The I’s Have It: Tour Operators Say For Europe Travelers, Hot Destinations Start With ‘I’

by Cheryl Rosen
The I’s Have It: Tour Operators Say For Europe Travelers, Hot Destinations Start With ‘I’


PROVIDENCE, RI. —When it comes to hot destinations, “I” seems to be in this summer, agreed one tour operator after another at the United States Tour Operators Association’s Business After Hours get-together in Providence last week. And the U.S. national parks, celebrating their 100th anniversary, are packing in the crowds as well.

“The I’s have it,” quipped Insight USA president Phil Capelli. “Ireland, Italy, and Iceland are hot. And we’re having our best year ever in the States.” 

“Iceland, Ireland and Italy,” said Jennifer Tombaugh, president of Tauck in New York, when asked where she sees customers headed. (And also Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Russia and Scandinavia, she said.)

Despite the events in Europe, Tombaugh said Tauck’s customers “are being more resilient than ever. We’ve certainly seen a pause, some skittishness about going to Paris, Brussels and Istanbul. But where it used to take a year for customers to come back (after a negative event), now customers seem to be saying, ‘I’m traveling anyway, darn it.’ ”

“Europe for us has been very good,” agreed Goway Travel Inc. general manager John McGonigle of Cape Cod, MA, noting that his clients tends to be frequent upscale travelers who are unfazed by current events. “Our clientele has been to Europe before. This summer we’ve done villas in Italy and Scandinavia and Iceland, taking advantage of the free-night stopover in Reykjavik (being offered by Icelandair). Most of what we do is customized; budget doesn’t enter into the conversation until later.”

Japan also “has been large for us,” McGonigle said. “It’s a great value for Americans and it has the draw of the food, the cherry blossoms, and even warm weather in February—and it’s extremely safe.”

To handle the crowds headed to the Northern lights, Icelandair for the first time has added four 767s to its fleet, flying from Chicago and Montreal. They are "capable of the long haul, and we are always exploring new markets," said regional sales executive Christina Annese.

At Morristown, NJ-based CIE Tours International, new CEO Elizabeth Crabill, four months on the job at the Irish-owned operator, is happy to report that this year “everybody is finding out what we already knew, that Americans already know the culture in Ireland, and that everyone feels comfortable here.” Tourism to Ireland has been growing in the double-digits for the past three years, she said, and is up 18% this year already.

To help travel agents sell Ireland, CIE is preparing to roll out a series of "Travel Chats" they will hold in 20 cities around the country. Travel agents can invite their clients “for an evening of learning about travel to Ireland and Britain, with set-up and planning provided by CIE,” Crabill said. “Travel Chats allow travel agents to let us do the work building their Ireland & Britain business.”

Groups and incentives tick it up a notch
Beyond the leisure market, the group and incentive market, an especially risk-averse customer base, is particularly interested in Ireland this year, Crabill added. And Nancy Davids, founding partner of Journeys Meetings and Beyond in Harvard, MA, noted that one group that was originally booked for Istanbul now is headed for Iceland instead.

Indeed, Davids is using the concerns over Europe among corporate clients to upsell them to new destinations farther away. "We're finding that with all that's going on, alternative emerging destinations are more interesting than in the past," particularly to incentive groups in the insurance and pharmaceutical sectors.

With "airline lift being so much more accessible," she is suggesting that customers think outside of the box with their incentive programs, raising both the sales bar needed to qualify and the prize being offered. "We are saying if you incentivize people to get to someplace they would never go on their own, they might just tick it up a notch. I had one client who moved an incentive program from Morocco to South Africa. And we are suggesting Dubai."

In the end, though, “it’s very important that travel agents don’t write off Europe,” said Jennifer Tombaugh at Tauck, whose new river cruise ship, the 67-cabin ms Grace, launched just a week after the Paris attack. “There are always pockets of concern but there’s so much resilience among travelers, and people are going to want to return.”

With the launch of Grace and its sister ship, ms Joy in June, Tauck has doubled its European riverboat fleet, from four to eight ships. It also added a new family itinerary on the Seine and a doubling of its total family river cruise departures for 2017. 

The more guests travel, the more they realize that “we all share the same values, except for some miniscule portion of the population. And they could be anywhere,” Tombaugh said. “The travel industry makes the world a better place—and the travel agent community plays a huge role in that.”

Indeed, the mantra of USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale is “Open Borders, Open Minds,” noted Paula Twidale, USTOA’s chairman of the board (whose day job is EVP of Collette Vacations in Providence, RI). Packaged travel was a $13.5 billion industry and vital to the economies of many nations in 2015, she noted, bringing stability and understanding to countries around the world. Sales of Collette’s seven-day Spotlight on Paris tour were up after the Paris attack, she said, crediting the demographic of the typical Spotlight customer, about age 55, for the failure to panic.

When a customer is on the fence over terrorism fears, “that’s when I’ll get on the phone,” Twidale said. “It’s about instilling confidence. We’ll cancel a tour if it’s not safe; we keep our ears to the ground and have a crisis management team and a contingency plan. We have core competencies to execute a great product that’s safe. We try to educate consumers that things are under control or we will cancel, that it doesn’t matter where you are, that this is a new way of life.”

In the end, no one can predict the future; no one can you guarantee a safe journey. “I preach that you can’t succumb to fear,” Twidale said. “You have to keep living, and travel is an integral part of life. And we find that travel is one thing people just aren’t willing to give up.”

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