Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Group Travel Confronts an Unprecedented Crisis in COVID-19

After several years of surging sales, the group travel industry started 2020 collectively expecting a banner year. But by mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic had halted travel worldwide, putting intense pressure on every organization and company in the tourism community. That pressure continues as unpredictable infection spikes keep travelers grounded. The Group Travel Leader spoke with the heads of four tourism industry associations to get their perspectives on these unprecedented challenges and how the industry is working together to overcome them.

Carylann Assante, Executive director, 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)

The travel industry has been particularly hard hit by pandemic closures and quarantines. How has your association responded, and what are your priorities for the end of this year and the beginning of 2021?

Pantuso: Since March, it’s been nonstop government affairs at our end. It’s been seven days a week. We know the industry across the board — motorcoach, tour, travel and suppliers — are all struggling right now. So we’re communicating with Congress and the administration on a daily basis. We have almost 40 people working trying to get more funding for the industry.

On May 13, we had a bus rally with 800 companies from all 50 states represented. That helped generate a lot of media, national and local. We were able to get a lot of messages into hometown newspapers, which members of Congress read. We need everybody behind us. We need them to keep communicating to Congress and to the media.

We also put together a toolkit to help all of our members come back. What do they need to do to help assure the customer that they’re going to be traveling safely? It’s all up on our website.

Prather: We did a crisis plan when all this started. We quickly identified that our members needed advocacy, information, education and strong member services. So NTA has advocated for our members, particularly our small businesses, for financial relief, and this work is ongoing. We’ve also held multiple webinars and Zoom meetings to bring together our members to have conversations about on-the-ground concerns and possible solutions.

From now until the end of the year, we plan to introduce some health and safety guidelines that we’ve had in development, based on our tour operator COVID task force. And we’re going to continue to advocate for our members. This fall is going to be a critical time so they can ensure a successful start to 2021.

Dale: The first thing I did was to reach out to all the major travel associations — ASTA, SYTA, ABA, NTA — and asked them to join me in our nation’s capital on March 19. This was just before everything closed down. We had a meeting of 11 travel associations, and we met to make sure our small businesses were represented in the stimulus package.

The second thing is that if we want to instill confidence in our customer base, we have to define health and sanitation guidance for our members. I reached out to the Canadian Association of Tour Operators and the European Tour Operators Association and said, “Let’s do this together.” So the three associations worked on guidance that we shared with our members.

Moving forward, we have to figure out how we work with our DMOs. USTOA has over 160 DMOs from around the world that are associate members. How do we work with them and their governments in opening up at the right time?

Assante: Our first priority was to assist our members who were being bombarded with requests for refunds, and being attacked by the media if they were unable to process refunds in a timely manner. We quickly learned that there was a serious lack of knowledge about the tour operator working process and about the chain of events that has to occur for refunds to be processed. We quickly produced a COVID-19 Response Toolkit for our members to help them to respond to the media and to their clients — school administrators, teachers and parents.

Our second priority has been to focus on health and safety for travelers now, and once student tours begin to pick up again. Safety is the most important consideration for travel to recover, and so we have spent the past several months developing a comprehensive Safety Resource Guide for school travel. This will be available in the all.

There has been a lot of speculation about pent-up demand for travel. Have you seen any indication of that? Do trends in bookings, refunds and credits give you any insight into how travelers might respond when they get the go-ahead?

Dale: We’ve done three surveys of our active tour operator members. In the first one, we learned that 57% of all 2020 bookings were successfully transferred to 2021. That’s a healthy number. The others were either issued refunds or travel vouchers for sometime in the future.

Since then, in our most recent survey, we’ve asked if they have had bookings for travel in the third and fourth quarter of this year and the first and second quarter of next year. Seventy-eight percent had bookings for the first and second quarter of 2021.

Prather: I have anecdotal information. There is absolutely pent-up demand for travel. I feel it myself, and I hear it from travelers. Our tour operators indicate that many trips planned for this year have been rescheduled for 2021.

Depending on where a tour operator is located and where they’re traveling to, we hear different responses about when people expect to be traveling again. There are some tour operators taking trips right now. Many of our multiday companies are doing one-day tours just to keep things going.

Assante: The majority of our members’ business is student group travel, and therefore we are at the mercy of the decisions about school openings around the country. Once schools open, and school orchestras, choral groups, etc., begin to function normally again, we are hopeful that our business will rebound.

Our members are seeing inquiries from teachers who want to travel in 2021 and for sure in 2022, so we are optimistic that once the schools and the venues open, we will see a solid rebound.

Pantuso: I don’t think there is any pent-up demand in 2020. Travel isn’t going to go away — we’re going to see demand. But everybody is waiting for that silver bullet — a vaccine — before they’re out and moving again. When that happens, you’ll see tremendous demand again.

People get out and see people and visit places. That’s what we do as humans. Once everybody has the green light, I’m sure we’re going to see a huge demand.

What should the group travel industry’s messaging say right now? What should we be telling our customers, our employees and the public at large?

Prather: The health and safety of employees, customers and the traveling public at large is first and foremost. We have to exemplify this to rebuild consumer confidence. Let’s adhere to science-based health and safety protocol while also delivering great experiences.

It’s possible. it’s not easy, and its absolutely not preferred. But it’s necessary to get people traveling again, curb the spread of the virus and get the industry going again.

Assante: Don’t give up hope. Keep dreaming and start planning now. Have faith that the travel industry has never worked harder on your behalf to make travel safe, healthy and sustainable for you.

We appreciate the freedoms we had so much more now, and we hope that once you are back on the road again, every traveler will be a more responsible traveler and help ensure that our favorite places will be there for all generations to follow us.

Pantuso: Part of the message is that it is safe to travel. With the precautions being taken by motorcoach companies, restaurants, museums and everywhere else, the opportunities are certainly there, and it can be done safely.

The roadblock to this is that the states are limiting where people can come from. You might want to go to New York, but if you’re from Virginia, you have to self-quarantine for 14 days when you arrive.

Dale: The single most important word is confidence. We have to be able to instill confidence and back that up with the steps we’re taking. We also need to communicate that this is a shared responsibility. You as a traveler and customer have to recognize your role in protecting the people you travel with and the places you’re going.

Part of the education — and we need to do this more aggressively with our airline partners — is that we’re safe to fly. We still have a long way to go in that arena.

Is there a silver lining in any of this? Are there innovations, creative ideas or new practices that will benefit the travel industry or improve the travel experience long term?

Assante: Safety has rocketed to the top of every travel provider’s list, and safety protocols are being reviewed and changed at every level of the travel chain. Associations, hotel and airline corporations, destination management companies, and individual companies are all focusing now on safety procedures. That can only be good for the traveler in the long term.

Also, travel providers have learned about the importance of transparency in their operations. Tour operators in particular have learned that they have to be upfront with clients about the cost of their services. The high demand for refunds that resulted from the pandemic left operators vulnerable. Clients are demanding the full cost of the trip be refunded, not understanding that anywhere from one month to one year of staff time is typically spent on the planning of these trips.

Dale: Part of our value proposition since we were founded 48 years ago is that when you travel with a tour operator, we provide a safety net. If there’s a geopolitical event, if Mother Nature flexes her muscle, if there’s a terrorist attack — when you travel with a tour operator, there’s a safety net that will do everything they can to get you home safely. In the transition from COVID to post-COVID, people will get that message more today than they ever have.

We also see some members being creative. One member has health ambassadors who will be placed on tours to make sure mask wearing, hand sanitation and touchless solutions are in place. That’s their focus, separate from who is guiding the tour. There will be innovation that comes out of this.

Pantuso: I’m seeing operators who are being really creative. They’re not only providing transportation but providing cleaning services to other bus companies. I saw a hotelier in the Midwest who is very well known. He was headed to another hotel in a different area to try to help them with their business plan.

How can we be the best at what we do and make the customer experience even better? How do I make sure that when things open up, they’re at the front of the line for everybody?

Prather: All the hyperfocus on cleanliness and sanitation is welcome. I hope a lot of that continues. This will not be our last pandemic.

What’s been most motivating to me is the collaboration. During the crisis, I’ve seen a lot of information sharing and openness. Everyone in this business has been hurt. It’s time to help one another and stand together. I hope this spirit of collaboration helps us be more like that in the future.