The discussion at last week’s “Connect with Tour Operators” virtual roundtable focused very much on when the travel and tourism industry in the United States might restart in 2021. Sponsored by Connect Travel, the roundtable also spent time during which participants paid attention to the importance of
international visitors to the United States. The three panelists who took part in the event included: Umang Malbari, president, Discover Destinations; Chris Pilley, CEO, Rocky Mountain Holiday Tours, LLC; and Jeremy Butzlaff, President, MTRWestern. Moderating the panel discussion was Shari Bailey, vice president of Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events
Key Takeaways from the Roundtable
1.There is a “pent-up demand” for travel among clients of the operators. Both U.S. residents and international visitors, especially those from Europe, who are accustomed to taking two or three holidays every year, can’t wait to “break loose.” Along with the pent-up demand, there is a level of frustration among potential travelers, many of whom are experience some degree of a lockdown in their home countries.
2. With a possible vaccine that could put an end to the COVID-19 virus and the global pandemic that it caused notwithstanding, it appears that an impact on tourism won’t be immediate. Operators expect/hope that barriers to travel and travel-related activity to ease, and travel to re-start by the third or fourth quarter of 2021, with some product possibly launching in the second quarter; this depends on the lifting of travel bans.
3. Out of necessity, some operators began selling domestic product as the global pandemic continued in 2020. However, none expected domestic travel to comprise a significant share of their inventory. Yet, those operators who have taken to packaging and selling small, private tours, might maintain these items in their product line.
4. Nothing has warranted the attention of operators as much as the issue of safety and cleanliness. For the operators in this roundtable, the importance of these two features—safety and cleanliness—is high on, if not the top of, concerns of international travelers. Operators now include scrupulous attention to clean and safe practices in their own workplaces and among their employees; in the buses they use and the drivers and the tour guides who escort travelers; in the hotels they contract to use; and among the attractions, restaurants and activities that are a part of tours.
5. Related to the challenge of addressing safety and cleanliness concerns for operators is the frustration they all expressed over have over the absence of a single source of information on the various (and changing) regulations and different levels of requirements imposed on clients as they and the buses that carry them go through one destination after another. DMOs could be helpful, operators suggested, if they could help coordinate the information flow so that operators can more easily adhere the different regulations and requirements they find as they go from town to town and from hotel to hotel.
Chris Pilley: “It’s been a bit challenging here. But I think we’ll see a lot of pent-up demand. It might not be all there in 2021, but over the next few years there’s gonna be demand coming back.”
Jeremy Butzlaff: “For 2021 we’re looking at 25 percent of our 2019 capacity. So, it was basically going from 1.1 to 1.2 million to 300 000. That’s better than what we had in 2020, which was zero or, maybe, I think it was like 16 people … but people are anxious. They want to book. They want to go.”
Umang Malbari: “I think it’s a spring waiting to explode. People are ready to travel and I think the they want to travel. It’s there. There are just a lot of unknowns.”
Chris Pilley: “Right now our strongest market for 2021, by far, is the UK. But we’re still getting bookings from Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Italy—pretty much all of our main markets over there. It’s just not a normal volume, and yeah I think there’s just too much uncertainty.”
Umang Malbari: (Asked “Have you made decision to focus on the domestic market?) Yes and no. Domestic ball game’s a completely different ball game all together and our focus has always been more of the group side of travel. Even domestically, group travel is really not happening to the same degree as it was in 2019.”
Jeremy Butzlaff: “We spent a lot of the last eight nine months just foundationally (working on safety) What does that look like? How do we do it always as a carrier? It always starts with safety. For us, it was revamping how we train the drivers and how we get all the equipment done and maintained. And then there’s the internal safety of protecting people from COVID. How do we do that with electrostatic sprayers. And what’s our policy in the office?”
Chris Pilley: “We ended up getting some domestic bookings and that might continue some into
the future but that will be a small part of our business you know right now our focus has been
um one of the big changes is trying to get every activity company um get rates from them or we can do private tours.”
Umang Malbari: “Pretty much everybody in the travel industry right now is trying to revamp. And they’ve got a lot of extra time, so they’re all trying to develop new products. I think everyone is kind of asking ‘What else can we do rather than the major cities?’”
Chris Pilley: “Right now. I think the big enticement is allowing last-minute cancellations. They can get the thing at the cheapest price but if there’s a non-refundable 50 percent fee, they’re just not going to book it because they don’t know what’s going to come up in the next six eight to months.”
Umang Malbari: “It’s going to be really important for DMOs to continue marketing in these (overseas) destinations because we’re competing as the United States. We’re competing against the world um and for us to pull out of those destinations is going to be it’s going to be even harder to climb back out of it.”
Click here to list to/watch the video recording of the webinar.