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Travel Planners Compare Notes in French Lick

The collective responses of more than 60 group travel planners who attended the breakout session at the combined Select Traveler/Going On Faith conferences in French Lick, Indiana, August 19-21, are both a tale of woe, and a tale of “go.”

The disruption of 2020 is measurable, but the determined optimism for seeing the world again in 2021 comes across loud and clear. Fundamental changes to group travel are coming as well, according to this collection of veteran travel planners.

“If you want to know where this industry is going, ask the people in the trenches,” said conference partner and The Group Travel Leader publisher Mac Lacy. “These are veteran travelers themselves, and they have followers who trust them implicitly. When they say the coast is clear, their members will head to the airport. That’s apparent when they sit across from each other in masks and compare notes.”

The buyers at the session counted more than 300 group trips that have already been canceled between them in 2020 due to COVID-19. For planners at smaller organizations, it was only two or three, but for planners with larger travel programs the numbers were well into the dozens. One determined respondent replied that they had not canceled any trips — only postponed them.

When the talk turned to 2021, those same planners ticked off destinations across America and around the globe for their return to travel. They all reported having a core group of travelers that are resolute and that will go as soon as they have a trip ready. Domestic destinations mentioned numerous times included favorites that are somewhat like comfort food — places like the Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky; destinations such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Branson, Missouri; and baseball trips to favorite cities. International favorites that came up more than once also had a familiar ring to them: countries like Spain, Ireland, Italy and Iceland, as well as Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises and destinations.

Group travel changes are coming

The planners agree on several structural changes that will take place in group travel because of this pandemic: Groups will continue to get smaller, and the members will become more familiar with one another; prices will likely increase as a result; fewer sites will be visited each day because of longer stays at each; fewer groups will be combined by tour operators because people will want to travel with those they know; and trips will sell out earlier because of lower traveler counts.

“It appears that this pandemic may have accelerated some of the changes already taking place in group travel,” said Lacy. “Groups were already getting smaller because group travelers value the same authenticity, the same local cuisine, the same discoveries off the itinerary that everyone else values. They were already moving toward being with a small group of friends or acquaintances for their trips, and most will pay what it takes to be in the places they want to be in.”

This demoralizing year has taken its toll on many planners’ psyches. When asked how they felt about trying to run a trip or trips in what remains of 2020, many responded, “forget it,” but many others said, “full speed ahead.” When asked about the use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom for their programs, 21% replied that they were using them, and 79% said they were not. Facebook, newsletters, email and phone calls are the primary means of staying in touch with travel memberships through the pandemic.

The political environment has not helped in 2020. Several responded that they would sit tight until after the election in November before venturing out, and several others mentioned governors in their states that had more or less brought travel to a halt.

When asked what they enjoyed most about attending the Select Traveler and Going On Faith conferences, most cited the opportunity to share ideas with other planners. Next were those who came to “recharge their travel batteries,” followed by those who came for the opportunity to meet with new destinations for their groups.