Nearly one-fifth of America’s travel groups have resumed trips, according to a new survey conducted by The Group Travel Leader in early September. Among those who have not started traveling, most are waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to become available.
When asked “What factors will influence your decision to operate trips again?” 19% of the 160 tour operators and group travel planners who responded said they had already begun operating trips. Similarly, when asked when they expect their next group trip to depart, 21% said they expected to travel in 2020.
Among the respondents who have not begun traveling yet, a majority (51%) said the availability of a vaccine will be among key factors influencing travel decisions. About 28% said they would wait to see when cruise lines and major tour companies resume normal operations. Only 11% said they would wait for mask mandates to be dropped before traveling again.
The survey included the option for respondents to write in other factors they would be considering, and about 33% did so. Among their concerns were the opening of international borders to American travelers; the availability of rapid, reliable COVID testing; and decreasing case counts.
Though spikes in COVID cases during June and July prevented the summer travel comeback many had hoped for, the survey results give reasons for optimism.
“These results are encouraging in several ways,” said Brian Jewell, vice president and executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. “There is a sizable contingent of intrepid groups that have already begun traveling, and we expect their early successes will inspire other groups to do the same.
“The other encouraging takeaway is that many groups plan to travel again once a vaccine becomes available,” Jewell said. “Several vaccine candidates are in the late stages of clinical trials, and U.S. public health officials believe they can begin distributing a safe and effective COVID vaccine by the beginning of 2021. This indicates that tourism could see a strong rebound in the spring.”
According to the survey data, many group travel planners have similar expectations. Some 16% of respondents expect to operate their next trip sometime between January and March, and another 39% expect their next departure to take place between April and June. Only 23% thought they would wait until July.
“The lion’s share of travel planners expect to be on the road again before next summer,” Jewell said. “Since it can take well over six months to plan a successful trip, now is the time for the travel industry to begin outreach and marketing efforts in earnest. Destinations and attractions risk missing out on the spring rebound if they continue with skeleton workforces and a wait-and-see approach to sales.”
Better Communication Needed
Despite the positive indicators, responses from travel planners point to some troubling disconnects and misperceptions among travel planners. When responding to the question about what factors would influence the decision to travel again, numerous planners gave responses that indicated they aren’t aware of the steps the tourism industry has already taken to protect guests’ health.
One respondent expects a return to travel “when destinations are able to welcome groups back.” Another said trips would resume “when there are reasonable policies in place to be allowed to enter safely.”
“We have group leaders that are anxious to travel, but they’re waiting until there is more clarity surrounding at least regional travel,” one tour operator said. “Since each locality/state has different mandates and they change with regularity, it makes long-range planning difficult.”
Jewell said these responses indicate that the travel industry has not done an effective job communicating with travel planners.
“Hundreds of destinations and attractions around the country have already opened their doors to welcome groups back, and they’ve put new procedures in place to keep guests and employees safe,” Jewell said. “Our Tourism Navigator tool has up-to-date contact information and operational status for many of them. But it appears there is more work to do, as many travel planners are unaware that that these destinations are ready for them.”
For complete up-to-date travel information, planners can visit Tourism Navigator at grouptravelleader.com/navigator. Travel industry representatives can complete Tourism Navigator listings for their organizations at grouptravelleader.com/listing.