Receptive Tour Operators in North America are eager to receive more than just visitors to America; more important, in the months ahead, they want to receive ideas, material and suggestions from DMOs and travel suppliers as they are using much of their time—until the coronavirus-induced shutdown of the tour and travel industry fades before business can restart at some point this year—putting together new product, fine-tuning existing product and, generally, making sure that they will be ready for anything.
Such was the tone recently at Connect Travel’s second “Virtual Roundtable” of industry experts comprising a panel of four RTOs and scores of participants who watched and took part in the live webinar discussion.
“This is a situation such that we’ve never faced before. It requires more than an ordinary solution; it has to be very innovative, something that we don’t normally do, in order to resuscitate travel … all the DMOs have to help make the message known to all the attractions and hotels.”—Jack Lok
As the event neared its conclusion, Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events, who moderated the roundtable, asked panelists if they had any closing thoughts, prompting Jack Lok, an advisor to the New York-based RTO Universal Vision, to declare, “This is a situation such that we’ve never faced before. It requires more than an ordinary solution; it has to be very innovative, something that we don’t normally do, in order to resuscitate travel … all the DMOs have to help make the message known to all the attractions and hotels.”
The panelists, all of them working from home (which some have been doing for some time, so the experience is not new or unique) included:
—Tresie Benoit, director of contracting, North America, W2M/World2. An Iberostar brand, its key markets are in Europe—mainly Spain and Portugal, but also the UK and Germany; it’s also strong in South America.
—Charles Zhao, managing director, CP Trip Service Inc. Headquartered in Toronto It sells product in North America from mostly Asian, especially the Southeast Asian region—such as the Philippines and the emerging market of Vietnam—and, “of course,” China.
—Jack Lok, advisor, Universal Vision (owned by Ctrip, the largest travel company in China). Key market is China. The company covers most of the United States, with operations teams from Seattle to Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington, Miami, Orlando, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also works closely with Seagull Holiday, a large RTO based in the Los Angeles area. Altogether, the Universal Vision operation brings about a half-million visitors a year to the U.S.
—Tereza Reis, president, Personal RGE Tours. Reis founded the Orlando-based RTO 30 years ago. It caters mostly to Latin America—especially Brazil—Portugal and Spain. The company is also a wholesaler for Disney and works with hotels throughout the western U.S. in designing incentive and specialized tours.
HOW ARE YOU DOING RIGHT NOW?
Shari Bailey began the discussion by noting that, at the previous Virtual Roundtable, it was felt that “plans being put on hold now is how everyone is doing right now … all things have stopped and people are trying to reschedule and to cancel their trips.” With that as preface, Baily asked panelists how they were doing right now.
Tereza Reis: “We’re not getting any new reservations and I’m not expecting anything until the second semester, at Least. So, right now, we’re trying to organize the company for what comes ahead. We know this is going to bounce back, and we know that we need to be prepared, and that’s what we’ve been doing and are doing right now. My whole team (Reis said that she has only laid off one individual) is preparing for when we come back.”
Reis also noted that she is working to keep her team, as well as her clients, educated about new product: “We’ve keeping them educated, providing both with educational seminars. We are partnering with Disney and we are seminars for all our clients from Latin America and Portugal … That’s what we’ve been doing—putting together the seminars, putting together new products for next year and contracting with the hotels.”
Tresie Benoit: “For me, personally, nothing has changed a lot. I was already working from home. I’ve had my home office already here for several years so, in that regard, it’s business as usual for me. The offices that we have in Cancun, the office that we have in Spain—right now they’re all home-based. They’re all set up to work from home and I would say for my team here in the United States … probably, we’re busier than ever. We need to be prepared so we’re not only now also dealing with more daily operations transactions—following the protocol that the company put in place, so we’re helping there but, in addition, yes, we need to do our jobs contracting, looking for what is coming next so that we are prepared and that we also do product development and that we get new hotels on board. So, we’re busy.”
Charles Zhao (after Bailey said that she realized that he had some incentive groups scheduled for later in the year and that, now, it didn’t look they were going to materialize, and asking If there was ‘anything we can do to help reschedule and making more palatable for your clients?’
“Many of our businesses are customized, and we have incentive travelers from different companies and, especially, we have a lot of pharmaceutical companies for the incentive organizing—let’s say medical doctors—and obviously, these people won’t be able to travel at all now.
“Interestingly, back in January and February of this year inquiries were coming in quite strong, so that we had new requests for quotations on daily basis—usually several a day. At the time, we thought ‘What a great year,’ so me and my business partner put down a deposit to purchase another bus. it’s a luxury one, manufactured in a company close to Los Angeles, and we told them they could deliver it to us in early May when all these groups were coming to the eastern part of Canada.
“At that time, hotel rates were quite high everywhere. For example, in Banff—in the Rocky Mountains—the Fairmont Hotel would likely charge you several hundred dollars easily, and then, many of the dates are sold out. it’s so hard to get the space.
“Then, toward the end of February, everything happened. We started to see a slowdown of the new inquiries, then the cancellations started coming in one by one. And just a few days ago one group with 70 people scheduled to come in October had to cancel. People know you feel uncertain—and especially, we do not know how many months it will take. Right now, we basically have nothing on the books for this year. Everything got cancelled.”
Bailey: “To 2021! We’re looking forward to 2021 for you.”
Zhao: “Yes. For sure, that year will come.”
WILL CHINA BE THE FIRST OVERSEAS MARKET TO COME BACK?
Jack Lok: “Well, the way we look at it, I don’t think China’s gonna come back so quickly. The reason is because, for anything from overseas, there is a limitation: all the international flights from the U.S. China have to be limited now. China itself is now getting back to normal, however.
“They have to restart the international flights, and even they when they restart the international flights, the capacity won’t be that much. The airline ticket for the International portion of travel will be very expensive. And we already see what has happened right now during the COVID-19—the international flights from the U.S. to China have doubled or tripled its cost. At Ctrip, they have already forecast that, for the whole rest of the year, it’s not gonna come back strongly, so we’re looking for 2021.
“However, with that being said, we’re using this time, pretty much, planning not only for next year but … expanding within the U.S. People forget about the U.S. Chinese American market—there’s like 5 or 6 million of them, so that is a very sizable market and we’ve been serving the market for all this year. They are beginning the first organized local tour, a one-day tour. Operations teams in Washington, Dallas and Houston are going to start the one-day tour for Chinese American market. (Lock later pointed out that the company also has operations in Seattle, Chicago, Boston, New York, Orlando and Miami who will have one-day local tours, and that the company started out in business with local tours and has always done local tours.) The staff have something to do and when it’s the appropriate time—when the situation lessens and when the home quarantine is lifted, then those are the tours that we think are gonna happen first.
“I don’t think Americans are going to rush out jump on a plane and go somewhere … yet. Right now, like everybody else, we’re concentrating on improving our whole operation—from the IT side to the management side, and then to create and prepare new products for the coming year. I’m sure this COVID-19 will change some of the product that people are looking for, in a way. So, we will try to find a feel for it and then prepare for it.”
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO FOR SUPPLIERS TO PROVIDE INFORMATION TO YOU?
Shari Bailey: “I’ve heard each one of you say that you are looking for new product for 2021 or the end of this year. how is the best way for all of the suppliers to get information to you? Do you want that information right now and should they email you directly, or is there another process on how they can provide you the information that you’re looking for?”
Tresie Benoit: “Right now.”
Tereza Reis: (Nods head “Yes.”)
Charles Zhou: “I would say this is the best time because for us, we were busy every day, then nothing new coming in. It’s easy to get hold of us. We have more time to focus on what your future product will be. Also, it’s a perfect time for the suppliers to host–maybe, let’s say, through Connect Travel–virtual fam tours. We don’t need to be physically there. Or we can do a zone meeting to learn about your product. You can do a virtual fam for the RTOS and we have tons of times you do that.
“One of the DMO offices, based out of Montreal, did a fantastic virtual fam. They are very positive and they are also targeting the Chinese Canadian community (like what Jack Lok mentioned). In the Toronto region we have more than 700,000 living in the area.
“You know, the temperature’s going up now and we feel the spring is right at the corner and people are eventually looking for some short distance places to go. I one hundred percent agree (with Jack Lok) that this group of people might be the first to hit the domestic market—within Canada and possibly in the U.S. There’s time for them to travel to any of the destinations. It’s so easy to just drive. Then tend to drive as a family instead of using a motorcoach.”
WITH MOST HOTELS CLOSED RIGHT NOW, WHAT INFORMATION CAN DEMOS PROVIDE YOU THAT CONNECT YOU WITH NEW PRODUCTS?
Tresie Benoit: “That is indeed a little bit of the challenge—that we have that hotels are closed and lots of people have been furloughed, and we want to send out a message but they’re just not there, so I would say the CVBs, if they can help (usually we have the contact information), it’s just a matter of sending the message to the right person and then when that person picks up the message, they can respond right away. We just cannot stop contacting people. We need to continue contacting them and at some point, they will pick up the message.”
Shari Bailey: “I think that might be a good a good message for all of the DMOs out there—you know your destination better than anyone and if there are hotels that are closed or furloughed employees to be able to provide the correct contact to our panelists and all operators and RTOS out there to make sure they’re getting the right information.”
Tereza Reis: “I was going to say that, even though most of the hotels are closed, the ones that we’ve been contacting—they left at least one person or the sales department working from home. So far, all the hotels that were trying to connect, getting the contracts for 2021, they are responding to us because, even if they are not sending the contracts because a lot of people are waiting to see what’s going to happen, if they are going to contract with a lower or a higher rate. But we were able at least
get some specials already so, even though the hotels are closed, the sales departments are still running from home.”
Charles Zhao: “Through my experience, when there is a cancellation and we found out the particular sales manager we deal with, knowing that person’s not there for a temporary or indefinite period. So, at least you know we need to have someone that we can get hold of—especially for customized tours. We don’t contract for a whole year one way; it’s based on the inquiry and what are the cities they want to go to.”
“In February, I remember, I approached a contact for referrals going to Yellowstone, let’s say. These are coming out of Manila for a group of doctors—so they have very specific requirements or expectations. Last December, we got groups going to New York and Boston based on the level of the hotels they are looking for or their budget—all customized or incentive. And it’s early for this type of business to receive next year’s rate without determining when the market will resume, when it will come back and how strong or how weak they will come back.
“During 9/11 and its aftermath, and during SARS, I was in Toronto. I worked in the hotel industry. At one point, in order to attract people to stay in a hotel in one of the major brands downtown they promoted a one-dollar-per night rate. Still, nobody went there at all because your well-being is more important.
“It’s supply and demand. and we do not know how soon or how slow the market will come back and you can decide on your rates. My final job was 15 years ago in the hotel industry as the director of sales in a regular three-star out of the downtown core. One tour package out of New York at the time was $58 a night, including breakfast for two. That’s crazy. But the market was desperate and, as we called it, it was ‘Put the heads on the beds.” Just bring in people to sell the rooms.
“And then look at up to a few months ago: the market in many of the major cities in North America was very healthy. Average daily rates were in the reasonable or high range. They reflected the value the dollar had and the healthy industry that we were in. One concern for me, having worked in the hotel industry, was we might feel desperate or some of us then they will dramatically drop the rates to try to attract occupancy. People come in, but you have to remember we’re in a different market: you have to analyze it rather doing something so quickly without a reasonable reason to do it.
“I learned from Ctrip (Zhao is also a vendor in Canada for Ctrip). Their people approached us and asked us to provide them with who are our star tour guides. They wanted to interview them over the WeChat
phone to make sure we have good to make sure that we have good people reserve, so that when the market comes back, they will work with good companies.
“This is a good time to do trainings, to upgrade our knowledge or skills and this and that. Just one week prior to Toronto announcing the lock down and this-and-that, our company hired a trainer to provide us soft skills training like communication skills, problem solving for all of our bus drivers the tour guides and the office people. It’s a two-day training; people enjoy it. They know that what they do is important, which is to deal with people; it’s a people communication type of job.”
Tresie Benoit: “I just wanted to share some information on this, and myself being European and working
with the European market: Traveling is in their genes. And now, especially, that they’re all locked down and they’re sitting at home, they’re watching everywhere dreaming where they’re gonna go next on vacations. Actually, I was reading an article this morning that, for the people in UK, there was a hit of 1,600 percent more than last year to travel to Spain as soon as they are able and can get out of their houses, so people are looking. They’re going to be so ready to travel. And that’s why we have to have not only 2020 good offers in place, but people that will not be able to travel in 2020 due to maybe a financial reduction or not having the financial possibility, they will travel in 2021. So that is why we need these 2021 agreements that we have the hotels ready to take the bookings for 2021.”
ON THE MATTER OF TRAINING, WHAT CAN RTOs DO FOR DMOs AND VICE VERSA?
Shari Bailey: “In the previous roundtable, the conversations we had were about training staff members. Now, we’re hearing talk about training your clients. So, I think all of our suppliers are going to sit up straighter and say ‘How can we be involved in that? How can we not only train your team but also provide information when you are training clients about destinations hotels attractions?’… and is that something that you’re open to with all of our clients?’ I know our DMOs are jumping on that. I was a DMO myself, you know. How do you, how do we, get that information to you to train about the destination?”
Tereza Reis: “Yes. We have partnered with Disney to do the seminars. and we are trying to put together something very similar with Universal, but by the same token, I’m willing to work with the CVBs from
other places—not only to promote the destination but, most importantly, to educate our clients from the destinations the understanding that our clients overseas—not that they lack information—they thirst for more information. And that’s where I’m going to try to see if I can also put together some seminars and webinars with some of the CVBs to help out in promoting the destination. That’s my second step.
“We don’t need to overflow our clients with webinars, but that’s what we’re trying to do—at least once every 10 days we are going to try to see if we can have one destination broadcasting whatever they have to offer to our clients.”
Shari Bailey: (To Tereza Reis) “You just made all of our CVBs and DMOs on this call very happy right
ALSO, COULD DMOs PROVIDE RTOs WITH AN INTERACTIVE LINK FOR THEIR TRAINING PROGRAMS?
Tereza Reis: “Yes, that’s similar to what we are doing already. First, there is the presentation and, like we’re doing here, sending in questions. The same thing happens on our webinars. We are able to answer the questions, but we have to limit the number of questions because, otherwise, the webinars would take four or five hours. But we are trying to resolve as many questions as we can by the end of the seminar. It’s something interactive; it’s not just like a PowerPoint presentation.”
TO THE RTOS: HOW ARE YOUR INTERNATIONAL TOUR OPERATOR CLIENTS
Charles Zhao: “First, whenever a request or cancellation comes in, we consider it as first priority and we get it done. it’s always been our company’s philosophy whenever new inquiries have a request for a quotation, we write back the same day because we’ve got to consider the 12-hour time differences in Asian countries. So, in the past 12 years, that’s been our mandate—a same-day response. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new booking or it’s a new cancellation. I don’t want them to wait.
“This also relates to suppliers and the hotels or attractions that we already have business from. At the same time, we also look for an instant reply from the suppliers. At the end of the day, before 5 PM here (EST), we send out emails and, write ‘cancelled without penalty, and keep safe and healthy.’ These are the ways to respect our clients and to make their life a little bit easier, but we also know from their end it’s also a not-easy job because, like you know, they are facing their end users and don’t ask questions why you canceled. I did have one hotel ask that particular question. All I needed to do to is just type in ‘COVID.’
“So, there is no need to ask that type of question. As a tour operator, we don’t want to cancel business against our will. Also, this is the time, we all know, what’s the reason behind it. So, let’s do it effectively. It’s also a good way to be connected with my tour operators based in those countries, those destinations.
“Going further back to what Tereza (Reis) has mentioned, a good point is: DMOS, let’s say if you would like to do one to promote together with me to my clients, I’d rather have a one-page piece, not too complicated. It’s not to educate them with an update article on COVID-19. That’s way too much it’s one page with your logo and my logo on it to keep help people to keep safe and something like ‘Miami. Come back!’ (Said Shari Bailey: like a one-page newsletter type information? Zhao also said Power Point presentations are OK, but not with too much information.)”
WILL U.S. CHINA RELATIONS HAVE AN IMPACT ON RECOVERY?
Jack Lok: “This is kind of a political question; however, we’ve been through a trade war that has already affected the travel business. And there have been the visa restrictions for many students. Before, we were doing roughly about five thousand students coming to the U.S. for study travel. Because of the trade war and the visa issue, that number has significantly decreased.
“The Chinese and the Americans are supposed to be very friendly with each other. It’s very important, however, with this climate right now— it really depends. If the relationship doesn’t get too bad, then I see a kind of an improvement. However, there is the COVED-19.
“My worry is that I keep hearing people now blaming China as the cause for the COVED. Hopefully that voice is not too loud. It will strain the relationship more. That’s why I try to say that ‘hopefully’ the relationship can improve, and China we will not become a scapegoat for the COVED-19. But I’m an optimistic guy, so I think it will come back. That’s why we (Universal Vision) started as a local tour provider first—we don’t wait until the relationship improves. Because a majority of the people cannot tell when that when the group goes out whether they are they from—from China or if they’re from the local Chinese community. So, they will be the ambassadors going out to spread the message. We come back to help the local economy. Yes, we are the ambassadors.”
WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION DO RTOs WANT TO RECEIVE? WHAT DON’T YOU WANT? WHAT DRIVES YOU CRAZY?
Tereza Reis: Right now, we have a lot of time on our hands, to be honest with you. We are welcoming any kind of emails with information because sometimes you think there is nothing to be added and then there is a little information in the scope of the email that you are going to be able to pass it on to your clients, and you reach the experience of their clients next time they visit that destination. So, with all of the time that I have in my hands right now, keep the emails coming.”
Jack Lok: “That’s right. I agree with that! Let them come! Let them come!”
Tresie Beloit: “Driving me more crazy is not getting any response because, right now, the frustration is that some people are not working. Some people don’t have access. They are furloughed. So, we would love to have more information from hotels, but the people are just not there. That is probably more challenging than getting bombarded with emails.”
Charles Zhao: “My point is, because the nature of our business—we offer mostly customized tours—the request has already been quite specific. A lot of the time—I one hundred percent agree with what Tresie (Benoit) said—a quick response or same-day response as a courtesy, not just before the COVED, but after COVED, always. Because I don’t want my clients to wait, then they think ‘Oh since no response.’ Then I eliminate, let’s say, Toronto. I move to another destination. Or go with another company.’ They can do that.
“Especially for incentive groups, they have to make a decision by their end users of the company to pick which place they want to go. And then, sometimes, it’s a little bit frustrating that the DMO people might say ‘Oh, all these submissions are from the official website; check it yourself.” You have too much information there. It will take me hours to figure out—especially for some of the destinations that I have never been to. So, I have to ‘guesstimate’ or maybe … today stay in this location tomorrow probably in another small town of your state–this and that—so that makes our life a little bit hard to do that, because we don’t know. Your local people know better than us what is a smooth itinerary.
“Also for us: Hotels that say ‘Oh you only have less than ten rooms. Just call our reservation department.’ They will give you whatever the best rate of the day is.” You have got to remember we are RTOs. We also rely on the package product to make our profit. So, if we call your reservations for the whatever the best-selling rate or BAR rate is—hotel people call it B.A.R.—then we lose our … motivation, I would say. I know that in hotel sales, ten rooms or less won’t be considered as a group by many of the sales departments.
“When I was working in the hotel business, it was the same way when I told my clients the same. Now, sitting on the other side of the table, I fully understand—especially now going through this difficult time. Our feeling is there might be more smaller groups coming out, instead of large ones. There may be more families traveling. People don’t want to sit with 50 other people. They want there to be a little bit of distance. My company now focuses on the medium-size or small-size buses. That’s the reason why we put 10 people on a 29-person bus. They also feel comfortable in that way. So, you might hear more smaller groups with five rooms, six rooms, or up to nine. So, if we keep on getting denials and ‘not my business; you just go to reservations or go to our website to see what the rate is,’ it’s hard for us. We hope that we can understand each other better through this seminar and then help each other to bring back more business.”
Tresie Beloit: it’s also what Charles says—that people are going to look to travel to safer places and they feel good in that regard. They also will be looking at clean places. So, for hotels, it may be a good message to send out how clean the hotel is how what their policies are (so) that they will have a clean room an d people will look at that and at clean and safe places.”
Teresa Reis: “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t know how long this is going to last, but at least I can assure you that my team and my clients are going to get the information and resources that they will need … to put their packages together.”
Jack Lok: “This is a situation such that we’ve never faced before. It requires more than an ordinary solution; it has to be very innovative, something that we don’t normally do, in order to resuscitate travel … all the DMOs have to help make the message known to all the attractions and hotels. And everybody has to be innovative, accommodating, working together hand-in-hand to resuscitate travel whether domestic or international. So, I want outside-the-box thinking. that’s how we couldn’t do it we cannot just do it normally.”
TOP TWO TAKEAWAYS
—Training is number one right now—teaching educating employees and clients as well on the new protocols and ways of marketing brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
—Working and communicating together—RTOs, DMOs and travel suppliers—in order to restart travel by residents of, and travelers to, the United States.