I have attended the United States Tour Operators Association’s Annual Conference and Marketplace every year since the mid-‘90s. This is the first time since then that I have not closed out the year with a warm gathering of friendly people, in some beautiful hotel in a delightful location, with a concentrated schedule of events designed to promote productive engagement among diverse players in the travel industry from around the world. It is a highlight of the year.
It’s not a huge conference. It’s fewer than a thousand people, but it’s one of the most diverse gatherings of people I’ve been fortunate enough to experience. And they are high quality people from all over the world. The companies and organizations send some of their best people to that conference.
The attendance is based around the core membership of the association, its Active Members. They are the hundred or so tour operators who post a million dollar bond for the privileges and status of being an Active Member.
Then there are the USTOA’s Associate Members, which are several hundred travel suppliers and destination marketing organizations from around the world. All these attendees travel on a thousand parallel paths for three supercharged days of nearly constant activity. The whole cluster of activity, with its many complex layers of networking, generates a tremendous amount of energy. Even lacking devices to measure that kind of energy, you can feel it in the air. It crackles inaudibly.
I’m always amazed by the power generated by groups of people who gather together and focus on a common objective. It’s a giant force of nature. I am fascinated just to be an observer of such a phenomenon. I look forward to it every year, to join in that powerhouse of activity with all those highly charged, focused people.
This is the first year ever, since USTOA started holding conferences in the 1970s, that it was unable to hold its conference according to the established plan. But obviously, this year is a year like no other. This year the way we express our fondest care for one another is by staying away. That is a weird thing.
But, here we are. I’ve heard many people speak about the year 2020 as if it has already lasted for 20 years, and it feels like it. It feels like being locked in a cave for an eternity. But it was the middle of March when large numbers of people had to go into lockdown. It’s now going on nine months.
I don’t think many people would have expected last March, that come December, we would be in the kind of shape we are in. By the numbers, we are at the worst place in the history of the pandemic. That’s a pretty grim milestone nine months after it hit. I don’t need to go over the numbers, God knows we know them only too well.
But the strangest thing is, here in the Darkest Hour, as it were, I feel hopeful. Optimistic.
A Perfect Storm in Reverse
If that’s evidence that I am infected with the dreaded Pollyanna syndrome (blind optimism), then I’ll just go with that for a little while and enjoy the feeling, till the time when my hopes are crushed in the mud of reality. But actually—I don’t think I am being blindly optimistic. I think I am being realistically optimistic. There are reasons to support it.
I know we are in for a lot more trouble. We have a long way to go before we can even say we are in control of the pandemic, let alone that we have eradicated the virus, if that is even possible. I’m cognizant of that. And I know that the economic dominoes have only begun to fall, and once the momentum of that process gets going it’s hard to stop. But wait! Weren’t we talking about optimism?
Yes. Our optimism now has to be framed within the context of one of the worst crises in American history, which we are still deeply enmeshed in. But just as the consequences of certain events, such as super-spreader events, can be accurately forecast; there are trends in the process now that will predictably improve our situation.
Yes! Reasons for optimism. Number One, and this is itself three in number, and those are vaccines. We are close to having vaccines. Three of them have tested well, and will soon start to become available. We don’t know how they will be distributed, how soon, or to whom. But they are coming. And that creates a real solid reason for optimism.
It can’t be denied that optimism itself is a generator of energy. And now, when millions of people have suffered from this colossal crisis, and are demoralized by being unable to beat it for nine long months, then suddenly there is hope of relief – that hope itself will set off countless actions and chain reactions. We’ll see the results starting to manifest in coming months.
Also, it can’t be denied that misfortune itself brings about some good things in its wake. As horrible as it has been, and continues to be, we have learned a lot from it.
In many months and millions of cases, doctors and researchers have learned a great deal about how we can protect ourselves. Here too, some cause-and-effect chains can be predicted. There is solid statistical proof that by exercising the basic safety protocols that have emerged as a consensus among medical professionals, we can bring the pandemic under control.
Even without the vaccine, we already have the means to do that. In September, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a Senate subcommittee that wearing face masks may actually be even more effective at protecting against COVID-19 than a vaccine.
“These face masks are the most important powerful public health tool we have,” Redfield said. “And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings.”
He said that if all Americans wore face masks we could get the virus under control in eight weeks. There is still some controversy over whether to wear masks in public, but the consensus that it is important is gaining mass and the resistance is diminishing.
And we’ve learned not only about the disease, but also about larger things. We have learned a lot about what’s really valuable versus what is trivial and ephemeral. Those lessons will stay with us when we do finally emerge from this disaster.
And further, as I dare not venture too close to any political hot buttons in this extremely volatile time, there is optimism among some people that the new administration may bring a more focused federal response to combatting the virus. I’m sure there are plenty within reach of this post who will violently disagree with any reason for optimism on that front. But some are optimistic, and once again, optimism itself is a powerful force that can drive productive activity. So, there is that.
A Travel Renaissance
In regard to the outlook for the travel industry, there are millions upon millions who are experiencing a level of cabin fever they never imagined, who have never been so restricted in their movement in their lives. They (we) realize, more than ever before, how important travel is. For many people, travel is a necessity of life. And they know it, now more than ever.
Once it becomes safe again, those people will come bursting out of their places of confinement, and will begin to make up for lost time. This is a fairly reliable prediction at this point. Fortunately, we are gaining more and more market research that indicates that people are eager to travel and, as some of these other trends play out, the floodgates will open and the travel industry will be in the land of milk and honey.
USTOA has produced its own market research that shows a recovery for travel will get rolling again in 2021, and the new wave may be substantial by the end of the year. The association did an annual survey of its active members in October. Eighty-eight percent of the members participated in the survey, and what came back was encouraging.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they are confident or highly confident that bookings will increase in 2021. Nine out of 10 described their company’s outlook for resumption of business in 2021 as optimistic or cautiously optimistic. Sixty-three percent reported an increase of new bookings in the previous two months. In a survey in August, only 38 percent reported an increase.
Twenty-one percent reported bookings in the last quarter of 2020; 33 percent reported bookings for first quarter 2021; 69 percent reported new bookings for second quarter; 92 percent in the third quarter; and 79 percent reported new bookings for fourth quarter 2021. Sixty percent already have bookings for 2022.
I do believe that we are at the beginning of the end of the COVID crisis. There are many reasons to be optimistic now. The opening session of the USTOA annual conference, virtual though it was, projected that optimism and confidence.
I knew that Terry Dale, the USTOA president and CEO, and Peggy Murphy, the executive vice president, and the rest of USTOA’s fine and able team, would turn out a great virtual event. And the evidence is showing that they achieved that. But no one pretends a virtual event is supposed to take the place of a real, in-person event. Just as a virtual tour cannot be compared to an actual tour.
But USTOA could be counted on to turn in a brilliant effort, one that would make the most of the situation, no matter what the limitations, and much good would come from it. They’ve lived up to expectations and done a bang-up job on their virtual event.
Let’s hope this is the last one.
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.