said.
Through the partnership, the association works with six destinations and partners them with six active members. “We send a camera crew to capture the consumers on that trip, whether it’s packaged travel or a guided escorted experience or a river cruise. We create content around video and blogs with editorial content created by USA Today, and they post it and distribute it through their channels online. They bring so many eyeballs to the table. This year, we should exceed 36 million impressions. It’s the first time USA Today has had a partnership with a trade association.”
As Dale looks into the future, he plans to maintain efforts in the initiatives already undertaken, and he is looking at new areas. “I think an area we need to spend more time on is sustainability,” he said, “and what is our responsibility as leaders in the travel segment in making sure that we’re not contributing to overtourism. We need to be sensitive when we go to destinations with high-traffic challenges that these destinations, while wildly popular, are also places people call home.
“It’s really heartbreaking when you see local residents in some parts of the world picketing against tourism, being very vocal about the damage it’s creating. We have to find a balance. I think we need to have a deeper conversation about sustainability and making sure that our dollars we take to all corners of the world get into the hands of the people who need them most. That is an opportunity to make a difference. I’m looking forward to defining a path for USTOA on that topic.
Engaging emerging markets
USTOA is also looking toward emerging markets. “We constantly want to engage younger audiences,” said Dale. “We want to be sure we are building a platform for the younger generations so they understand how they can access and benefit from our members’ travel experiences.”
Perhaps most importantly, as the association moves forward, Dale wants to be sure to maintain a link to its origins, when it was originally formed to help the public distinguish reliable tour operators from scam artists that prey upon an unwary public.
“Probably the most important thing both for our past and our future is the word ‘integrity,’” he said. “The founders built USTOA around the word ‘integrity.’ And that is something, every day, I think about because the culture of USTOA is built around that single word. Making sure that it remains the focus moving forward is critical, especially in an environment like today.”