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Tour Operators Forecast Continued Remarkable Run at USTOA

HOLLYWOOD, Florida — Major tour operators reported remarkable sales growth in 2017 and are optimistic for continued success in 2018, according to a member survey conducted by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). The organization announced the survey results at its annual Conference and Marketplace, November 27-December 1, at the Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood, Florida.

In the survey of USTOA active members, 95 percent of respondents anticipated sales growth for the year ending in 2018. Two-thirds of members are optimistic and forecasting a “boom year” with growth between 7 percent and 10 percent.

According to the survey, 84 percent of responding members saw an increase in sales for 2017, with 53 percent reporting growth of 10 percent or more. More than a third of those members attributed the sales growth to an improving economy, and 31 percent cited improved marketing.

“In my nearly seven years with USTOA, this is the first time where virtually everyone expects strong single- or double-digit growth,” said association president and CEO Terry Dale.

Members of the association’s executive committee attributed the optimism to a general strength in the economy and the travel sector overall.

“If the market is strong, people feel good and are willing to spend,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations and vice president of USTOA. “Our deposits are up 39 percent over last year. I have never seen anything like it. The proof is in the pudding.”

“The economy is good, the dollar is strong, and competition is keeping prices low,” said Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette and immediate past chair of USTOA. “2017 has been good, and ’18 is looking even stronger.”

In addition to the strong market, members attribute some of the growth to advancements in the types of products and experiences being offered by both tour companies and the destinations they visit.

“There has been so much evolution in what we offer,” said Dana Santucci, vice president of development at EF Education First and chairman of USTOA. “Destinations are working hard to come up with these creative ideas.”

“There’s a real market for creative product development,” said Charlie Ball, executive vice president of Princess Cruises and Tours and USTOA treasurer. “In the past, people wanted a good experience; now they want a great one. For a long time, tour operators sort of overmanaged the experience. Now, we’re opening up more to the destinations and asking them what they have to offer.”

Despite the strength of the 2018 forecast, association officials spoke of several political developments that could have adverse impacts on travel, including negative perceptions of America because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“We clearly saw inbound traffic affected,” Twidale said, citing an 11 percent drop in Collette’s inbound sales in 2017. “Foreign currencies are down, but the perception of us being an unwelcoming destination has an impact.”

The association is also working to help travelers understand recent restrictions on travel to Cuba. Though the Trump administration recently overturned Obama-era policies allowing individuals to visit Cuba on their own, current rules still allow people to travel to the nation as part of group trips operated by licensed tour operators.

“Cuba is open for business,” Dale said. “Like so many regulations, confusion permeates everything. We feel a responsibility to try and clarify to our customer base that you can still go to Cuba.”

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.