Tour operators are upbeat about 2017 despite a roller-coaster 2016, believing the demand for their product is strong and growing.
The most recent survey of members of the United States Tour Operators Association showed three-fourths were optimistic, with 44% anticipating a 7%-10% increase in sales and slightly more than a third anticipating 4%-6% growth (Editor’s note: taken before the events of this week in Germany).
Most see a continued partnership with travel agents, with 62% of their packages being sold in 2016 through the retail channel.
TMR asked a diverse group of tour operators about their plans and outlook for 2017. Here are their answers.
Where will you be investing in 2017?
Gavin Tollman, CEO, Trafalgar Guided Holidays: “Our priority for next year is to further engage and invest with our industry partners. To that end, I’m delighted to confirm that we will be appointing five new sales managers for the East Coast, all based east of the Mississippi. In January, we will unveil our new e-learning platform, another tool to equip agents for success and to make doing business with us more simple. Additionally, our parent company, The Travel Corporation, will be opening an office in New York City. The USA travel market is enormously important to us, and we will have a strong domestic, as well as international, focus. And we anticipate 2017 being a big year for us with Britain sales—we will be celebrating our 70th birthday and acknowledging the birthplace of the Trafalgar brand."
Courtney Iannuccilli, vice president of marketing, Collette: “We’re highly invested in digital and televised content over the coming months to create new awareness for Collette and to drive these consumers to agents. It’s putting more in the pockets of agents.”
Phil Otterson, USA President, Abercrombie & Kent: “For 2017, we’ve made significant changes (including the name) to our Connections Boutique Group Journeys. We’ve reimagined Connections to focus on boutique experiences, from one-of-a kind hotels to authentic local interactions, intimate group size, and inspiring dining options. We’re also expanding the Connections portfolio to feature 12 new journeys, such as cultural explorations of lesser-visited regions of Europe. These journeys are designed to connect guests to interesting places, local cultures, and people in a very personal way. For 2017, we have worked closely with our offices around the world to curate boutique hotels, selecting smaller properties that are locally or family-owned, and reflect the distinctive character of the destination through their history or style. These enhancements will require a concentrated effort to educate agents about these boutique aspects and how they can make a difference in their client’s appreciation of the destination.”
Jeff Roy, vice president of marketing & sales, Eurobound: “People development and technology is where we will be spending more, as they remain the two most important components of our service. Regarding markets, it’s difficult to say which will be expanding and which will be shrinking. Everything is connected and we are a smaller, nimble organization that can flex with the demand. Since our specialty is bespoke travel, no two requests are the same. We’ll have to wait and see.”
What’s your advice for travel professionals in 2017?
Claire Saylor, senior marketing manager, U.S., Audley Travel: “I think our biggest learning is how much clients appreciate an agent that listens to their needs and interests. Honing in on a small reference to a birthday or anniversary, or a child’s interest in cars, could all be hints for you to craft an experience they will remember for a lifetime. In our daily life, personalization is the norm, not the exception.”
Roy: “Provide your clients with inspiration besides products. We live in a digital world where we expect almost everything to be available at our finger tips. Take advantage of this perception by cutting through the clutter with seamless service and establishing yourself as a travel guru.”
Della Grazia: “Invest more time to listen to your clients, get a full grasp of their interests, expectations, etc., and only then start to advise and suggest products, itineraries, activities and properties that fulfill their travel dreams. Of course speed of response matters—but the relevance of the response matters even more. And with the knowledge gained of clients’ interests and needs, designing and selling small group tours will become easier, with the resulting increase in revenues.”
Iannuccilli: “Now, more than ever, we’re encouraging agents to take our e-learning courses to become experts in the destination. By doing so, agents will gain access to untapped information and will have the opportunity for travel discounts and FAMs.”
From where do you see new revenues coming in 2017?
Saylor: “Our new revenue driver for 2017 and beyond is based on launching an entirely new portfolio of tailor-made travel to Europe. Europe is an evergreen destination for North American travelers, and there is a demand from second and third time visitors to see beyond the highlights of the region, and really delve into some of the cultural and culinary traditions or live history on educational inspired trips.”
Della Grazia: “We see small groups (10 to 20 participants) as an increasingly big source of revenue in 2017 and in the years to come. Small groups combine the advantage of unique, off-the-beaten-path (I would say almost custom-made) itineraries with the price advantage related to the size of the group. We have a small group section on our website.”
Tollman: “Trafalgar is seeing trends like multi-generational travel groups—not just the parents but also grandparents taking the children on trips. Demand continues to steadily increase for our Family Experiences so we have expanded that offering for next year. We have significantly diversified our portfolio for 2017 and while we will always strive to improve, we are thrilled to be able to offer eight different trip styles, something for everyone.”
Iannuccilli: “Our explorations line of smaller experience tours is really trending to be a favorite right now and we anticipate additional revenue from multi-generational travel in the coming months.”
Otterson: “Luxury Expedition Cruising to Antarctica, the Arctic, and Japan is growing steadily, which has inspired us to add new destinations and routing, such as Japan and some of its lesser-known gems, like the Ryukyu Islands. Due to great interest in last year’s Northwest Passage cruise, we’ve chosen to offer it again in 2017 and 2018. There is also strong demand for regional journeys in China, India and Indochina that feature privately-chartered flights. Guests enjoy hassle-free departures and arrivals on the Wings Over the World programs, flying directly from each destination to the next with a dedicated flight crew and a limited number of guests.”
What’s new on the travel agent front?
Iannuccilli: “We’re really putting a more personalized touch on the communication that we have with travel agents. Instead of numerous emails, we established a newsletter for agents to get all their information in one place. It’s more efficient and cuts down on everything that agents need to sift through each day.”
Tollman: “Our concerted effort for transparency in travel and understanding the frustrations our agents might have is paramount to a seamless experience for agent and guest. Trafalgar is going in a different direction from other companies by making it seamless and not putting the burden on the travel agent to try to decipher complex deals, for example. We want to simplify the process and with us, what you see is what you get—no hidden complications for the agent to have to spend precious time worrying about.”
Saylor: “As with finding the right clients who get the concept of tailor-made travel, we aim to find the right travel-agent partnerships that know how we work and really know their clients and their interests, so together we can build a trip where the end client sees the value and the difference in working with us instead of a group tour operator.”
Della Grazia: “We will increasingly invest in developing deep relations with a selected pool of travel agents with whom we will be able to satisfy the needs of their most demanding clients for unique, luxury and off-the-beaten-path itineraries across Italy. Our process successfully combines the travel agent’s in-depth knowledge of the client with our constantly updated expertise of the best experiences, properties, etc., that Italy has to offer to create memorable travel experiences.”
What do you see as the biggest challenge/biggest opportunity next year?
Saylor: “Our biggest challenge is educating North American travelers about tailor-made travel. There are very few recognized names in the North American market that do what we do, so each phone call with an agent or traveler begins with a description of the Audley Way—listening to a person’s goals and interests, and distilling from the wealth of options a trip that fully surpasses their expectations.”
Roy: “The same as they were last year and the year before, and that is value. As more and more options pop up on the web, we need to instill in our clients—whether travel agents or consumers—that our services are an added value and more worthwhile than ever.”
Della Grazia: “We are expecting an increase in the number of people traveling to Europe as the exchange rate of the dollar vs. the euro becomes more and more favorable to American clients. The main challenge will be to reduce the uncertainties related to the political changes that have happened during 2016 and will happen next year (several European countries will go to the polls in 2017).”