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2015 Buyer’s Guide: Embracing Changes

As the travel and tourism world continues to evolve, travel sellers and travel planners will have to evolve with it in order to stay relevant in the marketplace. The Group Travel Leader spoke to the heads of four tourism industry associations to get their perspectives about the new age of tourism.

Carylann Assante, Executive director, Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA)

Terry Dale, President and CEO, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)

Pam Inman, President, National Tour Association (NTA)

Peter Pantuso, President and CEO, American Bus Association (ABA)


What do the buying habits of today’s group travelers teach us about where tourism may be headed in the future?

Pantuso: The market is strong. Every bus operator I talk to is doing well — they’re busy, the buses are moving, and they’re always looking for more drivers. Tour operators are telling me they’re looking for new products and opportunities to offer.

A lot of tour operators are telling me that higher-end product is selling. So the old paradigm of having a cheap trip is something that I think should be out of the vernacular. People are always looking for value, but going to a high-end property and getting a good price there is still a value. Operators are recognizing that they have different pockets and income strata that they can sell to within the same product.

Inman: I think we’re expanding ways to add authenticity to travel. There’s a growing demand for visitors to be able to get the inside angle, to have a unique experience that is creative and really intensely local — stuff they can’t find on the Internet by themselves. So creative tour operators, with help from DMOs [destination marketing organizations] and suppliers, are coming up with packages you can’t get on the Internet.

Another buying habit we’re seeing is late bookings, and that’s where a flexible tour operator can make a difference, and tour operators are going to look for suppliers that can be flexible with them.

Dale: Last year, we started a project with Cornell University’s MBA school and had students create a Packaged Travel Index to keep our finger on the pulse of the U.S. traveler. We conducted our first study last fall and our second one this spring.

We found that the average cost of the trips that people are planning has gone up slightly from $1,650 to $1,850 per person. It reflects a growing confidence that the U.S. consumer has about the economy today. Last fall, 26 percent had their vacations booked; this spring, 34 percent had booked. So it shows that people are putting money down and making deposits at a much higher percentage. These are good indicators about the direction of travel.

Assante: The merging of airlines, the high cost of fares and the volatility of the market are making it difficult for our members to package and price their tours with airfare. The airlines have been restricting the number of flights and tickets you can book at one time, and that’s super important with students. In the short term, it may impact whether students fly or drive, and that can impact the destinations they choose.

We have seen an increase in U.S. students going to Canada. Another uptick is in religious and sports groups. If your student isn’t in a marching band or traveling with a foreign language, there aren’t many opportunities to travel through the school. But your youth group or sports group might take trips, and parents still want their kids to travel.

What new things should travel professionals be doing to update their products and reach new customers?

Inman: We just hired a recent college grad, and she’s very sharp. I can teach her everything I know about the industry and how to be a professional, but she can run circles around me with technology. I see technology as a nonstop challenge for our travel professionals. It’s going to be very important for us to keep up with new technology so we can be effective in the marketplace. We can all do our best to keep up, but at some point, we’re going to have to attract millennials.

Dale: You can’t wake up in the morning without hearing about the use of technology and mobile devices. Anybody who is in the travel business today needs to make sure that their websites are mobile friendly because most everyone is living on their smartphone today. There’s always a segment saying, “Our customer base isn’t the 30-year-old or the millennial, and they aren’t as engrossed with the mobile device.” But the reality is that the percentage of people relying on the mobile to access your website is going to continue to get larger and larger every day.

Assante: Someone wrote to me recently talking about ways to look at healthier food options and sustainable travel. Today’s students are more interested in that and the impact they’re having. It’s definitely happening with millennials, and it’s something that tour operators will have to look at.

I’m also seeing a shortening of deadlines because of the airlines, so tour operators are going to have to really be on top of their hotel contracts. The individual and corporate travel market is doing really well, which puts pressure on the low-end group business. So tour operators will need to pay attention to attrition clauses and room rates going up.

Pantuso: Theater and culinary and shopping are always of interest. Look for hot products like winery tours, brew pubs and distillery tours. Distilleries and microbreweries are becoming like the wineries were 10 years ago — new and exciting and popping up all over the place. Pair that with a concert or something, and you have a variety of product you’re able to offer at a reasonable price, and it’s a valuable proposition for the customer that doesn’t take a lot of time or expense.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.