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Reason for optimism

If you ask me, tourism is getting better.

This summer, I celebrated 10 years of writing about the group tourism industry. My professional introduction to the business started with a five-day tour of Arkansas in 2003, followed shortly thereafter by a lengthy familiarization tour in Australia and New Zealand. I had a blast, to be sure, but I also encountered some surprising pessimism. I remember one person telling me, “Group tourism is a dying industry. Nobody wants to take tours anymore. The whole business will probably be gone in a few years.”

That person turned out to be wrong, of course: A decade later, group tourism is alive and well. But it has seen its challenges, not the least of which is the recession that began in 2008 and that continues to ripple across the industry.

I remember interviewing tour operators in 2008 and 2009 and asking them how the soft economy was affecting their business. At the time, nobody wanted to admit that business would be down. I got some impossibly optimistic answers — “2010 is going to be our best year ever!” — from people who didn’t realize or want to admit that the recession was going to impact us all.

Now, looking back on that time, we can all say that the years from 2009 to 2012 were challenging. They challenged the travel industry as a whole and the group tourism industry in particular. The combination of economic instability, poor business decisions and inability to adapt to younger customers drove some companies out of business.

But tourism did not die. There is reason for optimism. And if the maxim is correct — if what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — then our recent challenges may have left this industry better off. I believe that’s the case.

Over the past few years, I’ve witnessed tour operators, destination marketers, hoteliers and other travel industry workers drink from the cup of adversity and, as a result, dig deeper into the wells of creativity for some inspired new ideas. Other people have noticed it too.

Pete Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, put it well in a phone conversation we had the other day: “In off periods, operators and the travel industry have gotten more creative,” he said. “They’ve looked at ways to better utilize equipment and attract more attention. The same old tour and travel product isn’t working anymore. Individualization and customization are driving the market now.”

When I look around the group tour landscape, I see hundreds of great ideas, revitalized itineraries, exclusive experiences and exciting opportunities for travel. To this set of eyes, it looks better than it did 10 years ago. And I think that the past five years of adversity have had something to do with that.

We try to highlight some of those great ideas and opportunities in every issue of The Group Travel Leader. You’ll find a whole host of them in our Group Travel 101.

We hope this magazine will inspire you to find the very best of group travel today or even blaze some exciting new trails of your own. The opportunities have never been better.

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.