Panel Discusses Best Practices to Get Tourism Industry through 2021: In a busy virtual roundtable late last week that had those who called into the session offer up nearly 40 questions and comments, a four-person panel of industry experts discussed challenges confronting travel and tourism’s public and private sector components. Panel participants included the following:
Amy DeFrancesco, national sales manager, Drury Hotels;
Jenny Keeton, director of operations, Village Travel;
Tod DeHart, founder, DIRECTIONS Tours LLC; and
Shari Baily, vice president of Connect Travel and general manager, Connect Travel Events, who served as moderator of the session.
Staying Connected Virtual Roundtable
1. Operators and suppliers agree that consumers want to “get out and travel,” but potential travelers also want to know what they can do and where they can go with the global pandemic limiting what their movements and options are.
2. The number one priority for travelers and travel providers is a collective one—safety, security and peace of mind. This has brought into play protocols that affect every aspect of the travel experience. For those who are part of a group, this means masks, temperature checks, and regular sanitizing of the inside of buses before, during and after a day’s activities. It also means social distancing inside a bus through smaller passenger loads and measures such as non-rotation among seats by passengers.
3. For tour and bus operators, the pandemic has meant smaller motorcoaches or, in regular-sized motorcoaches, fewer passengers. This means a coach that used to carry 40-50 customers, now carries less than 30 and, often, less than 20. The latter size means that operators have to work with hoteliers and restaurants to secure the traditional comp seats for drivers and tour guides for every 20 paying customers.
4. Tour and motorcoach operators, as a result, are “taking a hit” as they are virtually unable to make up revenue lost due to smaller group sizes, while customers expect rates that are no higher than they were in 2019. Smaller margins are the rule. And so is working with hoteliers to fill income lost due to a de facto price freeze and the absence of comp meals and rooms.
5. Amenities? Clearly, the most important one is a hot breakfast at the hotel where patrons are staying. “A hot breakfast is key,” said one panelist. Also, “saying that they’ll get a muffin and a container of orange juice is just not acceptable. If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way. Breakfast is a requirement.”
6. While everyone agreed that there is a pent-up demand for travel, especially among seniors, there was not much optimism that the levels of activity will return to 2019 levels until next year. In the meantime, operators would like DMOs to help put together new packages to offer current customers, as well as returning customers, once tourism recovers to pre-pandemic levels.
Tod DeHart: “Once we realized we’re in this for a little bit of a long haul here, I think most of our clients were saying ‘We want to get out but what can you do to keep us safe?‘“
Jenny Keeton: “our clients really want to feel comfortable traveling—especially with the senior clientele. They want to get out. They’re in their golden years losing a year of their travel has been has been difficult.”
Tod DeHart: “If just kind of go out there and float and you don’t say hello, especially during a pandemic, you’re not going to stay afloat with your customers you’ve got to be reminding them this is what we’re working on right now. This is what we’re doing here. We’re not dead in the water.”
Amy DeFrancesco: “It was really important for Drury at the very beginning to be all about safety. And I think as a family-owned company, it was really easy for us to implement our clean and safe procedures, figure out exactly what we were going to do at every hotel and put those in place and implement them starting the next day.”
Jenny Keeton: (Before COVID) We could take on a standard motor coach anywhere between 40 and 50 people. We’d love to have 50 people, which, prior to COIVD, pretty much fills the coach up. Right now, our comfort level is 50 percent capacity. it’s really hard to social distance on a coach and so to get 100 percent. Social distancing is really not going to happen, so that’s why you have to have the clean and safety protocols in place.”
Tod DeHart: “We’re doing 16 to 20 people on a motor coach on a full motor coach and so, we’re talking about a full-size 55-passenger motor coach. Right now, with 16 to 20 people, as Jenny Keeton said, it is hard to keep those protocols especially when you have a lot of single travelers.
Amy DeFrancesco: We lowered our comp policy. There’s no reason to say you’re going to offer a comp one-for-20 when there’s most likely no way they’re going to have 20 rooms on most on most tours right now. So, we looked at that like: ‘How can we be a better partner?’ I’m always looking for that. What can I do to be a better partner? A partnership is always win-win. But at the end of the day, sometimes you may give a little more; the next time they may give a little more. I think that that’s really what it was about. And we just reached out and said ‘What would it take to make your tour run?’ I would rather have 10 rooms for five nights than no rooms for five nights.”
Jenny Keeton: “We’re taking a hit. I mean, honestly, nobody’s going to want to pay more than what they did in 2019, so we can’t pass (some) costs over. Even with you’re running 16 to 20, you’re breaking even. You’re not making any money and, at times, you might be even losing a little bit. But the goal here is to get people comfortable traveling again and, so, if we need to break even and not make a dime, we’re at least getting people out and comfortable traveling, they’re seeing the protocols in place. But at this point we, have not raised our rates and our margins are next to nothing.”
Jenny Keeton, director of operations, Village Travel, [email protected]
Tod DeHart, founder, DIRECTIONS Tours LLC, [email protected]
Amy DeFrancesco, national sales executive, Drury Hotels, [email protected]
Shari Baily, vice president of Connect Travel & general manager, Connect Travel Events, [email protected]
Click here for the recording of the session.