Connect Travel’s recent “Staying Connected” virtual roundtable discussion with Canadian tour operators proved to be popular with travel and tourism professionals—more than 200 watched and/or listened to the hour-long presentation, which is hosted by Connect’s TourOperatorLand.com brand.
Those taking part in the panel discussion were:
—Nadine Paulo, vice president, product & procurement, Kensington Tours;
—Sash Munjal, general manager, ShortTrips.ca; and
—Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel and general manager, Connect Travel Events, who served as moderator of the session.
1. Canadians are definitely ready to travel. “Thank god you’re up and operating,” one client told a Canadian tour operator after the latter opened a dozen tours last autumn during a five-week interregnum in the country’s nationwide lock-down and pandemic that brought tourism to a halt and the borders between Canada and the U.S. were closed. While the comment above is not the product of a scientific poll, it and other similar comments tell operators that there is much pent-up demand for travel experiences among Canadians.
2. Canadian operators know that they will have to make some adjustments in their products, and they already have. For instance, in order to comply with social distancing standards and for other health-related protocols, one operator’s tour buses can take only 24 passengers—not 55—as had been the standard prior to the pandemic.
3. It is still a time of learning for operators and their partners—including restaurants and attractions—as operators have to assure travelers that health-and-safety protocols are understood and practiced by everyone involved in a group tour—from drivers, to food servers (“Buffets are long gone.”) to the person who handles baggage and moves it from bus to hotel room.
4. While the notion of recovery is one that both operators and their suppliers hope for, the projections on when it will come has shifted among operators, who had been hoping that they could start moving product early this year. Instead, “once things clear up” means that most operators are hoping for recovery to start sometime this year or in 2022 or even in 2023.
5. Responding to what their customers have indicated, domestic tour operators will be looking for simpler, cleaner products that will involve protocols that are less cumbersome or time-consuming. This could mean direct entry for passengers to a meal setting, rather than checking in at a front desk. For the operator, it also means more short-haul destinations, day trips and overnighters.
6. For the moment, operators are holding back on marketing and selling, until “we have a clearer vision of where things are going.” But suppliers are encouraged to stay in touch with operators because “it’s never too early” to present a new product or new suggestion.
Sash Munjal: “We had a tour scheduled to leave on March the 16th last year which was, for us, the beginning of spring break for schools. And that’s, of course, when the lockdown started and we ended up having, basically, a sold-out busload of people getting stranded. And we weren’t able to fly out because of the announcement that the prime minister made that said to all Canadians, ‘Don’t travel.’ So that was an interesting challenge for us as it was, I’m sure, for many of the people on this call.”
Nadine Paulo: “We have a process called our readiness program in which we evaluate the readiness of a destination across our partners and across the expectations and standards. It’s almost like a training program where we make sure our partners are upholding our standards before our clients … it includes the cleanliness of the vehicles, a mask mandate and the cleanliness of an accommodation and to what degree we engage with our clients in destination and to support their safety. In cleanliness, we have a full list of what we offer from a travel safe certified program.”
Sash Munjal: “‘Sold out’ to us used to mean 55 passengers and now it means 24 because we are doing social distancing on the bus. So, basically, each passenger has their own window seat—no one next to them.”
Nadine Paulo: “Some of our clients have been converting from international destinations to domestic, so if they can’t travel to a certain destination, they’re then saying ‘Well, if I can’t go to Italy, where can I go?’ So, we’re seeing some conversion to Alaska or the national parks.”
Sash Munjal: (Last autumn, during a six-week break when the company was able to run some tours) “We had trips that we’d never done before—short day trips except for one overnighter. This was our experiment to determine if people were comfortable staying in hotels. The two sold out and they sold out within hours. I mean, we would put the trip up at 7 a.m. in the morning when the announcement would go out, and by 11 a.m. it was sold out.”
Nadine Paulo: “We have seen a shift in demand to Alaska and national parks and some of our more
nature-focused and open landscape-focused destinations. So, we are continuously looking at expanding product and destinations specific to North America, where we anticipate demand going forward.
Sash Munjal: “We’re always developing tours. Now, we’re small—we typically in a year will do about 200 tours. Historically, it’s been about 100 in Canada and 100 to the U.S. But year over year, 40 to 50 of those tours are brand new. So, we’re constantly looking for new suppliers, new markets, new destinations.”
Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel & general manager, Connect Travel Events [email protected]
Click here for the recording of the session.