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Travel Tenacity: Facing Challenges in Tourism

For every challenge the travel industry overcomes these days, it seems another one springs up to take its place.

Inflation, labor shortages, supply chain issues, fuel costs and other headline-making problems continue to make it challenging to plan group travel, even as many companies report consumer interest in travel approaching pre-pandemic levels. Fortunately, these problems are not without solutions.

In spite of current headwinds, you can run a successful and fulfilling travel program in 2023 and beyond. Doing so may require some creativity and flexibility on your part. You’ll have to adjust your expectations in some areas and help your travelers do the same. There may be a learning curve, but the results will be worthwhile.

Here are five of the most common problems we’re hearing about in the tourism industry today, as well as some ideas about how to solve them.

1. People aren’t returning my calls.

Many travel planners report it’s been difficult to make contact with travel partners recently. There are several reasons for this. Countless travel professionals lost their jobs or found other employment during the pandemic, leaving many companies and organizations without an experienced group sales representative. Most have filled those roles by now, but the new employees lack the experience or the bandwidth their veteran predecessors had.

Compounding this are the workforce issues running throughout the entire economy. It’s common to hear of hotel managers changing sheets or attraction group sales representatives filling in at the guest services counter.

To overcome this problem, you first need to adjust your expectations. In the past, you may have expected a call back from a vendor within a day or two, but in the current environment, that’s not realistic. Be prepared to leave several messages and send several emails before you hear back. And don’t be afraid to reach out through other channels — such as Facebook, LinkedIn or even executives listed on an organization’s website.

If you still don’t hear back from the people you’re reaching out to, though, it’s time to bring in reinforcements. Get in touch with the convention and visitors bureau or tourism office in the destination you’re planning to visit and enlist the professionals there in helping you gather the info you need. They can tell you who is open, who is closed, who has changed jobs and how to get in touch with difficult-to-reach partners. In some destinations, they may even be able to do some work behind the scenes to get you the information or reservations you need.

2. Gas prices are too high.

The rapid increase in fuel prices has been one of the most difficult developments of 2022 and has caused pain throughout the travel industry. You see this reflected in the cost of airline tickets and motorcoach charters as well.

Like most of the biggest challenges our industry faces, gas prices are entirely out of your control, but they can make a big impact on your bottom line. If you want to keep traveling in a time of high fuel prices, you have two options: absorb the increased cost of gas yourself or pass it on to your customers.

The idea of passing fuel costs on to your customers may be difficult to swallow, especially if your clients are often price sensitive. But your customers already know gas is expensive — they feel it every time they go to the pump. And they are likely to understand you can’t absorb increased prices on your own.

Many motorcoach companies have raised their charter rates to account for higher fuel prices. Others have instituted fuel surcharges, which can be difficult to plan for, since they are often based on the cost of fuel at the time of travel.

As a travel planner, your best bet is to budget for higher fuel costs and explain this to customers if they ask why your prices have gone up. If fuel ends up being less expensive than you planned for once you hit the road, use the extra money in your budget to give your travelers an unexpected treat along the way, such as a cocktail reception, an extra meal or a memorable souvenir.

3. Hotels have become too expensive.

Travel research companies report that average daily rates for hotel rooms around the country are at an all-time high. And with inflation, supply chain issues and workforce shortages, those prices are predicted to continue increasing well into 2023.

Like gas prices, the increasing cost of hotel rooms is a challenge you can’t wish away. But unlike dealing with gas prices, you have more tools at your disposal for handling hotel prices in a way that works for your customers.

One option is to continue using the same kinds of hotels you have always used and simply increase your tour prices to account for higher room rates. Your travelers are likely to understand why prices are going up because they’ve experienced inflation in many other areas of life.

If you don’t want to pay more for your hotels, though, you’ll have to get creative and find ways to bring your hotel costs down. You could this by stepping down in quality a notch or two — choosing limited-service properties instead of luxury hotels, for example, or opting for a budget brand with more spartan amenities. But your best customers will probably notice the change and may not appreciate it.

To keep the same level of hotel quality your customers are used to, consider making other changes. Look for overnights in smaller destinations or suburbs instead of big cities. Choose highway hotels instead of downtown properties. You should also ask about out-of-season and off-peak rates, because it’s possible to save money by traveling at different times of year or even different days of the week.

4. I can’t find baggage handling.

In the era of understaffed hotels baggage handling service is becoming scarce. Some tour companies are reporting significant difficulty in finding hotels that will deliver travelers’  bags to their rooms on arrival and pick them up before departure.

This is one of many service disruptions travelers have experienced at hotels since the beginning of the pandemic. Frequent travelers know now they probably won’t get housekeeping service during their stay. Restaurant hours and service may be modified, and properties that normally offer room service may not be providing it now due to lack of staffing.

Interestingly, the traveling public seems to have grown accustomed to changes in housekeeping schedules, and as a result, many industry observers predict that daily housekeeping may never come back. The same may prove true of baggage handling.

Baggage handling services became commonplace in the days before most suitcases had wheels, so carrying luggage could be difficult for travelers. Today, though, everyone’s suitcase is easily wheeled over all kinds of surfaces, and most travelers can easily manage their bags on their own.

If your passengers have come to expect baggage handling as part of your tour product, now is a good time to help them adjust expectations. Let them know baggage handling isn’t available anymore, then highlight other ways you provide exceptional value and service during your trips. And if you have a handful of customers who truly need help managing their baggage, your best bet is to roll up your sleeves and deliver their suitcases yourself.

5. My travelers are still nervous about COVID.

Most travel planners have restarted their tour programs, but many report some loyal customers are still staying home due to COVID fears. 

This can be a frustrating development, especially if you anticipated a triumphant return to the road. But try to approach the situation with some empathy. Many of your travelers may fall into demographics that experienced the worst outcomes from COVID infections, and they’ve been overwhelmed by a media atmosphere full of pessimism and fear.

Those people probably aren’t suffering from a lack of information. It’s well known that vaccines provide a high level of protection against COVID-19. And most medical experts recognize that, sooner or later, everyone will contract the virus. Your nervous customers probably know this already, but the facts are not enough to overcome their fears, because the fears impact them on a deep emotional level that the facts can’t reach.

To help them overcome these fears, then, you need to find ways to appeal to them on that deep emotional level as well. Communicate the way that travel meets deep emotional needs. Show pictures of people having once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the most compelling places in the U.S. and beyond. Emphasize the connection and community that comes from traveling with a group of friends.

Sooner or later, the need for interaction and the longing to explore will win out over the emotional attachment to fear. That will happen at different times for different people. When it happens for your anxious customers, they will thank you for helping them find their way back to travel.

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.