Tour operators and travel agents are reporting a rise in Europe bookings for 2010, which many attribute to the potent duo of pent-up demand and a stronger dollar.
“Right now 2010 is shaping up to be one of the best years — if not the best — we have ever seen,” Marc Kazlauskas, CEO of Insight Vacations told Travel Market Report, attributing much of the growth to pent up demand.
Jennifer Halboth, direct of marketing for Globus family of brands, also pointed to pent-up demand as the number one reason people are returning to Europe.
Additionally, Halboth said she believes that the big ships have heightened interest in Europe.
“Thank you big ship cruises,” she said. “The ocean liners did a phenomenal job these last few years getting some people to go to Europe — many for the first time. So now we are seeing a nice cross-sell of those cruisers onto Avalon or they want to spend some more leisurely time on land.”
The Globus family of brands land products (Globus, Cosmos and Monograms) are currently up 53% versus 2009, and its river cruise division, Avalon, is seeing European river cruise bookings up 85% over last year, she reported.
Trafalgar, Tauck and Uniworld have also seen their Europe numbers rise.
Bookings for Trafalgar’s First Class Europe and Britain itineraries are up 50% versus last year, while bookings for its CostSaver Europe tours are up more than 60%. said Adam Leavitt, vice president, marketing.
Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager for Tauck attributed much of the growth to pent pent-up demand, but he also believes that optimism about the economy is spurring their decisions to book.
In particular, the company’s tours featuring a performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play have done well, and are mostly sold out. In fact, bookings on these itineraries are up over the pre-recession levels of 2008, Armstrong added.
“Our bookings for Europe are up 65% versus the same time period last year. Based on all sales and financial metrics we expect 2010 to be the best year ever for Uniworld,” Guy Young, president Uniworld River Cruises, told Travel Market Report.
Value Pricing Helps
Of course the stronger dollar, lower airfares and overall reduction in cost of vacations doesn’t hurt.
According to Globus’ Halboth, some of the Globus brand tours are priced 20% less now when compared to 2009 pricing. Lower airfares are an extra incentive, she added.
Insight Vacations’ Kazlauskas told TMR that as the year progresses he predicts the stronger dollar will spur more last minute bookings.
For Tauck, Armstrong told TMR, the strong dollar, while possibly a plus, is not the primary factor in Tauck guest decisions.
“Because our tours and cruises are virtually all-inclusive and our guests have so few out-of-pocket expenses that they have to pay for in euros, I don’t think the exchange rate is an overriding factor.”
Uniworld's Young agreed that in practical terms, currency plays a less significant role in bookings on all-inclusive products.
“That said, a strengthening dollar has a very strong psychological impact on clients' interest in planning a trip to Europe. As the dollar strengthens clients become more interested in traveling abroad. So the strong dollar does give our business an overall lift.”
Travel agency marketing group executives also agreed that a variety of factors are influencing the boom in Europe bookings.
"The rise in Europe bookings can be attributed to pent up demand, incredible values in both hotel rates and cruise prices, and aggressive marketing with enticing offers," said Michelle Morgan, Signature Travel Network president.
“Polling of our Virtuoso member agencies has shown our international leisure travel to be the most insulated from economic struggles, and booking trends continue to rise significantly, especially to Europe, which has traditionally been our clients’ top international destination,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. “A recovering economy and strengthened U.S. dollar should further bolster this trend.”
Italy, U.K. Still Tops; Greek Bookings Rise
Though perennial favorites, including Italy, the U.K. and Ireland continue to gain strength, demand is also increasing for other countries, most notably Greece and France.
Halboth told TMR that sales on Globus brands’ Greek products have doubled since 2009. France is also seeing growth, which Halboth attributed to the success of French river cruising. The company’s top destinations, however, continue to be Italy and Britain & Ireland.
GOGO Worldwide Vacations, which has been seeing European bookings trending upward since the beginning of the year on a week-to-week basis, told TMR 85.6% of its European YTD business is in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain.
Terry Follosco, director of Europe product for Classic Vacations, said the company is seeing a steady increase in Europe bookings with Italy, France, Greece and England leading the way with growth in multi-location seven- to 10-day itineraries.
However, Tauck is seeing its fastest growth in shorter (eight-days or less) trips, which, combined are up double-digits from where bookings were two years ago (pre-recession levels), according to Armstrong.
Uniworld also is seeing a trend toward shorter itineraries due to the strength of the US outbound market to Europe.
Travel Sellers See Positive Signs
Travel sellers also are reporting a rise in their Europe bookings, though not to the same extent as the tour operators -- and most of the demand continues to be for cruises.
“It looks promising. I would say we are slightly outpacing Europe over last year,” Roxanne Boryczki, president of AZ Trails Travel, told Travel Market Report. “So far we have half as many trips for Europe booked as we did, total, in 2009 and it’s only February.”
Boryczki added that most of the demand is for Western Mediterranean cruises and trans-Atlantic cruises with pre- and post-cruise stays in the U.K.
“I’m also seeing some additional interest in Italy, Greece and Turkey, but it has yet to turn into bookings.”
The longer European trips are proving to be popular with Boryczki’s clients, with most booking 10 to 20-day trips on average.
Dolores Cavallo, president of Wisconsin-based Traveleisure also is seeing a lot of demand for Mediterranean cruises. Additionally, villas stays are proving to be popular. Discounted business class air is spurring some of the demand, she added.
“There’s a bit more interest in European bookings,” Else Daniels, owner/manager of Vacations at Sea in Washington, DC, told TMR. “Overall people who would have gone last year under normal economic circumstances are checking and coming back for bookings.”
She noted that most of the demand is for Mediterranean cruises, specifically those that include stops in the Greek islands and at Athens and Istanbul.
According to Suzanne Hall, senior director, marketing & development land programs at Ensemble Travel Group, Ensemble members are seeing most of their Europe bookings in the form of river cruises. While she said the group's members are seeing an increase in land tours as well, it is in the river cruise market that "the leap" is most obvious.
"As the economy appears to be rebounding – albeit slowly – 2010 brings renewed interest and booking activity in Europe, most especially in the river cruise segment. Many of their clients who didn’t book a river cruise last year are putting this back on the table in 2010," she said.