If ever there was a perfect time for a guided vacation, this is it.
As bored, but wary, travelers consider heading out their front doors, many still are concerned about how to navigate the ever-changing regulations, capacity restrictions, and chance of coming down with Covid far from home. If you can’t take your favorite travel advisor along with you, a guided vacation seems like the next-best thing.
Companies like Adventures by Disney, Collette, Globus, Insight Vacations/Luxury Gold, Tauck and Trafalgar, and the travel advisors who sell them, are reporting growing interest and sold-out tour groups to top US destinations—even in April and May of 2021. Collette’s website shows its Painted Canyons of the West, which includes five national parks, is sold out for all three May departures; National Parks is sold out for May, almost all of June, and all of July. At Tauck, only 10 of 46 departures for America’s Canyonlands, priced as high as $8,000 per person, and 2 of 12 on Yosemite and Sequoia through September, have any availability at all. Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, which will resume operations in May, also are seeing “huge demand” for Alaska and Hawaii. Citing “great momentum” and “strong bookings across the USA” for 2021 in recent weeks, Tauck this month officially restarted all its US tours, including Savannah, Hilton Head and Charleston tour, Cape Cod, The Islands and Newport and America’s Canyonlands, plus Greece, Iceland, and Costa Rica in June.
“We think this is the best time there’s ever been to do a guided tour,” Collette executive VP Jeff Roy told me. “It’s a completely self-contained experience so we have a lot of control. If the tour managers feel someplace is too crowded they can change the itinerary on the fly; we’re arranging all the testing for you so you don’t have to worry about all the restrictions. We take all the worry and concern out of the experience.”
From in-house staffers, whose sole job is tracking travel restrictions by vendor, to driving the itineraries in advance of a tour to double-check that everything is set, Collette’s goal is to go above and beyond to ensure the safety of its guests while also delivering the same quality experience as ever.
At Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, along with their TTC sister company Trafalgar Tours, “domestic is really the shining star in our portfolio for 2021. We are seeing a lot of demand, and into 2022 we are adding capacity,” Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold president Guy Young told me.
Indeed, they have taken things a step further: in addition to the travel director and the coach driver, every coach departing in 2021 and 2022 has a wellbeing director charged with keeping up with all the local protocols, ensuring guests and suppliers follow them, and answering any questions or concerns guests may have along the way.
“At the end of the day we want to make sure our guests have a wonderful time,” Young says. Having a wellness director “gives guests so much additional peace of mind—but it also means the travel director can continue to focus on our guests.”
As it begins its full schedule of US tours, Tauck, too, is adding a medical professional to every trip “to deliver greater confidence while traveling,” and also has a “highly experienced Global Response Team to continually react and evolve to the changing environment,” says Jeremy Palmer, SVP World Wide Operations & Brand Management.
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Travel advisors agree that guided vacations to domestic destinations are a great first step for shy customers of every ilk—and have benefits for travel advisors as well. In addition, the health and safety protocols, which have proven 100% effective even without requiring vaccines, are proving an additional draw.
“We all (agents and clients) know that domestic tours have a higher chance of operating this year than international—and people don’t want to wait until next year,” says Michelle Younis of AAA Vacations in Indian Land, SC. “Many of my clients have travel credits from canceled international trips. They are ready to travel now. I’ve had many clients book domestic guided vacations in lieu of waiting for international travel to open up.”
In Orlando, Angela Hughes, owner of Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, is “sitting on a lot of Trafalgar credit” from a canceled Christmas Market tour in Europe last year, and increasingly concerned that each country will have its own protocols. Her plan is to stick to single-country tours, which will entail fewer hiccups. She is planning to contact Trafalgar about moving her Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise customers to a ground tour.
“Guided vacations are a good fit for those who don’t want to take care of anything on their own, who want their luggage picked up and a little education along the way,” she says—and even better for single travelers during a pandemic, like her two teacher friends who are headed for Italy. She credits Trafalgar’s hefty Early Payment discount, which took $1,075 per person off their $4,300 trip, with closing the sale for her.
Susan Donnelly of Cruise Planners-TravelPro Susan in Wendell, NC, has seen an uptick in Globus bookings, including a customer who just this week moved over from a canceled Alaska cruise to a land tour.
“I believe there’s a sense of security with a small escorted land tour and the fact that they can now travel with minor protocols in place, rather than booking a cruise with its uncertainty and stricter protocols,” she says.
In addition, she notes, “as a travel advisor I have always preferred selling escorted tours like Globus. I have never had one hiccup with hundreds of clients traveling with them. But the biggest advantage is that the commissions are much higher than booking a cruise.”
Indeed, some travel advisors even are considering taking groups of their own—noting that escorting a small group on a guided vacation is the best way to grow your business, while actually having a bit of leisure yourself.
Pam Smithgall of South Shore Travel in League City, TX, for example, has followed the advice of her business coach at Gifted Travel Network, who suggested selling the national parks as a first step back to travel during the pandemic, and promoting a “go with me” approach to calm any concerns and win over new customers. She is leaving in June with nine rooms sold so far on Insight Vacations.
“I’ve never been to the national parks and the price is good and it’s all organized; you don’t have to worry about traffic or all the other things you have to worry about when visiting the national parks in the summer,” she says. Encouraged by the results, she also is organizing a group to Macchu Pichu in November—for which she got three inquiries just this week.
“I normally look for a Pied Piper but this year I’m saying, ‘Go with me,’ she says. “I’ve done that on a cruise and it wasn’t nearly as much fun as it will be on a tour, because here there is a tour director and a wellness director. Being a Pied Piper on a guided vacation could actually be a real vacation for me.”
She also liked the itinerary and the connection with TTC, which means that, should they have to cancel, future travel credits can be used on any sister company, including Uniworld cruises.
In addition to bringing in revenue from the nine rooms, she added, the trip has attracted old friends and new customers who do not usually travel at all—including two ladies traveling for the first time without their husbands, feeling comforted that both Smithgall and a tour director will be with them every step of the way.
“The guided thing helps draw in people who don’t normally travel. And though some of us kind of look down our noses at trips that cover a lot of ground, how wonderful is it if it’s the only trip you ever take,” she says. “I really like guided travel—and especially now, just show me where to go.”
At Telgarsky Travel Inc. in Harrisburg, PA, Kim Telgarsky just signed up a family group of 15 or so Pennsylvania-based travelers for a Tauck Small Group Departure headed to New England. Where they did not have a private group before, the pandemic changed everything.
“They were worried about traveling; they wanted to stay close to home and they just didn’t want the large numbers,” Telgarsky said. Having traveled with Tauck before, they felt it was worth it to pay the $500 or so premium to be in their own little pod.
State of the Industry
Indeed, across the guided tour segment, suppliers are reporting rising interest and completed journeys free of any illness.
“The last 12 months have been pretty rough, but we were able to get back in July 2020, and with masking and distancing and hand washing we didn’t have any problems,” says Collette’s Roy. “In fact, it’s been of kind of inspiring to see how people were willing to get out and travel. We will end up running 11 trips, including, to Panama and Costa Rica, this month. Into May, our numbers quadruple from April and we will open up Iceland, and then I’d expect Croatia and Greece.”
With an average age of 55 and up, Collette’s customer base is “ready to have a semi-social experience again, to be with a group of people that are all vaccinated,” Roy says. “Things are really looking strong right now, and 2022 is sort of off the charts.”
Globus, too, is seeing “high demand, but our operation is really limited by the number of countries that are open,” says CMO Steve Born. “But demand for 2022 is off the charts; currently, advance bookings for 2022 compared to advanced bookings in 2019 were 200% higher. Travelers are more than ready.”
Indeed, he said, “domestic trips have been healthy. The catch has been getting space for groups in lodges and national parks. By May or June onward, we’re seeing that access is very limited”—another good reason to go with a guided vacation company that already has secured prime accommodations and restaurant reservations.
And, he notes, a big advantage of guided vacations this summer is the ability to travel in a small bubble and avoid the crowds. Luxury Gold has a max of 40 travelers but usually actually carries fewer customers per trip, and also offers Small Group Departures for groups of 12 in their own private coach.
Even less well known operators are seeing heavy demand for domestic small group travel in 2021. Edward Piegza, founder of Classic Journeys, which operates programs in 100 regions in 50 countries on six continents, sees the return to travel as part of a larger trend, from large group travel to small group travel, to micro group travel. “In my household, we prioritize travel,” says his customer Michael Robinson.
Where they’d previously preferred to travel in larger 25-35 person groups—primarily so their 16-year-old daughter would find cohorts among other children, “COVID forced me to ‘micro’ group, which I’d never done before,” Robinson says. “And I’m grateful for it because, no matter how good a company is at managing people, there’s more risks associated with large group travel now.”
Where Classic Journeys normally sees a 60-40 split of guests choosing scheduled versus private departures, “the trend for 2021 is for that to flip in the direction of private versus scheduled departures. And the premium for a private trip might range from as little as 0% to 20%, or so.”
They are also seeing much shorter lead times on the new winter Alaska Northern Lights trip that debuted in the fall of 2020, and which has taken off in early 2021. “We had a three-generation family of 18 book an early March trip with us on February 15,” Piegza said. “As soon as the grandparents became vaccinated, they went from booking to traveling in under four weeks.”
Not Giving Up My Shot
While the cruise industry is leaning toward mandating vaccines, every player with whom we spoke in the guided vacation segment is offering customers a choice: a certificate of vaccination, a test within 72 hours of departure, or proof of recovery within the past three months. And while Adventures by Disney in April tightened its protocols around mask-wearing, the others seem to be inclined to loosen them for their mostly-vaccinated population of travelers.
“In a confined area where you cannot socially distance, like on a motor coach, for now you have to wear a mask—but we do hope we’ll be able to pull back on that,” Roy says. For now Collette is limiting capacity to 50%, but it “intends to transit out of that and get back to operating normally by the middle of the summer.”
While some travel advisors applaud the lenient stance, others would prefer that vaccines be mandated.
“I am pleased where companies are requiring vaccinations. I do not yet trust the Covid test results, as they are not always accurate and Covid can be caught on the way to the tour and would therefore not be caught in time. Part of stopping the pandemic is getting many more vaccinated. If all companies required vaccination, that would force those who want to travel to comply. This will save lives and the travel industry in the long run,” says Maxxe Travel owner Maxime Ezra in Rockville Centre, NY.
But in Florida, Hughes disagrees. On her Christmas Markets tour, two couples already have refused to be vaccinated—“so that’s an issue in trying to sell our future credit space, which puts a dent in our group space.” For travel advisors, “just one more new wrinkle.”
At Prestige Travel Vacations LLC in Land O Lakes, FL, meanwhile, Lori Judd’s booking with Adventures with Disney has gotten complicated following the sudden revision to its Guest Health and Safety Protocols on April 5 (https://www.adventuresbydisney.com/important-updates/), which now includes testing prior to the trip, daily health assessments and masks “at all times, except during designated breaks throughout the day, when physical distancing is possible, when eating or drinking, swimming, or in one’s own hotel room.”
“Don’t get me started,” says Judd, who has customers (hopefully still) booked on a Montana trip in June. “After final payment Disney decided to come out with their own Covid policy, where masks must be worn at all times, including outside, and clients are going to need to take the PCR test and temps daily, etc. And of course they threw in some itinerary changes too. I’m waiting on my clients to tell me if they still want this $20,000 package or if I need to fight to get their money back.”
So Far So Good
Thankfully, the protocols in place have proven to be 100% effective so far. Roy at Collette says that’s a testament to the protocols working and customers being fully compliant.
“The big surprise was how resilient people are,” he says. “We’ve surveyed all our clients and they said the protocols in no way hindered their experience. Really the only difference is you have to wear a mask—but otherwise it’s the same great experience.”
Regardless, says Globus’s Born, the combination of “the awareness of travelers, the protocols from operators themselves, and the great progress we are making with vaccines are adding up. The last step is for travelers to become comfortable. I believe it will happen quickly, and we will get out there and adapt quickly. In a different way, we’ll get back to travel and enjoy our lives once again.
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.