In the first of what is planned as a series of “Virtual Roundtable” discussions with receptive tour operators and others in the travel distribution process,* Connect Travel last Thursday hosted “Connect with Receptive Tour Operators”—an hour long online webinar-and-discussion program that featured a panel of receptives who provided their insights as to what DMOs and other U.S. travel suppliers can do to help RTOs manage their way through the coronavirus pandemic that has effectively shut down overseas travel to the United States for at least the near-term future. (* These will include international tour operators, airport route developers and domestic tour operators as well.)
Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events, who moderated the session, pointed to some major lessons realized by the discussion:
—Communication is Key. “We’re doing a lot more of these kinds of meetings so we can see each other and interact with each other.”
—Indicating that it came as a bit of a surprise to her, Bailey noted that RTOs “are already contracting for next year and that you’re looking for new product. This is very encouraging.”
—Most receptive operators seem to be working to get clients to postpone, rather than cancel, travel arrangements that have been scrapped because of the pandemic.
The panel comprised the following RTO participants:
• Chris Ellis, CEO of 7M Travel Holdings, an Orlando-based receptive whose principal market is India, but also does business in Australia, Brazil and Europe, as well as the Middle East.
• Katja Jahn, head of destination management, G2 Travel, a relatively new brand that has 26 offices worldwide for whom North America is a new destination, with New York, Los Angeles and Toronto popular among its clients, while Japan is the largest market that it serves.
• Tim Ulutin, managing partner, Incoming America—headquartered in New York, the company’s principal overseas market is France, followed by the eastern Europe countries of Poland, Hungary and Romania.
• Peio Cuevas, vice president, operations and business development, SeeUSATours; its principal markets are the UK, Italy, Spain, Asia and all of Latin America.
All four were working (or about to work) out of their homes when they took part in the webinar—an indication of just how the far-reaching the coronavirus pandemic has affected every U.S. economic sector. The format of the hour-long session was direct: Bailey asked some straightforward questions and the panelists responded, interacting with one another at the same time. A number of people dialed into the webinar and they, too, asked some questions of the panel.
What follows are excerpts of the webinar, which Bailey introduced.
“We’re in an uncertain time,” said Bailey, explaining the reason for the gathering. “We want to hear from the RTOs themselves on what the climate is out there, how we move forward, and … how we as suppliers can help the RTOs moving forward, and what they need from us.”
How Are You Doing? “India is in a lock-down,” Ellis responded. “We have to count ourselves lucky being here in the US … we do have Internet access.” Over the next two weeks, I’m not too concerned about Internet access, although I have heard that because kids (who are out of school and at home) are on YouTube a lot, it’s slowing everything down.”
“What we are looking at, at the moment, is our product. We are doing a total revamp of our product—looking at what we are selling, looking at the images, looking at the descriptions of the tours that we’re doing. And that’s where we need help. This is the ideal time to take a step back and say, ‘OK. Yes, we do tours that go to New York or Niagara and Washington, Orlando and Miami. But what else is there?’ And that’s where we need help because—yes, we know New York and those places, but what’s new out there?
“In India, they’ve been contacting CVBs and local offices in India and saying, ‘OK, help us here. What do you have new in your destination, and please give us that information.’ We need more information. We need more images. We need more descriptions, please, so we can build these products.”
Cuevas pointed out that, currently, there are fewer people working in his company, “so, we’re busy. Right now, we are trying to finish some contracts that before, we didn’t have time to finish. We’re talking to hotels. Right now, we are closing up all the contracts and getting new products as well. Hotels, right now, are the main challenge. So, we’re increasing our inventory.”
Not till August: G2 Travel’s Jahn said, “I have told my team to really focus on their relationships, reaching out to everyone, creating this connection—this oft-quoted idea that ‘We’re all in this together’—and together, to come up with plans and time lines. We are not quoting on travel until the beginning of August, because we think that will be the earliest point in time that any group would return.”
“We’re doing the same as Chris (Ellis),” she added. “We’re really looking at all those projects that we never had time for before. As a startup with very slim staffing to begin with, we always struggled with all of these things. So, we’re reviewing all of these matters right now, and we’ll increase our marketing efforts and our training efforts. Because, as you can imagine, with 26 offices throughout the world, our sale teams are selling everything. So, we as a destination now need to promote our destination internationally and this is the perfect time to service them. We’re looking forward to doing that during this time”
For Tim Ulutin and Incoming America, the most important challenge right now is not doing the groups that it had booked for May and June. They are trying to move them further down in the year—toward autumn. “We are in the process of revisiting them, and we are working without partners and the airlines to be able to re-book them. Of course, this involves some complexity. You need to find the seats. You have to talk to the hotels. The most important thing is: you need the help, mainly from hotels, to keep the same rate as you had before. We have to re-book the same rate as we did before … Hopefully, it will be a great fall for all of us.”
Ulutin also pointed out that “most of our 2021 dates are ready. So, now all of our staff are starting to contract for 2021 and our group series for 2021—and doing it from home.”
Hearing this, Bailey observed that all of the suppliers who were listening in to the webinar were “very happy that you’re contracting for 2021.”
IF YOU’RE BOOKING FOR 2021, HOW CAN SUPPLIERS GET INFO TO THE RTOs? WHAT’S THE BEST WAY THEY CAN SUPPORT RTOS?“
Relationships Count: “Right now, relationships are the most important thing,” Cuevas declared. “We are talking more than e-mailing people these days. The opportunity to get together with a partner is very important. Sometimes, it’s only e-mails. But we’re doing lots of conferences like this one … the suppliers are understanding of everything … in order to keep our relationships going.”
For instance, he told viewers, “We are trying to give credit notes to most of our groups in order to re-book the group in the future—instead of giving the money back. It’s true that our suppliers are amazing on this … they are not giving us a hard time, except that some hotels are tough to work with. But most of the suppliers are doing very well. I’m so grateful to be able to work with them right now. Now is when you see that a relationship is more than just a day-to-day thing.”
ARE MOST PEOPLE ABROAD POSTPONING INSTEAD OF CANCELLING THEIR TRIP?
Cuevas said that “not so many people are postponing” and that “in recent days, some are cancelling.” (Later on in the program, he suggested that suppliers should “forget about the word cancellation,” and stressed the need for extending current rates through 2021.)
Ulutin volunteered that some tour operators in France and in most European countries have a problem of late in which many travelers have eclipsed or are coming soon to the point of cancellation deadlines. In this situation, some operators are offering credit notes, which are good for 18 months. “We know that our clients will come back, but they want a different product,” he noted.
For Jahn, “it depends on how much of the season is left.”
Responding to a question that a viewer posted that asked, “ow can we help?” Jahn said, “that needs to be on hold a little bit until we see how the situation clears up. The biggest problem we’re going to have is with postponements. Now, everybody wants to travel in September. National parks availability—that’s the biggest thing—has always been dire for September. So, if we are now adding all the pipeline from earlier in the year from postponement, that will be an issue.”
She added, “DMOs can help by getting a clear grasp of their overall ability, talking to hotels about where the distribution is, and where there are time gaps in the availability in their area, so that all of us can do this more efficiently—this postponement into whatever is left of the season. And we don’t know, at this point in time, what’s going to be left of the season.”
What Percentage of People are Postponing vs. Cancelling? Cuevas ventured a guess that, for FIT business, almost all—99 percent–are cancelling. For groups, he estimated that the figure is more like 70 percent cancelling, with the rest postponing.
Suggested Baily: it seems that postponement is “more so on the group side, because they can push it further down the line—while FITs are re-evaluating.”
Ellis, however, pointed out that there are decisions in this question (postponing vs. cancellations) affected by other factors. For instance, he noted, many students from India fly less expensive connecting flights when searching for airfare from the country. When a ban on traffic from China to the U.S. was implemented, the students were cancelling trips because of the cost (of re-booking for a later date).
WHAT ARE RECEPTIVES HEARING FROM THEIR TOUR OPERATOR CLIENTS?
“Basically, they are trying to do the same thing (as receptives) and contract with and their clients—the real passengers,” observed Ulutin. “They try to either re-book them, or try to convince them not to cancel. And the whole question is: When the flights will start within Europe and the U.S.”
“Now, it looks like it’s the beginning of May, but we won’t know for sure,” he added. “We don’t know for sure. What if it happens in June? Or July? So, there is a big urgency. I believe we will need to wait two or three more weeks to see how it will go.”
Ellis told attendees that he currently has two teams working on an update of 7M’s product. When does it need something? “I have a need now!” he said. “Send me some more images. This is the ideal time. (Go on to the company’s website, he urged.) See if material is needed—from images to logos. We want the images and descriptions now, please.”
WILL IT BE NATIONAL PARKS OR SMALLER AREAS THAT PEOPLE COME BACK TO – vs. CHOOSING A LARGER CITY OR A SMALLER CITY … OR LARGE ATTRACTIONS VS. SMALL ATTRACTIONS?
“We’re all in a holding pattern right now. Any guess is as good as the other,” Jahn remarked. “Since we (her company, which does only customized tours) are not working with scheduled departures, we are getting the promise of re-booking at some point in time. But because nobody wants to commit to a particular date, it’s really hard to understand how people are restructuring.”
“It’s a natural thought to think that the more remote areas would be more successful, or that the more nature-bound areas would be more successful going forward, because there’s got to be the lingering thought in people’s minds that they need to travel safe—away from the crowd.”
ARE RECEPTIVES RE-EVALUATING HOW THEY DO THEIR TOURS? WILL THIS LEAD TO SMALLER GROUPS, SOCIAL DISTANCING, ETC.
Ulutin indicate that steps, processes and materials already used by some operators in their products will soon spread to be universal. He said that this will mean:
—Sanitization o buses daily as passengers enter or depart the bus.
—Sanitizing by passengers before and at the end of a tour.
—Restaurants, hotels and attractions will make all such materials more visible to guests.
These small things, Ulutin said, “will be a part of our advertising next year.”
Lang echoed Ulutin, indicating that such practices will be “nothing new … just on a larger scale. I agree that (sanitizing materials) need to be more visible.”
WHAT ARE RECEPTIVES HEARING FROM THEIR TOUR OPERATOR CLIENTS?
What she wanted to emphasize, Lang said, is that, when she is building a product “access needs to be easy.” She would like to have photo and document library “where I have a link, and can go to it when I build a product. It needs to be easy and to be accessible—now.”
As for marketing campaigns, she said that they were not really that valuable for G2, since it customizes, and doesn’t use brochures.
Ellis emphasized the value of training courses that his staff can use, describing them as “fantastic … and you can do it from home.”
WHEN WILL “IT” BE OVER?
In a very sobering tone, Katja Lang tackled this question first: “I really think that we’re dreaming if we think that we’re going to have buses running in May or June. We have to be realistic about this. July? Could be. August is relatively realistic. My mantra that I tell myself—obviously because we (G2) have a big foot in the Asian market—is that Asia will come back first. I don’t think many buses will roll before August. Europe is probably going to take longer to come back. I really think we need to focus on August and beyond.”
Tim Ulutin agreed with Lang. “I agree. August—it will rally be wonderful if it really starts in August, but we are making our plans … more like September.”
“It depends on the segment and pent-up demand,” opined Chris Ellis, who referred to a lag between the opportunity to and the travel itself. However, he asked aloud, “can you imagine all the people in these countries who want to travel and have plans to travel? There’s going to be pent-up demand. And what we need to do is make sure they do it this year, as opposed to delaying to 2021.”
Peio Cuevas suggested that a return to normal levels “depends on each country” and pointed to troubled markets in Italy and Span. “I hope that they will be back in September. But who knows? How are they going to travel? Are they going to come here?
You can view the complete webinar here: https://youtu.be/4A-FG_Nf0B8