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Group travel industry likes its outlook for 2011

Courtesy Pittsburgh CVB

If you are anxious to hear some good news about the economy, try talking to a tour operator. Although other economic indicators point to a sluggish recovery, tour operators report that 2010 was good, and they look for 2011 to be even better.

Companies large and small saw growth in 2010, with encouraging increases in both domestic and international travel. And although some destinations were affected by natural disasters or other one-time events, it seems that leisure travel as a whole is poised for a comeback.

“A fantastic year”
Neither economic uncertainty nor volcanic ash diminished business at Collette Vacations, a large tour operator based in Pawtucket, R.I.

“It was a fantastic year, a record year for us in spite of all the havoc that took place,” said Tony Etienne, Collette’s vice president of business development. “We knew that our numbers were going to be good this year because of Oberammergau.

“As those numbers started to climb, there was a lot of pent-up demand, and a lot of destinations outside of Germany, like Africa, Australia and other parts of Europe, really picked up the pace. We actually exceeded our biggest revenue year and growth year in history.”

Grand American Tours and Cruises in Morton, Pa., managed to have positive growth in 2009 and 2010.

“We had an excellent year in 2009, and 2010 was a good year,” said president Nancy Magee. “We’ve maintained our marketing budget in spite of the economy, and we have just focused on cultivating strong relationships with clients.”

Christopher Kyte, president of train tour purveyor Uncommon Journeys, said that the stresses of air travel and uncertainty at international destinations helped his business have a great growth year.
“This was our best year ever — it was up 32 percent over last year,” he said. “It’s kind of remarkable because of the economy, but the one macro factor that helped everyone in domestic business was the troubled international situations.

“When you watch the nightly news and see stories about bad things happening abroad, Yellowstone begins to look pretty good. And our own particular train products were helped by the misery index of air travel.”

Increasing inventory
Kyte is so bullish on 2011 that his company is adding significant amounts of capacity on train tours through the national parks, which is one of its signature products.

“We’ve actually doubled our inventory to the national parks,” he said. “About 58 percent of that increase is on a private 1940s train that we’re running. Even skeptics have to see the gradual improvement in the economy.”

Etienne said that international products have remained popular with Collette’s customers, even in spite of their higher price tags and recent world events. Exotic destinations continued to sell well, and the company expects to see continued growth in 2011 as travelers book vacations based on the strength of good experiences they had this year.

“Part of our focus is to make sure that people who went last year are going to continue to travel, whether it’s a national parks tour, an Australian tour or the Canadian Rockies,” Etienne said. “The economy is still on people’s minds, and people are very aware of what’s happening in the world right now.

“But travelers like to travel; it tends to be in their blood. And if it can’t be done in one area, they have multiple others to choose from.”

At Grand American, trips already on the books indicate that 2011 will bring continued growth.
“I’d say next year [2011] will be an excellent year,” Magee said in November. “I’m finding that people are willing to book; bookings are strong for next year. Our customers may feel the same economic anxieties that others do, but that seems to be easing a bit, and people are wanting to travel.”

“Blowing and going”

U.S. travel destinations saw steady amounts of leisure tourism this year, with some factors indicating growth coming for 2011. In Shreveport, La., overall hotel occupancy has been around 70 percent this year.

“We’re blowing and going,” said Brandy Evans, vice president of communications for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourism Bureau. “Tourism has been doing really well. The group market has picked back up, and we’ve been very pleased with the numbers.”

The numbers for 2011 are promising as well. Twelve motorcoach groups have already reserved space at the destination’s annual Mardi Gras Bash, a private event for leisure tourism groups during the Fat Tuesday celebrations. So far, 17 group tours are on the books for next year, creating an estimated economic impact of $219,000.

“Globus and Cosmos has booked a Louisiana series for 2011,” Evans said. “They had one group that came through in September, and this is their first tour back to Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. Next year, they’re bringing nine groups through.”

In Pittsburgh, overall visitation slipped a bit this year due to a soft convention market, but leisure tourism held steady. Meryl Hellring, group sales manager at the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that reasonable tourism costs and a positive national image have helped keep the destination on domestic travelers’ minds.

“I’m predicting that the numbers for next year will be up,” she said. “In conversations with tour operators, they tell me that they’ve put us in their catalog for preformed groups to choose, and also making it available on the retail side.”

In addition to traditional group travelers, Hellring expects to see an increase in baby boomers visiting Pittsburgh on motorcoaches next year, with younger travelers taking advantage of opportunities in outdoor activity and soft adventure. Grandparent-grandchild tours are also on the rise.

Part of the growth that Hellring predicts comes from the buzz she’s hearing around the industry, that people are tired of staying home.

“We’ve gone through a period of abstinence — people have been putting off their vacations, but they don’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “If you forbid yourself from having a hamburger, you’re going to start craving hamburgers. People are starting to crave travel now. They want to integrate that experience back into their lives.”

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.