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Industry executives talk paradigms & passenger counts

Courtesy Collette Vacations

Carylann Assante, Executive Director, Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA)
Terry Dale, Chairman, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)
Peter Pantuso, President and CEO, American Bus Association (ABA)
Lisa Simon, President, NTA

What developments in travel, business, technology or government are most exciting to your organization right now?

Pantuso: On the government side, the recent passage and signing of the transportation bill [MAP-21] is exciting. It’s a huge victory for the motorcoach industry in terms of safety and ensuring that only safe vehicles continue to operate. There are a lot of safety provisions for the vehicle, as well as requirements for seatbelts, stability control, roof designs, fire suppression and fire detection systems. And there are things about making sure that the driver is properly trained, as well.

There’s not much new in terms of technology. We still have the same features on the coach. But when we start looking at new systems on buses, all of those are going to be based on technology and science.

Dale: We just completed our first-ever congressional caucus in Washington, D.C. We had more than 50 members come to the nation’s capital in June. In addition to doing Capitol Hill visits, we met with the Department of Transportation to talk about rulemaking. We have a responsibility to educate our governing bodies. When they think about implementing a new rule, they’ll think about how it affects the tour operator community. I don’t think we’ve been on their radar screen in the past. It’s such an eye-opening experience for our members, and it’s a crucial part of how government works.

Simon: What’s really exciting is the U.S. government’s recognition of travel and tourism. The president’s executive order to increase international visitation led to the National Travel and Tourism Strategy that was released earlier this year. That has awakened a lot of people in D.C. to the value of travel and tourism. And there’s a new bill that would enhance the visa system and the Visa Waiver Program. That’s really exciting for us because it’s the first time that the government has paid this much attention to tourism.

Assante: One of the most exciting and challenging things right now is the growing imperative for American students to travel internationally. Many studies are showing that those who have done some type of international travel are getting into college and getting hired by employers more quickly than those who do not. We’re hearing that for Americans to be more competitive, they need to have more experience globally.

There’s a benefit in terms of government, too, because it allows for countries to have a more open exchange. The visa situation is getting better in countries like South Korea, Brazil and India. Due to the government’s commitment to tourism, we’re seeing real renewed support from the Department of Commerce and Homeland Security for inbound tourism.

So much has changed in this industry in the past five years. What sorts of marketing initiatives and other projects have you undertaken in light of these changes?

We see some of the most dramatic change in social media, so we just wrapped up our first ever Facebook sweepstakes promotion. To celebrate our 40th anniversary, we had four of our members agree to donate a vacation at a price point of $10,000 or higher. For four weeks, we gave out one of those vacations to a customer who had “liked” us and entered the sweepstakes on Facebook. Through social media, we’re able to start building a pool of consumers that we can engage with and educate, and we can do it in a relatively effective way.

We started this with a meager 600 likes on Facebook, but we grew it to 6,500 throughout the sweepstakes. To us, when you look at the way that social media is exploding, it needs to be part of your marketing strategy. It’s one of the components of what we’ve called our Year of Engagement in 2012.

Assante: What continues to be both a positive and a negative for us is how to create a word-of-mouth referral system using social media tools. Our members are still focusing on how to use Pinterest, Facebook and mobile media. Teachers are using that in their classrooms today; so how do we utilize those technologies to help promote travel?

SYTA is going to be refocusing its website, and we’re going to be exploring social media more. At our conferences, we’re going to have a few sessions about mobile technology in the classroom and talk about providing resources to teachers and educators that they can use to drive travel. We’re also going to identify companies that are offering online payment products so that we can relieve the burden of collecting payments off of teachers, booster parents and tour operators.

Simon: What’s changing the face of group and packaged travel is consumer demand, special interest desires and the needs of the various consumer markets. We’re seeing more and more specialization among tour operators. They’re beginning to specialize their products to attract and serve different markets. So we’re looking to develop more specific opportunities and benefits around those specific market types. We’re doing things like our annual faith-based-travel leaders forum, and we’re going to be having leaders forums for the adventure and family markets. They are growth markets for packaged travel, and we want to bring together the leaders in those markets to talk about challenges, opportunities and trends, and then use that as a source of education and information to other members in those markets.

Pantuso: We’re very engaged with a bigger group called the Motorcoach Marketing Council. We’ve been involved with that group for six years. The goal of the council has changed over the years. Initially, it was to put out info about motorcoach travel. Now, the direction of the council is to give the operators the tools that they need to promote themselves. They have some good ads, materials and graphics that operators can use to help market themselves. Most operators work in a local region, so having access to materials that they can use to market is going to be vey helpful.