Under the extreme duress presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, American Tours International (ATI) is offering one viable avenue for travel advisors to get back into business after the pandemic-induced paralysis of the industry.
American Tours International is a 43-year old company that specializes in tours and travel in North America. The company has built a formidable business over the decades, providing tours of America to visitors from abroad. Now its expertise is greatly needed as Americans turn inward to explore their own home continent.
With so many countries keeping Americans out right now, travel advisors with strong survival instincts are turning toward whatever travel that is still possible. And the most obvious destination that is still open is – the United States of America.
And you know what? It’s a great destination! People from all over the world want to come to see America. Now it awaits discovery by its own people.
The Insuppressible Nomad
Humans are nomadic and migratory by natural evolutionary history, and the urge to travel cannot be suppressed. From the origin point of the human species in Africa, humans have spread to virtually every part of the globe. There is virtually no such thing as “uninhabitable” land for homo sapiens.
People are extremely resourceful when it comes to getting around obstacles to travel. The nomadic urge goes hand-in-hand with the deep-seated human desire for freedom.
Now with an invisible deadly enemy in our midst, the Coronavirus, there are dangers we have never seen before. But as we learn more about the disease and how it’s transmitted, we are finding ways to stay safe without having to just stay inside all the time.
The Great American Road Trip
One of the first ways Americans have started to travel again is by taking road trips. The Great American Road Trip is one of America’s greatest, most colorful, and exhilarating traditions.
Until the rise of the automobile in the early 20th Century, until Henry Ford’s mass production genius made cars widely available to Americans and highways were built to accommodate the new medium of transportation, there was no such thing as The Great American Road Trip. But in the 20th Century it became a great tradition. That wild migratory instinct, empowered by the automobile, was the source of much great literature, movies, music and culture; and it was a lot of what made America such a lively place.
Now that we’ve learned about safety measures that are effective in controlling the spread of COVID, Americans have found that they can go from one place to another safely in their cars. If they follow the proven safety precautions when they leave their cars, they can stay as safe as when the only trips they took were to the grocery store.
This has been happening organically, as Nick Hentschel, COO of ATI, told me the other day. Americans have been getting into their cars and hitting the road. We see it in the visitation rates of the national parks over the summer.
But, even for Americans, the great continent is still largely unexplored. As when exploring any foreign land, you can just take off wandering willy-nilly and you can probably have some good times and make some good discoveries. You may likely run into some problems you would have wished to avoid if you had known of them. But in any case, you could do a lot better than to just go off without planning.
And that’s where travel advisors come in. As always in the past, a competent travel agent can greatly improve the experience of a traveler, save money and trouble, and sort through the infinite possibilities to pull out some of the best of them to create a great trip experience.
ATI is providing the means to do that in the United States. ATI has an infrastructure that it has built for 43 years for accomplishing that. And the company can provide that expertise and infrastructure to travel agents as a turn-key operation, available to slip right into.
Four Decades of Institutional Knowledge
Founded by Noël Irwin-Hentschel, American Tours International is now managed on a day-to-day basis by the COO, Nick Hentschel, the son of the founder and chairman.
Younger than the company, Nick grew up in the business, went out on his own and later returned to help run the company, eventually taking over the operational helm. After growing up on the fringes of the business, working during summers and odd intervals in various departments, Nick returned as a full-time employee nine years ago.
This year, like everyone else, ATI found itself in a Brave New World, having to re-invent itself for unprecedented times.
“We were on a great growth path for almost a decade,” he told me. “Now we’re trying to get back on that path with what we had seen as an opportunity.”
ATI’s New Role
The company has seen a new role in the age of COVID and has risen to the occasion. ATI recently released the 2020 edition of its magazine, Where Next? Partnering with destinations across North America, Where Next? is designed to inspire Americans to explore North American and to help them plan their own tours.
The company claims to be the leading provider of accommodations in North America, offering preferred rates at more than 25,000 properties in America’s most popular destinations, including places where accommodation is scarce; such at the national parks, where ATI claims to have more lodging availability than any other operator in the world.
The offerings spread beyond the standardized categories to include specialty lodging, such as short-term stay apartments, vacation rentals, house boats, ranches, and luxury camping accommodations.
The company offers varying degrees of travel support, from independent travel to full-service tour operation. ATI is now making a concerted push to get its message to travel agents across the country that it can provide them a way to rebuild their businesses during the present crisis.
The company saw an opportunity under the current circumstances to push a new Drive America program.
“Specifically, it’s road trip planning and working with destinations to build itineraries that you can then market,” Nick told me.
Hentschel acknowledges that ATI is not the only company that provides the means for itinerary building.
“But ours is a little bit different,” he said, “because we start with these packages or itineraries, designed by us working with our clients, or with destinations, or in some cases with hotels. Now we’re working with Best Western to build a couple of inspired, curated road trip itineraries that we then push to agents, and through them to their customers.”
The Return of Drive America
ATI first tried the concept in the months following 9/11. But now the situation for the travel industry is a great deal more dire than even then.
“That was the concept of Drive America before,” he said, “and it’s been reinforced now because of type of travel that people are going to gravitate toward, at least domestically, so long as they can’t really go on cruises or go overseas. We are trying to be in the middle, and we’re well-known for that.”
The company started in 1977 as a group travel escorted tour operator, working mostly with incentive groups from Europe and Australia. Then company founders Noël Irwin-Hentschel and Michael Fitzpatrick saw an opportunity to guarantee departures for some popular itineraries that operators overseas could feed into, so they wouldn’t have to take the risk.
From there, the company evolved into offering packages and individual independent travel packages.
“But now during COVID, our focus has shifted away from escorted,” said Hentschel, “just because we can’t really run those tours right now. We are looking at ways we can run them in the future, though it’s not easy, especially when you have different rules and regulations across different jurisdictions and destinations. It will be really interesting in 2021 to see what we and other escorted operators do with the tours.”
But meanwhile the company is focusing on independent packages and drive products.
“The majority of our business has been traditionally inbound, coming from Europe, Australia, China, and Japan,” said Hentschel. “The partnership with AAA started more than 15 years ago,” he said. “It was really the post 9/11 pivoting to use the product we had developed and deployed to AAA agents as part of a domestic strategy that was quite successful in aftermath of 9/11.”
Now the company is resorting to a similar strategy, but not just for AAA. Now it is reaching out to other domestic agents who have not been familiar with the company.
ATI has lately been working on an outreach project with TravelMole, as part of an overall strategy “to access those independent agents and travel professionals that aren’t as familiar with us and to contact them and inspire them to sell the US through this relatively easy tool,” said Hentschel.
It’s a way for retail travel professionals to “get off the ground” in this new environment.
“This is the big question for the industry, right?” said Hentschel. “How do travel professionals, travel companies take advantage or capitalize in such a difficult market in which people don’t feel like they can easily or safely travel.”
The solution ATI is offering: The road trip concept.
“Obviously, it’s kind of organic.” he said. “People are already thinking of that and doing it themselves in many cases. But travel agents not being able to get some piece of that is concerning. And that’s where we saw an opening.”
ATI’s current message to travel advisors is: “You should be offering this to your customers. You should be a part of this, not just letting them go and figure it out on their own through a Google search or Expedia or whatnot.”
The Forked Attack
The campaign targets travel agents with a two-pronged strategy.
“The starting point is the itinerary,” said Hentschel. “I call it ‘inspired’ or ‘curated.’ It turns out that many travel agents don’t know the US that well, and don’t figure out the routing all that easily because they’re not familiar with it. So, we’re educating them through webinars, and we’re working with the destinations to do that. And then to actually deliver those itineraries, which can be changed.”
The second prong of the strategy is providing the platform to enable agents to build itineraries from scratch.
“That’s more of a dynamic packaging functionality,” said Hentschel. “There’s a map that shows distances and relationships similar to what you do on Google, to create your road trips.”
ATI’s curated itineraries can be changed to suit preferences. They can be used as basic templates to start with, and then to build on. Once created, an itinerary can be saved, used for promotion, or re-used over and over for different customers.
The technology is not revolutionary, but the content belongs to ATI and represents decades of working in the field, building knowledge and relationships with hotels, destinations, transportation providers, and attractions.
“It’s a web-based platform using search-and-book technology similar to what you would see on an OTA website, but we stick into it what we had already built for packaging.”
The Advantage of Bulk Purchasing
Another key element is the price advantage of ATI as a big buyer of all the components in the system. That enable the company to get extremely low prices, which ultimately provide the profit margin for when the agent provides the service to the clients.
“The discounts or commissions are what they need to be in order for it to make sense,” said Hentschel. “Leisure is what hotels are focused on now because they don’t have the corporate business coming in. Because of all those reasons we’re getting really aggressive rates and discounts.”
“The difference with ours is that we own the product,” said Hentschel. “We’re not sourcing all this product through the GDS or through third party bed banks. It is ours. So that does make a difference when it comes to service delivery. That’s a distinction for us, a sales point for us.
“We contract directly with the hotels, or with the attraction provider, or the transportation provider. It’s been a strategy of ours from the beginning, and it does make a difference in service delivery.”
So now America, one of the world’s great destinations, is open for business.
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.