The COVID pandemic has put the kibosh on in-person conferences, and forced trade associations to devise some sort of virtual event as a replacement. So where does that leave the U.S. Tour Operators Association, whose Annual Conference & Marketplace has been its number one attraction since soon after the association was founded in 1972?
In surveys of USTOA’s membership, its annual conference always comes in on top, hands down, as the most valued service the association provides its membership.
The annual meeting creates an opportunity for the association’s active member tour operators to have invaluable face-to-face meetings with associate members, including the suppliers and destination management organizations that they do business with throughout the year, as well as new prospects.
The conference also gives the tour operators a once-a-year opportunity to get together with each other in person. Their fellow tour operator members are both colleagues and competitors, and the USTOA conference provides an opportunity for them to find common ground, to learn from each other, compare notes, chart the course of their association for the next year, and determine how it can best serve their collective interests.
USTOA’s annual conference brings together a broad cross section of the global travel industry, perhaps the most diverse of any association. Many of those who attend say it’s their favorite industry conference, their best opportunity to network with industry colleagues. Taking place in early December, the conference has become a celebratory event that participants look forward to closing out the year with.
And USTOA knows how to throw a great bash. The association has gathered enough institutional knowledge over its nearly half century history to operate an event that works like clockwork to achieve its objectives. It includes a healthy measure of entertainment throughout, mixed in with its networking sessions. So, on top of its value as a business resource, it’s great fun.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
So now what? It’s 2020 and nothing is normal. No facetime, folks. Not this year.
Of course, USTOA will, like other trade associations, try to replace the in-person event with a virtual experience. It’s not a very pleasing proposition, no one pretends it’s a substitute for the real thing. But as with so many things this year, we must grit our teeth and move forward, make the most of it.
And USTOA’s president and CEO, Terry Dale, is a good one for that. His upbeat demeanor never wavers, and he always seems to stay on the balls of his feet in keeping tabs on events of the world, no matter how grim. This year, Dale has turned his abundant creative talents to the question of how to make the most of a virtual conference.
USTOA is forging ahead with its 2020 conference, having to throw out practically all of the best practices learned from decades of holding in-person conferences, and start from scratch. It has the technology in place to accommodate the virtual attendance of its expected thousand or so participants, and the technology to facilitate the virtual version of the conference’s usual in-person meetings. Online registration for those meetings will open Nov. 1.
But, as always, adversity brings some unexpected benefits. In Terry Dale’s recent video message to members, “Straight Talk from Terry Dale,” he reported that this year’s conference is seeing participation from people who have never attended before because of scheduling or budgetary limits. So, during the pandemic the conference is actually getting some new, additional attendance.
“We’re seeing new faces and names from both our active and associate members,” said Dale. “It’s a silver lining, to widen our community with people who can attend virtually but couldn’t do it in person.”
After more than a dozen virtual travel conferences this year already, Dale is determined to make the USTOA conference into a live event. Even if attendance is virtual, he wants the event to be live and not feel like something “canned.”
It’s risky, but Terry is taking the plunge.
To help make it feel real and tangible as opposed to virtual and canned, all registrants will receive a mysterious box in the mail. Making that happen required getting in touch with each member to confirm their mailing address and then mounting a mailing initiative. Lots of fun with new experiences.
The things in the box will be labeled like gifts that say, “Do not open till …” That means the items will be revealed to everyone simultaneously, as they are tuning into the live events of the conference together from their respective remote locations around the world.
“We’re all about being tangible and present,” said Dale. “The purpose of the box is to give something tangible that you can touch and feel, so it’s not just sitting in front of computer. It’s interactive.”
The Thrill of Live Performance
The conference’s two general sessions will be conducted live from Terry’s apartment in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, maintaining strict adherence to safety guidelines during the age of COVID.
To prove the broadcast is live, Terry will begin the sessions by holding up a copy of the day’s New York Times.
People in the apartment at the live portion of the virtual general sessions will stay 10 feet apart and wear masks. There will be a small production crew of four people, and four “consumers” for the consumer panel. And there will be some surprises.
“Each session will end with something really fun and uplifting,” he said.
There are risks, of course. But Terry Dale is not risk averse.
“I’ve talked to tech experts who say, ‘You are crazy. You shouldn’t do this,’” he said. “But I want this to be real.”
“There’s a chance it will not work. But it’s okay with hiccups as well. I love it when someone’s delivering the weather forecast and a grandchild jumps into the room. It makes it memorable. Will there be hiccups? Sure. It’s a calculated risk.”
That’s part of the thrill of “live.” It’s not pre-recorded. Anything can happen. That includes embarrassing problems. Dale accepts that possibility.
“It plays out the way it plays out,” he said. “We had the production crew here last week, and being in New York, at one point an ambulance goes by. And there’s that sound and everyone remembers… But I don’t care. This is real. It’s not canned.”
There will be some pre-recorded segments. “I can’t have Kenya in my apartment,” he said. “But 90% of it will be live in my apartment.”
Everyone hopes that we will soon return to something, if not quite ‘normal,’ at least less restrictive than in the past. And when the COVID storm has passed (he said, hopefully), how much of what we learned this year will be worth holding onto and carrying with us in the post-pandemic world?
“There will be many lessons learned,” said Dale. “I feel as if a lot of what is materializing as a result of the pandemic was in the pipeline, but the pandemic has forced it to materialize.”
One of those things is small group travel.
“Small is the new big,” he said. “There’s a growing interest in smaller groups as a result of the pandemic. We have become pods, bubbles, extended family you trust and can be safe with. That trend is going to be amplified.”
Another trend being strengthened by the pandemic, he said, is the rising importance of what Dale called “meaningful travel.”
“The Tourism Cares initiative focused on where can we, as an industry, get our economic impact where it will be felt most strongly, into the businesses that really need it,” he said. “That also wraps in sustainability. People are recognizing that sustainability is really critical in the packages we create and sell. That’s the good news that come comes from this tragic pandemic.”
Another problem occupies Terry Dale’s thoughts lately.
“The other thing I struggle with,” he said, “is what I call ‘Will they want us back?’ Globally the world has a greater appreciation for the jobs we create as industry. We see how many businesses are suffering because of the lack of travel and tourism. But when it gets down to local communities who may be threatened by the presence of Americans, then we realize that our problem is not just how to get people back on planes, but also, can we get communities to open their arms?”
And that will be a problem for another day.
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.