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Group Travel Market Seeks Authenticity

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

Terry Dale, PRESIDENT AND CEO, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)

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

Catherine Prather, interim president, NTA


Editor’s note: After a seven-month search, NTA named Pam Inman as president of the association in June. Inman assumed her duties earlier this month. For this article, interim president Catherine Prather spoke to The Group Travel Leader in late July.


How are today’s group travel buyers influenced? What are the best ways of reaching them and getting your message across?

Pantuso: I’m always struck when people talk about group travel buyers. Who is the buyer? Is it a tour operator, a group leader or a bus company? Those distinctions are increasingly blurring. At the end of the day, the only person we know for certain is the buyer is the person taking the tour, and reaching them is always a struggle.

People making travel decisions are looking for new and different products. They’re looking for nuggets that will bring in additional customers. New product is coming all the time that is going to help spur people to travel. It could also make people think about travel more than they have before.


Prather: Like other consumers, they’re influenced in a variety of ways. Key among those would be word of mouth, what’s hot and brand awareness. All of those are interwoven.

When you talk about the best ways to reach them, these days it has to be personalized and customized in the outreach. When you look at international and national brands that sift through data to target their marketing, this is becoming an expectation. You have to break through the white noise of everything else that they’re hearing and seeing. It may be that you’re reaching them at a trade event or through traditional advertising. It has to be a variety of things, and you need to know your customer and what’s going to hit.


Assante: Today’s environment is challenging. They’re looking for info through social media channels, and not just Facebook. It’s Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram, in addition to email. You have to be in all communication channels with sharp, distinct messages that really speak to the customer. That’s the greatest challenge for small travel buyers; these companies may not have full-time communications staff, but they have to be everywhere.

People aren’t making purchases on social media, but studies show that that’s how they’re gathering information to make decisions. Students are increasingly using the Internet to make their choices, but they’re not making purchases on the Internet. They’re still using tour operators.


Dale: From a consumer perspective, which influences the group travel buyer, we’re seeing more and more consumer reviews weighing in a more significant way. People are looking at Trip Advisor to see what other customers are saying about a destination or an experience. I think that transitions to the group travel buyer.

People are more and more being educated and motivated by video. So we’re encouraging and leading in that area by getting very concise, crisp, two- to three-minute videos produced about different types of travel experiences. We’re sending a travel journalist on trips with our members, and she’s giving us her reactions and responses to particular experiences. We call the campaign Travel Together.



For a lot of people, “tourist” is a dirty word. What are your members doing to give customers authentic travel experiences inside of their prepackaged products?

Assante: We’ve had an increase of tour operators coming to our conference, and they’re looking for unique value. They’re deepening their relationships with their partners to find those special opportunities and those unique value pieces that aren’t being offered to the general public or other tour operators. They’re having good conversations about what they can create together. That’s where the relationships with CVBs are so important; they know what’s available and can take advantage of those resources in their areas.


Dale: In our Travel Together campaign, the whole theme is to “live like a local.” We want our customers to be able to rub shoulders with people who call this place home: an artisan craftsman, a rug-maker, a historian, a chef or a family in their kitchen. In order to feel like you understand the culture and the people, you need to interact with the culture and the people in a very real way.

This campaign is our attempt to address the word “authentic.” Let’s make this about the people that call this place home and make sure that our customers rub shoulders with them.


Pantuso: Over and over again, members tell us that the customer wants that experience. They don’t just want to see things, they want to hike up the mountain, white-water raft and make a vase at the glass museum. They know that the buyer can go online and see the place that they’re going to visit, or learn the history of it. So much information is available about the destination now, you don’t need to just ride by and look out the window to see it.

That creates the challenge of how you make the customer part of that travel experience and let them get their hands dirty. You look at opportunities where people can give back or go into a community and work. Those things are very hot right now. They’re looking for a day on the farm, to help pick grapes in the vineyard. It doesn’t work everywhere, but when it does, this person feels like they’re really a part.


Prather: In our last tour operator survey, 78 percent said that they customize their product, and 66 percent offer scheduled departures. So the vast majority customize, and they add unique touches that only they can offer. They have those unique relationships with their suppliers and destinations.

A key here is localization: using local guides, local experts and business owners to contribute that homegrown flavor. These special touches create a “wow” factor, and that feeds back to the word of mouth and how group travel buyers are influenced. If they have a wow experience because they received something that they wouldn’t have had on their own, they go out and talk about it.