The year 2020 was supposed to be Tauck’s banner year, its 95th Anniversary. The tour operator was founded by young Arthur Tauck Senior in 1925, when he put an ad in a New Jersey newspaper saying, “All I want is a congenial party…” and offered to take guests along with him as he drove around New England trying to sell banks on a coin tray he had invented that mechanically automated the counting process.
But in 2020 one nasty little virus stole the show, and Tauck’s 95th Anniversary didn’t get much attention. Flash forward to 2021, there are signs of hope in the struggle against COVID-19. And as that hope trickles day-by-day into the marketplace, Tauck is hearing the phone ring more than it has in a long time.
“We know that our guests want to travel,” Tauck’s president, Jennifer Tombaugh, told me this week. “They are so eager to travel that every day now there are people calling into the reservations center saying, ‘I am vaccinated, where can I go?’”
Every day a million and a half more Americans move into the ranks of the vaccinated. For many of them the vaccine is their license to travel.
“The vaccination is throwing the albatross off their shoulders,” said Tombaugh. “There’s a latent demand that has been muted by the fact that there is a huge health and safety concern out there. But now that that is starting to lift, we’re starting to see that demand come in. We’re seeing the calls come in, bookings for ’21, and even more into 2022.”
The trends toward recovery are setting in, but there is still uncertainty; and it’s hard to project accurately when and how international travel will resume.
“There are two things driving recovery,” said Jennifer. “Both are out of our control. One is the roll-out of the vaccination, and the other is when borders are opening.”
Tauck began testing its new styles of touring this winter, with its Winter in Yellowstone program. It’s one of the Ken Burns American Journeys series of programs, the stated favorite of the Ken Burns/Dayton Duncan partnership.
Before putting any guests on the tour, Tauck sent a pre-con team to run the new version of the tour with added health and safety protocols to make sure it was going to work.
Some things had to be done differently. For example, the Snow Lodge in the national park was not open, so the company worked out an alternative through an arrangement with the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone. But, bottom line, the trip ran successfully—and maintained the new standards for safety.
“It was such a (pardon the pun) shot in the arm for our team, for our guests, for our community to be able to say, ‘Yeah, we can do this, and we can do it in a responsible way.’”
Managing Logistics: Now More Than Ever
When clients are ready to travel again, and borders are open, Tombaugh believes that Tauck’s value proposition will be stronger than ever. The central core of Tauck’s service is care of the customer. The company has spent its 95 years of operations cultivating its capacity to place its travelers inside a velvet glove that shields them from whatever problems may arise for travelers.
The company makes it all seem effortless, but behind the scenes the efforts made to create that comfortable bubble are extensive.
Jennifer Tombaugh refers to Tauck’s capacities for guest care as “profound.” A central part of how the company creates a safety net around its passengers is gathering intelligence from direct sources on the ground at destinations around the world.
As a global tour operator that normally has tours operating at locations around the world at any given time, Tauck has developed a huge intelligence-gathering operation that can help to spot potential problems at the soonest possible moment. It’s at the core of a kind of professional service that cannot be matched by any independent traveler on his own.
The intelligence gathering operation has three main tiers, starting with an in-house team.
“We’ve got a seasoned Global Response Team that we put in before 9/11,” she said. “So, while we had never dealt with a global pandemic before, there were lots of learnings that we had from so many other issues and situations, whether it be epidemiological with Zika or SARS, or social unrest or weather issues, or terrorism issues that have tested our team. So, a lot of the processes and protocols we already had in place. It’s just we’ve never had to exercise them—nobody had—to the scale that we have. We’ve got a Global Response Team, that is cohesive and working and tackling this issue too.”
In addition to the in-house team, the company takes full advantage of a global support network that includes associations, suppliers, and retail travel advisors.
“Whether it’s drawing upon the CDC or the WHO, or all of our partners on the ground, or all the associations that we belong to—we talk to folks every single day, about what’s going on in your country, in your situation, in your city, for your guests at your hotel, for your activity. We talk about how to make sure we maximize the comfort that the folks have about their overall health and safety. Obviously, the world is not a risk-free place, but how do we manage the health and safety of each location?”
Another pillar in Tauck’s COVID crisis management structure is insurance and payment policies that smooth over the risks of having to change travel dates.
“We want to let our guests book their dream trip with [the] confidence, because we know there is so much uncertainty,” said Tombaugh. “So, one of the things we’ve done is offered flexible payment terms and no change fees for any 2021 journey.”
The Changing Shape of Travel
Though COVID has forced people to keep their distance from others, Tombaugh has no worries about the future of escorted group travel.
“The amount of care we are going through, and other tour operators are going through, to do their best to really think through each node of the journey, and the health and safety protocols of each node is extraordinary,” she said. “I have a very hard time thinking that someone on their own would be thinking through all the things that we are thinking through. From the group experience, there is this bubble of care that we are putting around our guests.”
But beyond the security factor, Tombaugh said, people actually like the company of others, and COVID has accentuated that need.
“You’re seeing this now with this cry of, ‘Where I can go?’” she said. “People have been socially distant for such a long time, they are craving human interaction. There is so much neuroscience about this. Literally, when you look at someone in the eye, your brain is firing off oxytocin and chemicals that help make you happier. So, people are wanting to be reunited with others. We, as human beings, need that human connection.”
Some have put forth the proposition that group travel cannot survive in a world in which COVID forces us apart. Tombaugh rejects the idea with confidence born of her daily experience.
“I don’t buy for a second that group travel is going away,” she said. “It might it be modified over time as we work through these physical distancing requirements and mask wearing. But the underlying driver to what Arthur Tauck Senior had in 1925, ‘all I want is a congenial party,’ there are a lot of congenial parties out there, and people want it to happen. We need to do it smartly, in a measured way. And operators like Tauck are doing this in spades. I feel very optimistic about the future for group travel.”
And many of us, after a year of forced isolation, know just what she’s talking about.
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.