Several hundred viewers stopped by to sit in on Connect Travel’s “Staying Connected” recent virtual roundtable discussion— Connect & ReConnect with Domestic Tour Operators—which took place not long after publication of the last issue of the INBOUND Report. The event was the second in the Staying Connected series to feature domestic tour operators following the popularity of, and interest in, the first treatment of the subject.
Virtual attendees were treated to a wire-to-wire panel dialogue of U.S. domestic tour operators that that included Mellonee Owenby, president, Christian Tours/Burke International Tours; Nick Hentschel, COO, AmericanTours International (ATI is also known, of course, as one of the major international receptive tour operators); and Joey Spellerberg, president, Moostash Joe Tours.
Moderating the program was Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events.
Connect & ReConnect With Domestic Tour Operators
1. Bookings Outlook: Panelists have seen the 2020 Summer season spill into September and October. While a few trips are running through the remainder of the year the majority of requests and bookings are for 2021. Next year is already strong; however, this seems to be attributed to 2020 re-bookings. The bright spot, based on past years sales, our panelists have seen the majority of their bookings occur in January and February. They feel that domestic travel will remain strong through 2021.
—Look to Q2 2021 for domestic travel to pick up.
—Most re-bookings are for June/July or later for 2021.
—Only 5-10 percent of school groups have rebooked into Spring 2021.
—Some motorcoach operators focused on student travel are pivoting to sports teams/groups or private schools.
2. Product Trends: New destinations, new itineraries, and new products are always needed. Unique products and outdoor experiences are of interest. (i.e., Camping and Glamping, Hiking and Biking, Cultural and Heritage Sites, Beaches and Wide Open Spaces) Please note: tour operators are resource challenged. They ask you to keep things streamlined, easy to load with not many rate changes. Preferably, operators like adding new products to current tours even if it means adding a day for future programming. Do your research, look for itineraries planned in, near or around your region. Curate itineraries with unique experiences to share.
3. Marketing: Be mindful that it may take a year for your destination, attraction or hotel to be added and sold by an operator. Create messaging that highlights your products, special offerings, and why travelers are visiting. Have a hook that will help them sell your product.
4. Connect: Communication is key for tour operators. Please keep them informed on updates, changes and policies new to your area or business. If your destination or product has temporary policies in place, be sure to let your clients know before they arrive so they may prepare.
Joey Spellerberg: “I’m pretty optimistic about the future. It’s been tough on our staff. I’ve had to make some changes with our staff and we’re just kind of coasting here a couple days a week in the office until this breaks. But we need to be ready for the future. And it could really hit us all at once if we’re not careful. So, that’s really what we’re doing right now.”
Mellonee Owenbee: “We own and operate 59 motor coaches, which have been sitting since
March. We do student tours and those have all cancelled. We have not closed our office since
this all began. We have furloughed people, and some people are laid off. Some people work eight hours a week. Some people work 16. Some people work 32 and some people are here.”
Nick Hentschel: “I believe that as soon as the restrictions are lifted, there will be a swift rebound—not to say that things won’t still be difficult and they won’t bounce back immediately to 2019 numbers, but there will be a rebound. There is a lot of pent-up demand on the international side, but first things first. We’re focusing on the rebound and demand for the domestic, which we really feel because the same situation that happened after 9/11 because domestic travelers aren’t able to go abroad, and they’re not able to easily travel on cruises right now. They need to pivot to the types of trips that we’re all seeing our friends and colleagues do this summer–which are those road trips to the national parks and to the wide-open spaces of America.”
Mellonee Owenbee: “Of course we had to cancel, but what we did before we cancelled is set up the
dates for next year. We let them (customers) know that, here are the prices for next year—if you transfer your money, we’ll give you the difference. You can save fifty dollars by transferring your money to next year without us refunding. So, we’ve done a lot of that. Also, anything we can do that we can keep their money (chuckles) and probably about probably about 20 percent have said ‘Here, keep my money for something else.’”
Nick Hentschel: “2021 is strong in the sense that we have a base of rebooked customers that had to cancel their trips from 2020 on the international side. And then the excitement that we’re seeing on the domestic side—from what we’ve presented into the market—we feel will continue uh into 2021.”
Joey Spellerberg: “It’s been a roller coaster. We tried to get out ahead of it with some things. I think a lot of our customers were a little leery. And so, we’re just focusing on 2021. We’re hoping that we can run some Christmas tours in in November and December—some shorter regional stuff that we had already planned, and now we’re starting to see some activity. I would say the last couple of weeks we’ve had more inquiries in bookings than we’ve had for the last month or so.”