People are eager to travel to and within the U.S. Connect Tour’s recent virtual roundtable with U.S. and Canadian tour operators attracted several hundred travel and tourism industry professionals who showed interest in anything the operators had to say regarding when traveling, tours and tour itineraries will be back in action, as everyone seemed to agree that there is substantial pent-up demand for travel—especially among senior travelers. The panel for the roundtable discussion featured: Melody Jordan, owner, Front Line Tours;
Jamie Lynn Thompson, president & CEO, Southern Escape Tours; and Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events. Bailey was the moderator for the session.
1. The pent-up desire to travel is high, with operators indicating that seniors are especially eager to do so. It is such that the booking window for tours has grown increasingly smaller. In the past (pre-COVID-19) customers would book 9 to 12 months out from the date of departure. Now, tour operators are receiving calls for less than three months out, and up to as little as 45 days, out.
2. Although COVID vaccinations have created a sense of hope and optimism across and through much of the tourism industry, the expectation is that a real recovery or restart of business will come, at the earliest, in a late-spring-to-early autumn window. When it does occur, business will be very strong.
3. Aside from the new protocols for safety and cleanliness that have been embraced across-the-board in the tourism industry, there is no consensus on whether proof of a COVID vaccination should be required in order to take a bus tour or participate in tour activities. Imposition of such a measure is more likely to be an action undertaken by some level of government. And the tourism industry cannot be expected to be “the enforcer” of such measures.
4. Because of uncertainty and the ongoing presence of COVID-19 in everyone’s life, as well as sharply reduced budgets, marketing programs are conducted with “as-available” resources and applied creatively. E-mail blasts and a presence in the social media seem to account for a good portion of such marketing applications. Also, operators, suppliers and DMOs have found that soliciting home videos, travel videos and destination videos have provided industry businesses and organizations with substantial content for their websites and web marketing campaigns.
5. Smaller staffs and an industry weakened by the shutdown of some businesses and organizations, along with the cost in time of implementing health and safety protocols, are challenging tour operators whose customers depend upon on on-time stops at restaurants or attractions with scheduled programs and shows. (It takes time to conduct even a quick temperature check for an arriving group.) While the question of who should do it was not specifically addressed, panelists felt that there should be a single, overall, industry-wide certification program that would be recognized by all components of the travel and tourism industry.
6. Without exception, operators and virtual roundtable attendees look forward to the return to in-person, face-to-face meetings with clients and colleagues. Hugging, it was suggested, is important to both buyers and suppliers in the travel and tourism industry. Elbow or fist bumps will not be adequate.
Shari Bailey: “We’re coming out of this. We know we are. We’re coming out of it together, and we’re going to come out of it stronger.”
Jenny Lynn Thompson: “I think that, in the past, for me, I always felt like it was always time to sell a customer a destination. Now it’s telling them that it’s safe to travel.”
Melody Jordan: “We’re so ready! We’re ready when our customers are ready. And when the government will let us. We’re a senior-based company, so most of the calls we’re getting right now are our regular customers who are, like: What are you guys doing?’ Are you still there? Are we safe to go? Can we go? What can we do?’”
Jennie Lynn Thompson: “As far as when people are going to travel again—that’s the million-dollar question. I get the feeling that everyone’s crystal ball is broken. It’s kind of out of our control. I just keep pushing the message: do your part, wear your mask, be respectful, get vaccinated if you can. It helps everybody–we’re all in this together and it’s going take everybody working cohesively to be able to move forward.”
Melody Jordan: “Typically, most of our travelers (the company is based in Burlington, Ontario) do want to go to the U.S. Right now, it’s not there. … Right now, it’s domestic. It’s Ottawa. It’s Quebec City. It’s the Maritimes.”
Jenny Lynn Thompson: “We can’t be the enforcers. … We want people to travel, but we cannot be the re-enforcers. We’re never going to make you have a vaccination. Or, you have to have that COVID test. We can’t have that fall on us. Because we can take people to so many places and destinations and attractions. I just don’t think we should be the enforcers of something like that.”
Melody Jordan (Asked “Are you looking for new destinations, or for smaller towns rather than larger cities?”) “Our team—we’re always looking for new ideas. That’s why we like OMTA (Ontario Motorcoach Association Marketplace) and ABA (American Bus Association Marketplace). We go to those places and we just thrive on hearing the new ideas and little towns and little places. Everything. We come back to the office and brainstorm over it. So, any kind of ideas that anybody has, please e-mail me.”
Shari Bailey, vice president, Connect Travel, and general manager, Connect Travel Events [email protected]