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Thought Leaders Talk Travel at USTOA Conference

Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette, has been elected to a two-year term as the chairman of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), becoming the first woman to lead that organization in its 44-year history.

“I’m honored,” said Twidale, who began her term at the 2015 USTOA Conference in Chicago, December 3-5. “It’s time for the organization to be progressive. But, at the same time, I’ve earned this position based on my skills and years of competency in our industry. If my role as chairman opens doors for other women to believe in themselves and move through the chairs of USTOA, then I am happy to be that role model.” While Twidale downplays any gender emphasis on her achievement, the significance is relevant to USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale.

“Paula doesn’t want to make a big deal of this, so we won’t,” said Dale. “But our overall emphasis this week has been about overcoming borders and embracing hope, so it’s timely. Dana Santucci of EF Education First is vice chair, so we have the opportunity to be led for four years by accomplished travel executives who happen to be women.”

True to form, the topics of discussion presented at this USTOA Conference were more about the social impact of travel than about the buying and selling of products.

At the general session, CNN thought leader Anita Mendiratta moderated a series of discussions with global leaders like Irshad Manji, founder and director of the Moral Courage Project, which confronts Islamic extremism and its distortion of the Muslim faith; Carolyn Coursey, president of the Family Assistance Foundation, which studies effective aid for disaster victims; and Ron Insana, senior analyst at CNBC.

“I want us all to evolve in the role we play as global citizens,” said Dale. “Travel breaks down barriers throughout the world. We have a role to play beyond just taking customers on trips, so we’ve talked a lot about borders. Borders don’t fit into nice packages. The glass ceiling is a border. The crisis in Syria is about borders. At the end of the day, travel opens borders and creates hope.”

In a media briefing, USTOA announced the latest statistics in its research that measures the economic activity of its 54 tour operator members and their more than 160 brands.

Three-fourths of the tour operator members reported increased sales in 2015 over 2014, continuing a several-year trend, and 40 percent of those said sales increased by 10 percent or more. More than half — 57 percent — project increased sales again in 2016 over 2015. Almost half will increase staffing in 2016.

More than half — 55 percent — of all sales by members were made through travel agents in 2015, and 55 percent of all members’ customers are 51 or older.

Emerging destinations for 2016 include Cuba, Myanmar, Iceland, Colombia, Ethiopia and Japan. The most popular domestic trips are New York, California, Arizona and Hawaii. The most popular international destinations are Italy, United Kingdom, China, France and South Africa.

Members cited terrorism as the biggest threat to U.S. traveler confidence in the coming year.

Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.