With large portions of the American public vaccinated against COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions eased in many places around the country, the travel landscape is markedly different than it was a year ago. But with this new scenario comes new challenges, as tourism and hospitality businesses grapple with labor shortages, a flood of pent-up demand and uncertainty about virus variants. The Group Travel Leader spoke with the heads of four tourism industry associations to get their perspectives on travel’s nascent rebound, the path through these current challenges and the outlook for a return to prosperity in the future.
Carylann Assante, CEO, Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA)
Terry Dale, President and CEO, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)
Catherine Prather, President, NTA
Peter Pantuso, President and CEO, American Bus Association (ABA)
What are the biggest hurdles for our industry to clear in the recovery effort? What strategies might prove most effective in overcoming those challenges?
Pantuso: The immediate hurdle right now is the delta variant and how people are going to respond to that. We’re starting to see uncertainty come back into the market. We’re hearing that some cities or even states may do mask mandates again. All the things we thought we were climbing out of seem to be potentially coming back. That uncertainty is not good for travel, especially group travel.
That notwithstanding, one of the biggest challenges we are starting to see has been competition for space between individual travelers and group travelers. A lot of places around the country are busting at the seams with individual travelers. Rates are up at hotels and attractions. The cost of labor has gone up, and there are labor shortages. In some places, I’m hearing that they don’t have room for groups. So that poses completely different challenges that nobody thought we would have coming out of the pandemic.
Dale: I don’t like using the word ‘recovery’ because that implies we’re going back to what we had, and we won’t. It’s similar to after 9/11 — now we live with and understand TSA. So travel will change fundamentally and, hopefully, for the better because of this.
The challenges that our members face are consumer confidence, trusting that their partners are going to provide them safety and security, and that they’re going to have a safe experience. And consistent communication from countries around the world is important, too. If you’re double vaccinated and want to travel internationally, the questions are, if things change while I’m in country X, am I going to be able to return to the United States because something has changed, and am I going to have to quarantine.
Assante: A number of our members have groups on the books for 2022. Customers are calling and talking about traveling, but nobody is actually pulling the trigger. There’s a fear and anxiety. People are afraid they’re going to have to cancel again. They don’t want to deal with the cancellations and angry parents. So we have to help our customers convince people to actually make the decision.
Our challenge is duty of care. When we’re traveling with students and there’s a chance of them getting sick, we’re responsible. Adults can sign waivers and make their own decisions about their care, but we have to make those decisions with educators and group leaders. That’s what has some of the schools holding back.
Prather: Our first challenge is that many of our businesses in the packaged travel sector, especially our small businesses, continue to struggle financially. Leisure travel is rebounding tremendously, but group tours are lagging. NTA is still advocating for financial support. That’s the story we’re having to tell to legislators.
Beyond that, our members are challenged by staffing, availability of product, quality control and pricing. The labor shortages have, for our members, led to shorter hours and irregular schedules at attractions and restaurants. Or there are venues that can no longer accommodate groups of any size. This has created huge challenges for tour operators because they can’t uphold the standards of service and product quality they’re accustomed to delivering.
The nationwide staffing shortage has been incredibly challenging for service industries. What must the travel and hospitality industries do to ensure adequate frontline staffing levels moving forward? Will it entail changes in business practices, pricing or customer experience?
Assante: For students, we have to do everything in large groups. Adults may go into a restaurant and sit at several different tables. Or you might break adult groups into different mealtimes. With students, they all come into the restaurant at the same time and have to eat together. The biggest challenge we have with labor is feeding with our groups. If you have 25 to 40 kids, how do you feed them in a tight window? Restaurants don’t have the staff, so many of them aren’t taking on groups.
On the hotel side, we’re not anticipating a return to full-service housekeeping. In the future, we may be staying with every-other-day housekeeping, or you’ll pay more if you want daily service.
Prather: I think we’re going to have to look at higher pay. That’s the simplest way to put it. Unfortunately, our industry has always been seen as a lower-paying industry. That’s unfortunate because service is so important. Hopefully, our country and government have seen how important travel and tourism have been to our economic well-being.
Sadly, we’ve lost a lot of talent. It may be that they boomerang back to us, and that might have to do with the wages we offer.
Dale: I just had a call a couple of days ago discussing the lack of diversity in our tour director community and in our industry at large. I think we can attract more people into our industry and do a greater service by getting more diversity. We can work with colleges and universities to educate students about the opportunities and entice them to come into our family and network.
That’s not a short-term fix and won’t help us in the next six months. But with any crisis, you have to look long term.
Pantuso: It’s all of the above. Some people would say that the federal benefits have made it easy for some folks not to come to work. That may or may not be true. But there’s competition to get the best people or to get people, period. Companies are going to have to be creative: a combination of pay, scheduling and other benefits.
On the motorcoach side, we saw drivers have to go elsewhere to get work over the last 18 months. Are they willing to leave what they’re doing now and come back? Some may, and some may not.
What are the key takeaways from the past 18 months? What do we need to learn about risk management, crisis preparation, public messaging and government relations?
Dale: First and foremost, we have to be agile. Every single day during this pandemic, we had to adapt to new, disruptive conditions. So agility is key, and communication with your customer base is also key.
A silver lining is that our value proposition as tour operators, travel advisers and group leaders has been elevated. People now recognize that we have thoroughly vetted supplier partners and that they’re going to follow and abide by a certain set of standards or protocols. If something happens, God forbid, I have company Z that is going to help me get through this and get back home. Customers get that now more than ever.
Pantuso: On the government affairs side, the lesson learned was that if you want the federal government’s assistance, you need to be engaged in the process. It’s not just associations that go to the Hill and do the lobbying. Legislators really want to hear from the individuals in their districts who have employees and have to make payroll every week. We learned here that grassroots efforts are so critical.
We’re also going to have to instill confidence back into the traveling public. Early on in the pandemic, we developed industry protocols, and we put them out there for everyone to use, and we heard that a lot of people followed them. Doing that and being out in front and getting the customer’s confidence back was critical. That’s going to have to continue.
Prather: The word of the year for 2020 had to be ‘pivot.’ Adaptability was a key characteristic. And unfortunately, because we’re still living with the reverberations of the ongoing pandemic, flexibility remains critical for us all.
I don’t know if anyone had a crisis plan for anything of this level. But if not, we all need to have one moving forward. We’ve all been in such a scramble mode that we probably haven’t really built those plans yet. But we need to.
Assante: Risk management is interesting. Our whole premise as an association is providing safe, professional travel for students. Then, in the pandemic, the word ‘safe’ took on a new meaning. Our hope is that everyone will focus on traveling in a safe way.
One of the best takeaways out of this was transparency between the customer, the tour operator and the supplier. When everything stopped and we had to work with each other on refunds and cancellations, our customers really learned what goes into the trip planning process. They realized that most of the work was done before they even traveled. There’s transparency that’s here to stay.
What growth opportunities should our industry be pursuing in 2022, 2023 and beyond?
Prather: In our midyear business survey, we asked our tour operator what growth opportunities they’re seeing. They mentioned smaller groups, more diversified itineraries serving high-end and FIT markets and joint ventures with like-minded operators. So they’re looking for ways to work smarter. They’re adding new destinations and itineraries to their product lineups.
Travel professionals have found new ways and more time to talk with each other. So we’ll see a lot more joint projects and not only among tour operators.
Assante: Our research showed us that 2022 was going to be one of the largest years ever for student travel. Americans and Canadians were really traveling internationally. So we’ll see more domestic travel in 2022, then hopefully, moving toward more international travel in ’23 and ’24.
We’re hearing that more student groups are visiting national parks and secondary cities. And I think that will continue because they’re learning now what they have to offer and what the price point is.
Pantuso: There’s a lot of opportunity The way people live, work and travel has all changed in the last 18 months. In the group travel business, we’re going to have to recognize that. People are going to continue working from home but maybe not five days a week. There’s going to be a work-life balance like there never was before. So when you think about people taking time off and traveling, we’re going to have to figure out what works.
There was a trend toward smaller groups, and maybe those groups get even smaller. Maybe people want to go to places away from the crowds. We have to look at how people’s lifestyles have changed.
Dale: I think the pandemic will elevate the need and necessity of sustainable travel, responsible travel and meaningful travel. It’s our responsibility as an industry to make sure that’s integrated into our product development.
Form a demand perspective, what I’m hearing from our members is that 2022 is off the charts. That can change, as we know, but it looks very promising. This year’s travel may not be as strong as we thought. But 2022 looks extraordinarily healthy. So if we can hold on in 2021, there’s a strong light at the end of the tunnel.