Notes from a Receptive Tour Operator Discussion at Connect Travel’s RTO Summit: Three different panels of two receptive tour operators each fielded questions on some of the issues of the day during Connect Travel’s recent RTO Summit in Orlando. The two-person panels—each panel represented expertise in a specific global region—were largely in agreement when responding to questions posed to them by moderator Fernando Harb, Connect Travel’s senior director of sales. The panels were as follows: (1) Latin America: Maria Hulsewe, president, North America Destinations; and Bernardo De Lucia, general manager, Kaluah Tours. (2) Asia: Owen Teng, director of operations, New Creative Tours, Inc; and Chris Ellis, CEO, 7M Tours. (3) Tomás Rey, president, Rey Royal; and Maria Wahby, contracts manager, Miki Travel.
Because of the overlap and similarity in some of the responses to the questions asked of them, we’ve digested and excerpted our account of the discussion, which follows.
Q: What differentiates you from a bedbank?
Hulsewe: “Personalization. We take care of each guest.”
De Lucia: “I couldn’t agree more … Our clients know our names and faces. They know who they’re going to talk to. There is a level of trust. Trust is key.”
Q: What should suppliers do to get to the top of a receptive’s list? That is, what should supplier have to do in order to get more business?
De Lucia: “Partnership is important. Having better rates helps. (Suppliers/hoteliers) know they’re going to get a fair markup.”
Q: What about the imposition of resort rates?
DeLucia: “We don’t like them. It’s not fair to the consumer. It’s not part of the rate. Our clients don’t like them at all. When an agent does research and they find, say, a rate of $100 a room, they have difficulty pricing it, because the resort rate is not listed.”
Rey explained that his company includes the resort fee in packages. “The problem is that, when people use OTAs, they are surprised when they learn that they are charged a resort fee.”
Wahby: “We’re very clear that the resort fee is not included.”
Rey: “(Hotels) have discovered that they are not competitive if they don’t have a resort fee.”
And, to much laughter, Rey noted sarcastically that, in New Orleans, “a resort fee means the hotel has a coffee shop.”
Q: How is the political climate affecting business? Is there a “Trump Effect.”
DeLucia and Hulsewe more or less answer jointly: “We have seen some business—summer business— go to Canada. But the exchange rate in Brazil is what is making it difficult. If it (the Brazilian Real) gets up to a specific, they’ll start buying again.
Q: How does Marriott-Expedia exclusivity affect receptive tour operators? (Marriott International recently negotiated an agreement in which the online travel agency Expedia is now the exclusive distributor of its wholesale and promotional rate.)
Hulsewe suggested that receptives “are already connected to more brands” and would continue to do so.
Harb joined the dialogue by suggesting that bedbanks will compete … and that, while online transactions have appeal, “personal recommendations count.”
Ellis said that “brand confusion complicates the picture” in India, where a “midscale” in India is higher in scale in India.
Teng and Ellis were asked about their take on the political situation between the U.S. and China and its impact on business.
Teng explained that much of the tension had to do with the Chinese government’s warning in May 2019 (and the previous year as well) to travelers to be wary about visiting the U.S. because of violence and anti-Chinese sentiment. But, he added, “Remember, it’s still a new market. Don’t give up. Everything will come back.”
Ellis used the discussion at this point to note that some receptives are already asking, “Is India the new emerging market?” He cited data from the U.S. National Travel & Tourism Office (NTTO) that showed a steady increase in visitors to the U.S. from India during the past decade. (In 2008, India moved up in rank to become the Number 8 source market in overseas arrivals.)
Ellis also said that a growing market from India will present some challenges for receptives when they create itineraries, as travelers from India—because a trip to the U.S. is such a long journey—like to visit multiple destinations: “It is so hard to get here and it takes so long … that, when they come to the U.S., they want to make the most of it.” As well, “for Indian groups, it is important to find specific properties that will meet their needs—such as vegetarian cuisine.”
However, Teng pointed out, generating some chuckles, Chinese travelers are different because “they eat everything.” He also said that, for many Chinese groups, New York and California are the most popular states to visit, but “they ae searching for additional destinations, such as Atlanta and New Orleans.”
There were a few more chuckles after Teng suggested that on-property amenities are not that important in the selection of a hotel for Chinese travelers: “They don’t do anything at the hotel except sleep and shower. They’re not interested in a pool or a gym.”
Q: Has there been any impact on business due to Brexit?
Rey: “Brexit has had no effect on travel from Europe.”
Wahby: “Ditto, but the political environment, the ‘Trump Slump,’ has hurt the Trump brand.
And, finally: What should everyone take away from the discussion this morning?
Hulsewe: “What you need is partnerships. Get to know us by name. Let’s create partnerships.”
De Lucia: “That’s why we are here today—because of the relationships … and that builds trust.”
Rey: “We’re not a low-rate business. We will sell what have a demand for. We take pride in what we do. And, of course, partnerships are important.” (As an example, Rey noted how Lisa Catron, international sales manager for Memphis Tourism—she’s been with the agency for nearly 20 years—will flag him when a new hotel is planned for the area or is about to open. This is an invaluable help to his business.)