Since March, when American tour operators and wholesalers were hit with an immediate and, practically, total cut-off of business, they have been scrambling to hold onto what they could and trying to prepare for a resumption of business when travel opens again for Americans.
When that opening would come, no one could say for sure. The rush to reopen led to a skyrocketing of COVID cases that created another setback as the European Union closed its doors to American travelers, forcing operators to scrap much of their planning and start over again. After the second hit, consumer confidence in travel plummeted further and prospective travelers became even more cautious about resuming travel.
Now, the tour operators that have survived the stoppage are hoping to re-establish their footing in a market that has changed fundamentally, and to adjust to a moving target of restrictive conditions that change almost daily.
To even begin to restore confidence and attract business again, tour operators have had to re-invent themselves and their ways of doing business more than ever before. It’s a trial by fire of historic dimensions.
The COVID crisis has been a make-or-break proposition for tour operators. “I have seen this break many tour operators and, yet, I have seen it define others,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “There are a lot of good operators out there, and I see those cats really stepping up with their guests and with their employees. I intend to be one of the latter.”
Adaptability has long been the name of the game in the tour and package market. But, no one alive has ever seen anything as thoroughly destructive as COVID 19.
Still, tour operators are a hearty and resilient breed and the COVID crisis has brought out their most innovative talents. The industry has had a lot of practice over decades of getting through all kinds of crises, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters, to wars and economic disruptions, to disease.
Like most crises that affect travel, the COVID crisis has accentuated the value of tour operators as it has of travel agents, and forced tour operators to do better at what they have always done.
“Safety, along with the health and well-being of every guest, have always been top priorities for USTOA tour operator members,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. “Now more than ever, travelers will seek these types of reassurances before embarking on their next journey.”
In times of crisis, safety is the premium value of the travel industry.
“It’s also important to recognize the level of security and peace of mind that comes from the years of experience and expertise when traveling with a USTOA tour operator member,” said Dale. “This ranges from stringent health and safety protocols in coordination with partners and suppliers around the world, to USTOA’s $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program, which offers confidence knowing vacation investments are protected with a solid financial safety net.”
Adventure operator Intrepid Travel has been using the global pause to gear up its sustainable travel practices and use the opportunity to begin to define a new normal.
“The COVID-19 crisis has brought our sector and the global economy to a halt this year, and we would be remiss to not let it be for something good,” said James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel. “We shouldn’t be aspiring for things to go back to normal, but rather redefine what normal means and use this period of travel stagnation to focus on rebuilding our businesses more ethically and sustainably, so that our earth is preserved for future generations to explore.”
Thornton said he believes the industry cannot rebound without rebuilding responsibly. Intrepid elaborated on its efforts to find a new normal for touring in a company statement. “Moments like the transformation of Venice’s canals and sea turtles thriving in Thailand amid the pandemic’s worldwide shutdowns shine a light on tourism’s impacts when it’s at full force,” said the statement. “The industry needs to emerge from the crisis with impactful strides to ensure there’s a world to explore for future generations of travelers.”
Because outdoor breezes tend to cause viruses in human breath to blow away and dissipate, outdoor locations are much safer than indoors when it comes to the transmission of COVID.
That makes small-group custom trips to outdoors locations some of the least risky kinds of travel in the era of COVID-19, and Austin Adventures has found its sweet spot, at the place where the company began.
“We’re going to stick to what got us to the dance,” said Dan Austin, president. “Our domestic programs have always been our mainstay and the biggest percentage of what we do. Now more than ever we are focused on making sure we continue to focus on the domestic scene.”
Austin has seen an increase in the demand for custom group tours, which enable small groups of intimate friends or family to travel in “bubbles,” reducing their exposure to a few who are known to be free of the infection.
Contrary to all reasonable expectations when the GDP has dropped by a third, Austin Adventures is busy.
“Domestically the custom and exclusive market has been hot,” said Austin. “We can’t keep up with last-minute demands. That tells me that folks are ready to travel and just need a sense that it’s safe.”
The company is adding more domestic programs but will hold off on international programs until the demand returns.
“We see first-hand a lot of international players ‘pivoting’ and trying to add domestic product,” said Austin. “We started in Montana some 35 years ago and plan if anything to just keep doing what we do. Perhaps a bit more of it. No need to pivot when you already are there.”
Ya’lla Tours is focusing more than ever on private tours rather than traditional group motor coach tours.
“Travelers will look not to travel on packed buses, but on more intimate trips,” said Ronen Paldi, president.
Paldi doesn’t expect the reopening to happen all at once. “It is not just reopening, it is which countries will welcome US visitors,” said Paldi. “Greece, Jordan, Dubai and Morocco, are all ‘Green Countries.’ Egypt will open at the end of July. Israel and Cuba in September.”
Paldi said Ya’lla Tours set itself up for reopening by taking good care of its customers when the lockdown came down, leaving them with a good feeling about the company.
“We are a reliable company that took care of the travel agent and travelers by offering refunds and credit for future travel,” said Paldi. “Basically, we work very closely to protect the travelers and their travel agents.”
Alexander + Roberts
“We’ve built our product for 2021 and 2022,” said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “Our protocols and have been surprisingly successful in moving 2020 travelers forward. With some positive news of various sorts (including political) 2021 could be quite a good year. Travel advisors have been great to work with over the last six months, supportive, positive and understanding. I guess we all have learned what it’s like to work without revenue.
“Nonetheless, as a privately held and successful company of 74 years,” Drumm said, “we’re feeling confident about the future. I think we have the right profile of privately-guided, tailor-made and small groups of 16 or less for our times.”
The Travel Corporation
The Travel Corporation has put in place a new Wellbeing Director on every guided vacation of Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold except in Australia and New Zealand.
The new Wellbeing Directors will carry out “Safe Travels and Seamless Traveler Journey” protocols developed by TTC in coordination with the World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC).
According to a company statement, “The WD’s will be with clients from the first day and throughout their entire journey to ensure all hygiene and physical distancing measures are implemented every step of the way.” `
The Wellbeing Directors are trained to supervise in three areas: personal support and assistance; supplier engagement and compliance; and daily monitoring of distancing and hygiene standards.
Insight Vacations, part of The Travel Corporation is introducing a new style of trip called Escapes. They are close to home, shorter trips designed for Americans during the age of COVID.
The company that built its reputation as “synonymous with Italy” dropped all its departures through the end of the year. But, according to the company’s third-generation owner and president, Steve Perillo, “We are currently creating and publishing our 2021 tours, packages and group offerings as if it’s a normal year. That’s on the chance the virus will be mostly gone by early next year. But if the virus does continue, we can withdraw or decrease that inventory accordingly.”
The ancestral company was strong enough fiscally to sit out most of 2020, which was set to be one of its best years before the invasion of COVID. If the pandemic continues into next year, Perillo is developing more domestic programs.
“Perillo’s Groups and Learning Journeys has focused on domestic programs offering travelers the opportunity to discover their local regions,” said Carole Dimopoulos, president of Perillo’s Learning Journeys. “People still have the wanderlust to travel, but are looking for the close-to-home experiences.”
Looking on the bright side, with the Coronavirus changing the world, it will create novel experiences for travelers when they do start getting out on the road again.
“Certainly, traveling in this period will be a completely unique and unforgettable experience for people,” said Perillo. “It might feel like pre-World War II days before mass travel forced cathedrals to sell entrance tickets, before the Mona Lisa and the Trevi Fountain could be barely glimpsed behind the heads of crowds.
“The whole thing has been an immense learning experience and we’ll come out better on the other side,” he said. “It’s our furloughed employees that have been the biggest heartache. Everything else we can handle.”
Abercrombie & Kent
Abercrombie & Kent, the classic luxury and adventure tour operator, like others, is taking whatever advantage it can find in the COVID crisis.
“Over many years in the business, I have learned that crises also create opportunities,” A&K’s founder and co-chairman told Travel Research Online. “We have used the pause to pivot and adapt – designing new journeys that meet client needs when they are ready to travel again. Guests are looking for different experiences and destinations, more outdoor adventures and wide open spaces, more time with family, more customization and privacy, including private air charters – all things that have always been part of A&K’s DNA.”
Though Abercrombie & Kent was founded in 1962, in Kenya, the company has offered programs in the American West and California for more than five decades; so, it can easily shift to the current American preference for domestic travel. A&K’s private adventures to exotic places, including road trips and national park journeys by private air are well-suited to current conditions.
Now more than ever, “flexibility is key,” said Kent. “Travel choices have never been more personal, and safety and security has never mattered more. A&K’s breadth of destinations and variety of travel styles will make it easy to find the right journey for clients and to make changes if the need arises.”
A&K’s Tailor Made Private Travel programs started in July with itineraries in the American West.
“[The programs] offer an escape into nature – where it’s relatively easy to practice physical distancing,” said Kent. “Clients are able to come and go with minimal exposure to other travelers, while enjoying a working ranch outside Moab, a lodge on the doorstep of Denali or an inn with Michelin-starred cuisine in the heart of California’s wine country.
“We are using luxury properties with private entrances, al fresco dining and a choice of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, horseback riding, fly fishing or rafting with knowledgeable local guides. We are also leveraging our connections to offer private charter flights between U.S. national parks to minimize exposure.”
The company plans to restart its Small Group Journeys in the U.S, including Alaska, in August 2020. The programs carry an average of 12 guests and never more than 18. Capacity in vehicles is limited to 50 percent so guests have room to spread out.
A&K now offers Kenya, Egypt and Jordan, which are some of the first destinations to meet World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travel requirements.
“Safaris naturally lend themselves to social distancing at small boutique camps with private entrances and outdoor dining,” said Kent. “Egypt is the world’s greatest open-air museum. And a desert camp in Wadi Rum offers the ultimate wide open, red desert adventure. We also expect that expedition cruising to remote destinations like Antarctica will be back on small ships – less than 200 people – in the fourth quarter of 2020.”
Central Holidays has introduced strict protocols with physical distancing and rigorous sanitation and hygienic procedures that are being adhered to by all service providers the company works with.
The company’s market research is showing “sparks of new demand for 2021, especially at the group level, in addition to the travelers who decided earlier this year to postpone their plans for travel next year,” according to Maria Jose Merino, vice president of operations.
The operator is working closely with clients to gauge their readiness to resume travel. “We are ready to serve them when they are comfortable to venture out again,” said Merino. “Destinations such as Egypt and others are open to U.S. travelers and others are in the processes of opening. We are ready for them when they are.”
Some of the company’s top destinations are already open, including the UAE and Croatia. “We anticipate that Europe will be reevaluating current restrictions and opening soon,” said Merino.
The company has been keeping in touch with its base with marketing messages that communicate “hope and solidarity with the trade and all affected around the globe,” said Merino, “as well as promoting well-being first and foremost for everyone, including our staff, partners, travelers and friends. Our interim policy was purpose-built and geared to protect the travel investments of all involved.
“The road to a full recovery to business levels pre-COVID-19 is a strenuous one. However, travel will always be a force driving humanity. All industry partners will have to truly work with each other in facilitating and enabling the booking process for those willing and able to experience and explore the world again.”
When COVID first set in last March, Pleasant Holidays and its sister luxury brand Journese shifted its reservation sales agents to customer service to address the immediate needs of travelers in destination and those traveling soon.
While travel itself was curtailed, the company used the time to add hotels and destinations to its portfolio, including California coastal towns such as Santa Barbara, Carmel and Monterey; the Napa/Sonoma Wine Country; historical southern cities like Savannah, Hilton Head and Charleston; Florida beaches in Key West, Key Largo, Sarasota, Clearwater and Myrtle Beach; and Lake Tahoe, Nashville, San Antonio and Niagara Falls.
Its beach destinations are currently its bestsellers, including vacations to Mexico, Caribbean and Tahiti, as well as US beach resort areas on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
The company is also offering small ship cruises in the domestic U.S. on ships of American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines. Most of the U.S. river cruise ships are not subject to the CDC No Sail order, since they transport fewer than 250 guests.
Tour operators and wholesalers continue to navigate a perilous and shifting landscape, but hopefully some stability will be reached in coming months. Whatever happens, they will continue to surf the waves as they encounter them, and will continue to lay the foundation for a new post-COVID travel environment. No doubt when things smooth over, the industry will see the most powerful explosion of pent-up demand ever witnessed in the modern history of travel.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.