There is still so much unknown regarding COVID-19 and its impact on travel. When will borders open? What will airlines global routes look like? What will be consumer temperament toward traveling?
During a U.S. Tour Operator Association (USTOA) member panel on Tuesday, tour operator executives discussed how their companies are planning for this new reality and the future recovery.
Jeff Roy, executive vice president of Collette, said the overall trend “seems to be less about travel style and more about destinations. There’s less about city center tours and more are flocking to destinations that feature wide open spaces, countryside, mountains, and national parks.”
That tracks with changing consumer sentiment, as health professionals have encouraged the outdoors and social distancing to limit the spread of virus particles.
Similarly, Carol Dimopoulos, president of Perillo's Learning Journeys, said the company is not getting a lot of questions about group size, but rather when destinations are open.
Dimopoulos said there will be smaller more intimate groups, and expects to reduce the number of participants to 24 people per coach next year.
There’s also the looming question about when will borders open to the U.S. travelers and how they will operate once they do. “We just don’t know how touring in the sites will be, while parts of Europe are open, we don’t know when we have the influx of Americans what that will look like – that’s malleable”.
“Right now the big question mark for us is when will Europe open up for us and what the airlines will do,” agreed John Hanratty, senior vice president of sales industry relations for Avanti Destinations, whose mainstay is Europe. “It looks to me that most if not all of 2020 bookings will move into 2021”
Roy also noted that there’s a heavy demand for June to October 2021, “the guest isn’t looking to change the way they travel, and they’re waiting until that is possible… People are traveling, and people are willing to travel, so it’s incumbent on us to figure out how to do it successfully.”
Hanratty cautioned that 2021 still won’t be as strong as 2019, and expects there still to be people skittish about travel as well as airlines pricing, which is likely to go up in order to recoup the losses from this year.
“Route options are going to be critical,” agreed Emma Cottis, general manager of corporate affairs for Goway, as operators try and plan itineraries going forward.
Expect to see tour operators arrange longer time in single destinations rather than transit in trip if there’s a drop in direct air connectivity. “I think we’ll see more point to point itineraries, and people using trains or biking to get to destinations. The less time people are in close confines, the better,” Cottis said.
Some operators have taken the time to innovate new products, such as SmarTours, delving into the domestic market with its recently launched American Road tours.
“It’s not the traditional get on a bus tour. You tour in your own car or a rental, and while you only meet your guide in the morning and at night, there’s an app to follow along. We’re trying to move into that contactless environment,” said Christine Petersen, president and CEO of smarTours.
“It’s not just a nod to where we think people are going to travel but how we think they will travel. We’re starting to look at how to innovate beyond getting people on a bus,” she said, adding that in addition to domestic trips, consumers want destinations with nature and wide open spaces, like Iceland and New Zealand.
“People have been through something traumatic, people will need to heal, and travel will be an important part of that,” Dimopoulos said.