“Two-thirds of sales come through the travel agent distribution channel, and we believe we’ll continue to see this go up incrementally. We couldn’t have this success without each person in this room,” said USTOA President Terry Dale kicking off the Focus on Tours panel last week at the New York Times Travel Show.
The data was echoed by leading executives from companies including Avanti, Tauck, The Travel Corporation, Rail Europe, Travel Impressions, and GOGO Vacations. For many tour operators, including the panel, last year marked solid growth, with 2018 only trending upward from there. While the economy and stock market have been strong, 2017 was not without its obstacles, from Hurricanes Maria and Irma to international terror threats.
“We see whether it’s a natural disaster or a terrorism event, or overall economic disruption, that our guests are rebounding much more quickly than they did in the past,” noted Tauck President Jennifer Tombaugh. “There’s resilience about the American traveler we haven’t seen in a long time. I think they’re saying ‘Look, life is short, let’s just go out and do it.’”
That attitude, coupled with the expertise of the travel agent, has led to record sales. “We recognize just how strong the agency community is, and how our success is very much linked to their success,” added The Travel Corporation Chief Engagement Officer Guy Young. “Four or five years ago, people questioned if travel agents would be around in 10 or 15 years, and there has been a huge resurgence.”
Travel agents also help maintain bookings during times of uncertainty. Dale pointed to a study in partnership with Cornell University, which looked at what sources consumers rely on to maintain their travel plans and make decisions. The number one source they responded to was travel advisors. “They rely on you to help them feel calm and confident,” said Dale.
Travel Impressions President Scott Wiseman has seen that first-hand. “Those that work with travel professionals are getting the truth behind various State Department warnings, what’s the real status on the islands, what’s coming back after the hurricanes in the Caribbean.”
And the partnership is mutual; in addition to the knowledge and safety tour operators provide, properties are vetted and inspected, leaving travel advisors with one less thing to worry about.
The panel also highlighted that they offer agents and their clients a bevy of insurance policies, like the cancel-for-any-reason plan, which is less restrictive than booking direct. Wiseman said it’s an “assurance to your clients that if something comes up, when you work with a tour operator, it’s a very simple process and it’s a great way to get them to book with you.”
Payment plans available from tour operators are more consumer-friendly, too. They don’t have to pay in full until 60 days out, providing a lot of flexibility for the traveler, Avanti Destinations CEO and Founder Harry Dalgaard said, whereas with an OTA, they have to pay as soon as the trip is booked.
“Technology is going to change and destinations are going to evolve, but there’s a reason you’re in this industry. Tap into that and always use that as the industry goes through all the changes,” concluded GOGO Vacations President John Van Den Heuvel.