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Be Smart To Restart

After staying home for months on end because of travel restrictions, many people’s pent-up desire to explore has grown exponentially.

Despite the challenges of selling group travel post-COVID, tour operators report that they are booking future trips through travel credits from canceled tours and from new customers ready to hit the road. To give these enthusiastic customers a chance for a much-needed vacation, travel businesses around the globe have developed strategies for safety-focused group tours.

The challenging task of mitigating the risks of group travel during a pandemic have forced tour companies to think creatively. From group leaders venturing out for the first time since March to motorcoach companies developing technologies to mitigate virus risks, the group tour industry is ready to make travel dreams a reality once more.

Responding to a Pandemic

Principia Lifelong Learning’s director, Kelly Peticolas, scurried to figure out her next move after unexpected interruptions from COVID-19. Based in Elsah, Illinois, the alumni travel program offers international group travel.

“I sent out a survey in June to our past travelers,” said Peticolas. “We included the results in a marketing piece for the June issue of our alumni magazine. About 30% of our travelers are actively researching travel options but not yet booking. About 11% indicated they were actively booking travel in June. Then 44% said that when travel begins again, they would like to travel with a small group, such as Principia Lifelong Learning.”

Peticolas plans to resume marketing this September with a fall brochure for upcoming trips in 2021 and 2022. For the time being, the program is focused on email marketing and person-to-person communications.

Peticolas hasn’t given up yet: She recently returned from scouting out a future domestic trip to Buena Vista, Colorado.

“This trip will include adventure activities in rafting, kayaking, horseback riding and fly-fishing,” said Peticolas. “Colorado is requiring masks, and I found that the majority of people were following regulations.”

After seeing the safety precautions in person, Peticolas can now vouch personally that the trip will follow the advertised safety precautions.

Tour Operators Rethink Travel

Collette has seen the travel industry rise and fall repeatedly since its founding in 1918. The pandemic brought unprecedented difficulties for all travel companies, but that didn’t stop Collette from focusing on its travelers. Based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Collette specializes in group travel to all seven continents.

Despite some cancellations, many Collette groups have either kept their travel plans or rebooked their tours for a future date. Jeff Roy, executive vice president at Collette, believes this is partially due to the company’s worry-free cancellation policy where travelers can cancel up to 24 hours before a trip for any reason.

“We’ve been doing that for 30 years,” said Roy. “In an environment like this, when you have a pandemic, people are really happy they can cancel at any time. That is a huge differentiation for us in the market.”

To continue to travel during the age of social distancing, Collette created the Traveling Well Experience. These tours offer safety protocols so groups don’t have to wait for a vaccine to travel. Some of the procedures include pre-tour health screenings, smaller groups, required face coverings, motorcoach sanitization practices and physical distancing measures during meals and sightseeing.

Globus Family of Brands has also developed a new vision for group tours during the pandemic. The company’s Small Group Discovery Tours will run in 2021 with social distancing procedures in place.

“We want guests to feel safe with us,” said Steve Born, chief marketing officer for Globus. “We are diligently cleaning the motorcoach at every stop. We are also following social distance guidelines. If we get into a situation on a coach or attraction where social distancing is not feasible, we are asking that guests wear masks. We are also making sure our hotels are meeting our standards by disinfecting rooms and luggage.

“The heightened level of cleanliness will give our guests a feeling of well-being and ease. They can enjoy their destination while we have the safety procedures covered. We are removing the touch points that individual travelers would have to deal with, such as handling tickets to attractions.”

Globus has also introduced the complimentary Peace of Mind Travel plan that is included in all 2021 vacation bookings, so customers have the flexibility to move vacations to any other 2021 or 2022 date, destination or itinerary.

Travel Protocols

One of the most formidable hurtles to post-COVID group travel is ensuring safety aboard a motorcoach. Brent Maitland, vice president of marketing and product planning for Motor Coach Industries (MCI), believes he has found a way around this challenge through new disinfecting procedures. MCI manufactures motorcoaches for tour operators and group leaders.

“Once we got a beat on CDC guidelines, we have been in contact with customers for cleaning guidelines,” said Maitland. “We explained what disinfecting solutions work better with the interior of a coach so it doesn’t damage them. We also showed them how to apply these solutions.”

The company has also introduced new products to protect passengers, such as upgraded air filters, improved HVAC systems and ultraviolet lighting that can disinfect the air. Installed driver barriers can also help isolate the drivers from the rest of the passengers.

MCI has developed a safety checklist that customers can download and modify for their groups. Maitland wants these tour directors to share their procedures so travelers will feel safe on a motorcoach.

“We found that you have to focus on building customer confidence,” said Maitland. “You make sure they know you have a disinfecting protocol. Some of our customers have incorporated those procedures and run successful tours. A lot of people are still gearing up for upcoming tours. They are still going through the training and getting prepared. From what I have heard, the preparation they have done has made sure the passenger feels comfortable booking.”

In July, Planters Bank Passport 50, based in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, ventured out for the first time for a day trip to Grand Rivers, Kentucky. Program director Carolyn Cobb planned the precautions to take beforehand, such as limiting the size of the group, sanitizing the motorcoach according to guidelines and taking temperatures of group members before departure that morning.

“I encouraged masks to be worn at all times on the motorcoach, and everyone complied,” said Cobb. “I took a supply of extra disposable masks just in case they were needed. I also wore gloves and a mask while loading supplies onto the coach and handling bottled water.”

Cobb altered her typical policy of passing around a candy basket to preparing individual goodie bags for each passenger. The group ate dinner in a large separate dining room with tables spaced apart.

The evening’s highlight event was a production of “The Sounds of Memphis” at the Badgett Playhouse Theatre. The theater practiced social distancing with assigned seating spaced out across the theater. The staff wore gloves and masks and cleaned the venue between shows.

“The feedback I received from my group was all positive,” said Cobb. “They felt safe and were so glad to be back on the road again, even if it was just a short day-trip close to home.”

Other group travel providers, such as Cincinnati-based Croswell Tours, have reported similar experiences. Croswell Tours recently took a group from Cincinnati to Huntington, West Virginia, for a one-night trip that included a tour of the Greenbrier Resort. The Greenbrier Resort split the group in half to manage social distancing.

“We picked a trip that seemed close by so we wouldn’t have to go far or have too many stops,” said Susan Maham, owner of Croswell Tours. “We decided we would actually take seats out of the motorcoach. With 54 seats, even if you only put 24 people on it, it still seemed crowded for us. We’re taking six of our buses and configuring them with 30 seats. They are spacious. We put hand sanitizer in three locations on the bus.”

Looking Ahead

With the continuously fluctuating travel restrictions and protocols, it can seem like an impossible task to plan ahead. However, some trends are already emerging from the pandemic, such as increased interest in domestic vacations.

“About 60% of our travelers said that when they begin travel again, they would prefer to travel within the U.S. and Canada,” said Peticolas of Principia Lifelong Learning.

Other companies have also reported the rising popularity of domestic travel, including Globus Family of Brands. The company recently released a new line of tours called Undiscovered North America.

“It features nine tours designed from the ground up to feature off-the-beaten-path destinations,” said Born. “The majority of travelers would not have seen these places on their own. Undiscovered North America is getting a great start with new bookings.”

Other planning considerations take safety into consideration. Maham of Croswell Tours has decided to eliminate any attractions that don’t already have a safety procedure in place. When crafting itineraries, she takes these protocols into consideration, as well as the shifting desires of post-pandemic travelers.

“It’s not about the big breakfast or the big buffet anymore,” said Maham. “It’s really about the experience. If they can have a great experience, see something they’ve always wanted to see and make their life a little more interesting, then the food becomes a secondary thing.

“Our people are looking forward to going. It’s not the end of group tours. It may be the beginning.”

Eliza Myers

Eliza Myers has worked for The Group Travel Leader since 2007. She is the online editor and associate editor for Select Traveler.

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