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How To Meet the Challenges of Restarting Your Travel Program

We’ve reached a new chapter in the pandemic saga: After more than a year of shutdowns and quarantines, widespread travel is possible again. But travel planners are finding that restarting their tours isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. The aftermath of the past year has made many aspects of the tourism business more unpredictable and difficult than they were before.

Some of the challenges are direct aftershocks from the pandemic itself. Although the public health threat has greatly diminished, there is still some confusion over whether it’s safe to travel and what safety measures will be required during the trip. And because many travel industry professionals were displaced during the initial shutdown phase, group planners may not know who to contact for help in putting trips together.

Other challenges have come as a result of market responses to the pandemic. A surge in demand, coupled with a labor shortage, has made it hard to book basic travel services in some destinations. And the availability of motorcoaches and drivers, already an issue before the pandemic, is even more limited.

Fortunately, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. In spite of the headwinds, you can take groups on trips this year. Here are some common problems travel planners are facing and some creative solutions you can use to overcome them.

1. ‘I don’t know when it’s safe.’

It’s safe now.

If you’ve followed the news closely during the pandemic, you’ve probably been conditioned to believe that COVID-19 lurks around every corner. But thanks to the marvel of modern vaccines, you don’t need to worry about that danger anymore.

With a mountain of evidence showing that vaccinated individuals are unlikely to contract or spread COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cleared vaccinated individuals to return to normal in most facets of everyday life. Many states and municipalities have dropped their mask mandates and capacity restrictions. If you and your travelers are vaccinated, there’s no longer any threat.

Despite these new developments, though, you might feel nervous about asking people to join you on a group trip. To get over that hesitation, start by taking a short trip by yourself. Stay in a hotel, visit some attractions and eat in a restaurant. You’ll quickly grow comfortable moving around in the world again. And you’ll have a deeper appreciation for how wonderful travel is. 

2. ‘I don’t know who to contact.’

The group travel industry has traditionally been built on relationships, and chances are you relied on relationships with bus operators, tour companies, destination representatives and other salespeople to help you plan trips. Unfortunately, many of those people were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, travel planners haven’t known where to turn for information.

There is some good news, though: Many of those travel professionals are back at their desks. Some were only temporarily furloughed at the beginning of the crisis; others were rehired as tourism organizations prepared for travel to ramp up again. So there’s a fair chance your favorite tourism representatives are there to help you.

Of course, not everyone has returned to the jobs they had in 2020; some displaced tourism pros found work elsewhere. But most of their employers have filled their roles with new hires or assigned their duties to others in their organizations. So there should still be people to assist you; you may just have to ask around.

3. ‘I can’t find rooms.’

This is among the strangest side effects of the post-pandemic era: In many popular destinations, hotels have gone from nearly empty to nearly full, seemingly overnight. A flood of pent-up demand has hit the market, and those eager travelers are snatching up hotel rooms. Meanwhile, ongoing labor shortages have left some hoteliers unable to hire workers, leading them to hold back a portion of their rooms because they can’t service them.

Until hotel availability returns to normal, groups should be prepared to get creative about their accommodations. For many, that will mean looking for rooms farther away from the places they visit. Trendy hotels in popular tourism hot spots and city centers may be booked, but there’s a good chance that midmarket properties in nearby towns will be more available — and more affordable.

If staying in the suburbs doesn’t solve the problem, consider seeking out different travel destinations altogether. Look for small towns, hidden gems, rural areas and other places that typically don’t attract bigger crowds. 

4. ‘I can’t get a restaurant reservation.’

Restaurants are feeling the effects of the labor shortage more than almost any business category right now. Because of this, many have had to limit their hours, pare down their menus and otherwise scale back service because they’re short-staffed. As a result, some groups are finding it difficult to book a meal for dozens of people at a time.

Getting space in traditional restaurants might be hit-or-miss for a while. Fortunately, though, there are numerous ways to feed people well on a tour. Some restaurants that can’t seat a group right now can provide boxed meals to go, especially if travelers order ahead of time. Others might be willing to serve groups at an off-peak time, such as after lunch and before the dinner rush.

There are also alternative dining options to try. Consider taking your group to a public market where they can buy their own meals from the vendors of their choice. Or book a food truck to come to your hotel or an attraction you’re visiting. You also may be able to get service from a local caterer.

5. ‘I can’t fill a bus.’

Some of your travelers are anxious to hit the road; others won’t be ready until next year sometime. You might worry that with some of your customers still out of the market, you’ll have a hard time finding enough passengers to fill a motorcoach or pay your trip expenses.

Groups are likely to remain smaller for a while, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Your customers who are ready to travel now might be willing to pay more than usual — especially since they’ve been at home for a year — so you could perhaps still afford a full-size coach with a fair number of empty seats.

If that’s not an option, though, consider working with another organization or travel company in your area to combine trips. This will allow you to put more people on your trips while keeping costs down. And it might lead to new partnerships that could pay off for years to come.

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.