I was having a conversation with a tour operator the other day who said this: “How many businesses can go a year with no income and still be on their feet?”
It’s a great question, at the moment a great unknown quantity. Then he followed with what seemed like a reasonable conclusion.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting down a deposit with any tour operator right now.”
I had to admit, he had a point. There’s so much uncertainty now. After such a disastrous year, it’s almost like we’re waiting for the shoes upstairs to start falling.
Yeah, it’s a little scary when you try to put your head around the economic duress out there across America, all the businesses that have had to shut down operations, or at the least radically transform their operations.
I hear extreme numbers in terms of the dropping of the GDP, the number of people filing unemployment claims—all sorts of shocking data. The numbers are so huge it’s hard to get any grip on what they really mean in terms of people’s lives. And, of all industries, none was more squarely in the COVID line of fire than the travel industry.
This oppressive train of thought led me to call Terry Dale, the president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association. I put the same question to him.
Under the circumstances, with all the economic uncertainty, why should anyone trust a tour operator? I could hear him taking a deep breath as I was finishing my question.
“Sure,” he said. “Of course there are people who think that. My reaction is: Now more than ever… USTOA and our members are more relevant than they’ve ever been, because of this collection of tried-and-true businesses that stand behind their customers, and travel advisors.”
What he was saying is that USTOA is the answer to that question. That question was the raison d’etre of the organization when it was founded in 1972 by 10 California tour operators.
At that time, when the global travel industry we know today was in its fledgling years, there were enough tour operator failure stories in the media to spread distrust of any company trying to engage in operating tours.
The stories, with their eye-catching glimpses of travelers stranded in some remote location by a tour operator that suddenly collapsed, were salacious enough to capture the imaginations of their audiences, and to stir up fear and suspicion. There were occasional stories of tour operators that were nothing more than fronts for professional swindling operations.
That’s why a handful of tour operators joined together and formed the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Their mission was to find a way to create credibility for the legitimate and trustworthy businesses in the emerging tour operator segment of the travel industry.
In 1978, the association had grown to national scale and it moved its offices to New York City. But it was in 1993 that the group really coalesced into the core of what it was to become. That was when it introduced its $1 Million Consumer Protection Plan. It required members to post a million dollar bond with the association as insurance, in the event of a default on their commitments to customers.
It was radical! Whoever heard of an association demanding that its members give up a million dollars for membership? When the policy was instituted, the association lost almost a quarter of its members. Many said it was the end of USTOA.
But soon the polarity shifted. The element that had repulsed members became the very thing that attracted new members. The membership grew. It was the place any tour operator wanted to be— if they could afford it. The USTOA brand became the gold standard.
It was an innovation that enabled USTOA to establish a solid basis for the credibility of its members. Money talks. A million bucks on the table buys you some credibility.
It created a guarantee, and the USTOA logo became a stamp of legitimacy, an endorsement from a trustworthy authority. Now the guarantee has been built into the USTOA brand for nearly 30 years, and during that time it has amassed credibility.
For decades, the tour operators in the association have banded together in tough times to protect that brand and that credibility. And that has made the USTOA brand what it is today, a trustworthy authority based on a long, solid track record.
The association is now nearly half a century old, and its guarantee is nearly three decades going. It’s about as solid as things get in the rapidly shifting economic landscape of the 21st Century.
“I understand why a consumer would raise that question,” Terry said. “But once again, I need to go back to: That’s why you book with a USTOA member. Because they are the tried and true. And we’re going to get through this together. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy necessarily— we all have to be flexible these days. But I think our value proposition to our partners around the world, and to our customers, is stronger today than ever.”
After a year of brain-crushing news in the wake of the COVID pandemic, it’s no wonder that people are frightened, hesitant, and unsure of what to trust. But it was that same kind of fear that gave rise to USTOA in the first place.
“I totally get the question,” said Terry, “and understand the hesitancy from a consumer perspective. But I can just say unequivocally, when you are willing to travel, go with a USTOA operator.”
Meanwhile, Terry Dale is focusing on the industry’s reemergence after the COVID disaster. He’s looking at the “overarching challenge” for the industry, which is the opening of borders so people can travel again.
As America and other countries get their vaccination programs, testing regimens, contact tracing, whatever it takes to beat the pandemic—international travel can start up again.
There’s no doubt there is huge pent-up demand, but it can only be released when people perceive that it is safe to travel. We are still now in the worst pit of the pandemic since it started.
But there are signs for hope. Action is being taken to coordinate all these plans on a federal level and epidemiologists can reliably predict that if those courses are followed, the relief from the pandemic will result.
So, although we’re not yet to the starting gate, we can see it and we know it’s coming. The next question is, what next? Where do we go from here?
“Before our conference last December, I was thinking about 2021 and considering how to frame what we’re going to do,” Terry said. “I jotted down three words: Rebuild, Re-imagine, and Renew.”
A month later, New York Governor Cuomo came up with a similar approach for his State of the State address. Call it an affirmation. We’ve all gone through this disaster together, and many of us are going to come to some of the same conclusions.
The word that came to my mind was “Reconstruction.” The damage runs so deep that it’s almost like starting with a blank slate.
But there is one “re” word that rubs Terry Dale wrong way.
“I have a real issue with the word ‘recovery,’” he said.
“Recovery means going back to what we had. And there is no going back. We shouldn’t be focused on recovery. It’s really about re-imagining what travel can be in the future. Don’t go down the path of recovery, because it’s not possible. It’s going to change. It’s going to adapt.
“And one thing the travel industry is exceptional about is re-imagining and reinventing itself. How many times has Las Vegas reinvented itself? So, we can do it. And we will this time as well. But I don’t think we should be focused on looking back. It’s really about looking forward.”
Terry is concerned that people will go into the future with their eyes on the rearview mirror. He liked the way Marshall McLuhan put it back in the ‘60s, when civilization was first undergoing the tumultuous transition from the world of print to the world of electronic media.
“The past went away,” McLuhan said. “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
So, the Terry Dale plan is a NOT-recovery plan. It’s Rebuild, Reimagine, and Renew. This time let’s try to look forward. This could be a great time.
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.