Most travel planners expect to resume operating group trips in 2020, a new survey by The Group Travel Leader finds, and most travel industry organizations believe they will be ready to welcome groups to their destinations by late summer or early fall.
The survey was completed the week before Memorial Day by about 80 travel planners and more than 65 travel industry organizations.
The survey asked group travel planners, “When do you expect to begin taking groups on trips again?” Just over half of respondents said they expect to resume traveling in the summer or early fall: 19% said they plan to travel in July or August, and 34% said they expect to take trips in September or October.
Another 20% of travel planners said they plan to travel in November or December, which brings the total of groups planning to travel in 2020 to 73%. Only 27% said they didn’t expect to begin traveling again until 2021.
“I’ve maintained all along that the travel industry as a whole will be much more resilient than many observers have projected,” said Mac Lacy, president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader. “So, too, will the group travel industry. We’re all familiar with the term early adopters. We will see a similar dynamic take hold in the coming months for travel in general and for group travel. Our early adopters will be back on group trips much sooner than some others will. I think these responses reflect that.”
The survey asked a similar question of travel industry professionals at destination marketing organizations (DMOs), attractions and other tourism supplier organizations. When asked “When do you expect your destination to be ready to welcome groups again?” 87% of respondents said they would be ready in summer or early fall, 70% answered that they could host groups in July or August, and an additional 17% said they would be ready in September or October.
Only 8% of travel industry respondents said they wouldn’t be able to host groups until 2021.
Data Reveal Different Perspectives
Though the overall survey results paint an optimistic picture for the return of group travel in 2020, variations in the data reveal differences in perspective among various constituencies in the tourism community.
Comparing responses from travel planners and tourism organization representatives reveals a significant discrepancy between when communities will be ready to welcome group visitors and when groups will be ready to travel. Nearly 70% of travel industry respondents said they would be ready for groups in July or August, but only 19% of group leaders said they would be taking trips in those months. And while 92% of industry respondents expect to be ready for groups sometime in 2020, 27% of travel planners expect to hold off on traveling until 2021.
“These results reveal that DMOs have their work cut out for them,” said Brian Jewell, vice president and executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. “Though destination representatives are confident they will soon be able to accommodate groups, they need to do much more work to communicate that confidence to travel planners and consumers. The onus is on DMOs and their local partners to demonstrate the health and safety measures they have implemented and make travelers feel comfortable venturing out to their destinations.”
Another wrinkle in the data sheds some light on how business and revenue considerations might be affecting the return to travel. Among travel planners, professional tour operators were the most eager to restart trips, with 23% planning to restart in July or August and 43% planning to resume traveling in September or October. Volunteer group leaders, who don’t make money on the trips they operate, are somewhat more hesitant to get going. About 14% of group leaders expect to take groups out in July or August, with another 29% venturing out in September or October. An additional 29% of group leaders said they won’t travel until 2021, compared to only 20% of professional tour operators.
“It’s not surprising that professional tour operators with businesses to maintain are eager to start running trips and bringing in revenue,” Jewell said. “We expect them to lead the way, albeit with smaller groups than normal. And as these professionals develop best practices and demonstrate how tours can operate with high health and safety standards, affinity groups and other nonprofit travel organizations should begin to follow their lead.”
Comments Add Context
Comments submitted along with survey answers reinforced how much travel planners are depending on destination partners to provide necessary information for restarting trips.
“Everything is unknown from state to state, so it’s hard to stick to a schedule,” said one tour operator respondent.
“The biggest problem is finding open welcome centers, rest stops and restaurants en route to our destination,” said another.
A third tour operator echoed the sentiment: “Although we might be ready sometime between July and August, we will be very dependent upon the attractions, hotels and restaurants being open and available.”
Comments from travel industry respondents indicate they are working hard to fill in those information gaps.
“Our restaurants and hotels have already or are in the process of implementing the new guidelines recommended by the CDC, national associations and other entities by committing to the Alabama Restaurant Promise and the Safe Stay programs,” said one DMO respondent from Alabama. “Our attractions have already [opened] or are in the process of opening under the social distancing guidelines as well. Our hospitality partners are doing all that they can to reassure future travelers.”
Several DMOs indicated they are working to provide local partners with guidelines and recommendations for welcoming visitors.
“We are implementing more citywide suggestions and trying to say uniform in what we are promoting, showing the safety behind it, what is requested at different venues, etc.,” one said. “Most events through July have been canceled, so we’re focusing on what is up and running safely.”
“Hotels, restaurants and bars have reopened with the specific guidelines and restrictions,” said another DMO representative. “Most of the attractions are now open. We are ready.”