“Hang in there and plan for the time ahead,” suggests German tour operator: As the travel and tourism industry, which has probably suffered a greater deleterious impact from the coronavirus pandemic than any other U.S. economic sector, struggles to remain sane, INBOUND took the occasion to talk recently with a German tour operator—Timo Kohlenberg— known to many in the USA’s international inbound tour industry for his company’s award-winning and innovative marketing campaigns and promotions.
Before he became president and CEO of Hannover-based America Unlimited, Kohlenberg studied marketing in both New York and London, and is especially adept at understanding the nuances of spoken English as it applies to American tastes. His social media posts reflect that, and he is much sought after by U.S. travel suppliers at major international travel trade shows.
We spoke long enough for Kohlenberg to answer the key questions that most of us have had since the coronavirus pandemic took over the direction of our lives. Our exchange follows.
INBOUND: Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of air traffic between the USA and Europe, there are many challenges, of course, but what is the most difficult challenge faced by you and other operators who sell the USA to German travelers?
Kohlenberg: There are two main challenges: First, the airlines are not refunding the tickets but we as a tour operator have to refund to the clients by German law. Secondly, there are almost no new bookings coming in for the future, but we still have to pay full salaries to our employees.
INBOUND: Is there any sense among your clients overseas as to when, they believe, the worst part of the pandemic’s effect on the tour and travel business will be behind us?
Kohlenberg: Not really, at the moment it looks like it’s getting worse day by day. My personal feeling is that it will affect us until about the end of the year.
INBOUND: While we all wait for the situation to improve, what steps have you been taking, both short- and long-term, to stay healthy?
Kohlenberg: We have used a common German solution cutting the salaries in half; the government pays the other half. And we have used the opportunity to stop paying taxes—also a program by the government—and we are trying to talk to the clients to move their trip instead of cancelling it. Also, there will be different programs by the government for financial support, which are not 100 percent clear yet.
INBOUND: Assume, for a moment, that there was no coronavirus pandemic. Based on the most recent trade show that you took part in—Connect Travel’s Marketplace in Orlando—was there anything new in the types of products that your clients were looking for?
Kohlenberg: We are seeing more product that are sustainable and “green,“ which seems to be a big trend at the moment.
INBOUND: What advice do you have for U.S. travel suppliers and DMOs who promote to Germany for the near-term future?
Kohlenberg: Hang in there and plan for the time ahead. We are already planning marketing campaigns, new products etc. for the new year. It is very important to look at the next year now and how we can promote travel to the U.S. in fall.
INBOUND: Is there anything else that you would like to say to the readers of INBOUND?
Kohlenberg: Yes! I created a big initiative for the entire travel industry in Germany partnering with the AER (a cooperative for tour operators and travel agents). I created a video where a lot of tour operators mention how many bookings they have lost and how many employees are in danger now. We want to create awareness for the travel industry to get more support from the clients and the government. We launched the campaign yesterday and TV networks and press is already picking it up. Overnight we created 10.000 views of the video on Facebook. (Here you can see it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UBldl3FgSw&t=34s)