Looking to the future

Six months later...

How are tour operators coping during the pandemic?

Ann Ruppenstein   

Where are we now?

Six months into the global pandemic, Travel Courier chats with Collette, Royal Irish Tours, G Adventures and CIT Tours to get a sense of how business is going, what’s going to sell well and how they’re handling bookings across various stages of operations.

For the first time since the pandemic brought travel to a halt, Collette restarted operations a little over two months ago. This month, the tour operator reached a consistent level with tours on the road every day throughout parts of the United States.

“We are finding that while the willingness to travel overall has declined this year, there remains a subset of travellers that still have the confidence to get out on the road and experience a destination now,” Jeff Roy, Executive Vice President at Collette, tells Travel Courier.

Roy says guests have adapted really well to the changes on tours with new wellness protocols in place.

“To be real honest, there was a time where we could not have imagined that our guests would be willing to go on a tour in an environment where face coverings were required,” he says. “Instead, we’re finding that our guests are extremely comfortable complying with all of the wellness protocols on tour. Nearly all are telling us that the protocols in no way hinder their enjoyment of the tour and that they would continue to travel going forward with the protocols in place. So, the resilience of our guest inspires all of us to continue moving forward.”

As for future bookings, he says they initially thought sales trends would demonstrate a shift towards more domestic product as many people may not be comfortable travelling internationally right away, but that hasn’t been the case.

“What we’re really finding, is that our guests have lost an entire year of their travel plans and they’re targeting the destinations and types of trips that they were previously planning to do, only pushed out into later 2021 perhaps when they feel the world will be closer to normal again,” Roy says. “We’ve seen a significant uptick in booking activity for May to December travel next year, which indicates the booking windows have increased a bit, with European destinations leading the way.” 

Key products for Collette in 2021 are UK & Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Finland, Spain and Portugal. On the North American side, the National Parks and the Canadian Rockies are selling extremely well for next year.

“For travel styles, Collette came into 2020 with strong growing demand for our Explorations small group travel line which averages 14-19 passengers per departure,” he says. “We continue to see strong interest for 2021 and beyond in small group touring as we expand the product offering globally.”

Notably, Collette also recently introduced a new Advanced Commission Program for travel advisors to start earning commission as soon as the deposits are received.

“Customers have a lot of choices in the types of vacations they choose to take,” he says. “In the environment we’re in today, it can be intimidating for anyone to travel to destinations they’re not familiar with given all of the social distancing rules and regulations that are in place which can vary from one destination to another. This is where the Tour Manager adds so much value to the vacation experience. They are experts, they pre-scout the trip and they’re by your side throughout the tour to ensure you have a seamless travel experience. We believe the level of pre-tour and on-tour care that guided travel provides is the reason why guided travel should lead the way in the 2021 and 2022 travel recovery.”

"Our guests have lost an entire year of their travel plans and they’re targeting the destinations and types of trips that they were previously planning to do, only pushed out into later 2021."

Given the restrictions in place in Canada and across the destinations where they operate, Royal Irish Tours recently decided to postpone trips until April 2021.

“It was a practical decision in the end,” explains Jonathan Sargeant, Sales Manager for Royal Irish Tours. “Of course, the safety of our guests was paramount, but also we know Ireland/UK is not an attractive vacation experience if you have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival and upon your return. We hope by then the situation will be vastly improved. It also gives us time to regroup and come back better in 2021. And we will only resume in April 2021 if we believe it is safe to do so.”

Looking ahead to future bookings, he predicts customized trips will sell well.

“Our coach tour sales are still strong, but there is definitely a trend towards custom groups and FIT travel,” he says. “We are adding more inclusive FIT trips. So, for example, agents can now book their clients’ transport, accommodation and many of their attraction visits and experiences directly through our reservations team.”

Interestingly, he says RIT has also been fielding requests for custom groups from agencies across Canada.

“It’s a little unexpected, as we thought the trend would be towards individual travel, or travelling with just family or one to two friends,” he adds. “But I suppose if people like to travel in groups, they probably still want to do it when they can travel again. So it makes sense to travel on a custom group, perhaps with like-minded people in their community, society, chamber, etc.”

Next year, the tour operator will mark its 20th anniversary, and Sargeant says they hope to hold some FAM trips for travel advisors to experience the product firsthand.

“We hope that we can make it the best one yet. We are just excited to have guests back travelling. Our guides and drivers miss the Canadians dearly! We miss hearing great feedback from guests about how much they loved Ireland, Scotland, a particular guide, etc. It’s why we are in this industry. We miss the interactions and sharing our beautiful destinations with our guests.”

Acknowledging that it continues to be a really tough time for the industry, Sargeant remains optimistic about the future.

“We all just need to work together and be ready to bounce back once the world opens up again,” he says. “Many agents have been attending our weekly webinars and staying engaged which is great. Keep learning if you have the time and try to stay positive.”

"Our guides and drivers miss the Canadians dearly! We miss hearing great feedback from guests about how much they loved Ireland, Scotland, a particular guide, etc. It’s why we are in this industry. We miss the interactions and sharing our beautiful destinations with our guests."

Meanwhile, Diane Pothan, Director of CIT Tours, says she doesn’t know if she has an appropriate adjective for how sales are going right now.

“Let’s say they are slow,” Pothan tells Travel Courier. “We have had a few of our 2020 bookings — those with credits — rebooking for 2021. It seems, when talking with agents that the clients with credits are intending to book the same itinerary as they had in 2020.” 

Looking ahead, she also predicts an increase in FIT bookings.

“Not just the usual Rome, Florence, Venice but going into the less travelled areas — perfect for CIT as we already know and work with hotels/guides, etc. in these less touristy areas,” she says. “Small group tours, I think, will increase in popularity and, of course, private tours. And private tours could be with a private car and driver or a rail tour with all private transfers and excursions.”

Although she doesn’t have anything to back it up, she also predicts that clients won’t be booking a long time in advance.

“I’m kinda feeling that we’re going to see bookings being made much closer to departure than before,” Pothan says. “I am a huge optimist — I’m not expecting 2021 to be like 2019 but I think the second half of summer will be strong.”

Although it continues to be a challenging time, she says their suppliers in Europe are putting a lot of effort into designing safe and innovative itineraries.

“Our hotel partners are all up to the mark in making their hotels welcoming while keeping everyone safe,” she says. “For CIT Tours, we’re here and we’re certainly resilient. Our staff are all long-term employees — and it really feels wrong to call anyone who works here an employee — we’re more like family after so many years. But, we’re here, we’re ready to create custom quotes for 2021 for the clients of our retails partners and rebook those clients who were forced to cancel their 2020 tours. We’re longing for the days when we can’t find hotel space on the Amalfi Coast in September!”

"We’re here, we’re ready to create custom quotes for 2021 for the clients of our retails partners and rebook those clients who were forced to cancel their tours. We’re longing for the days when we can’t find hotel space on the Amalfi Coast in September!"

Over at G Adventures, National Sales Manager Sean Russo says sales continue to grow week over week as consumer confidence builds and the passion for travel reignites.

“We are still seeing our average traveller age in Canada trending higher than the rest of the world so we see great opportunity for agents to start looking at targeting the younger travel demographic,” Russo tells Travel Courier. “We have a few fun plans in the works to assist agents who might be looking to attract the millennial market — they seem to be the first wanting to travel. In fact, a recent survey we ran with our consumer panel, which is made up of two thirds G Adventures travellers, suggests that millennials (age 25-39) are most likely to travel first, with 20% looking to travel internationally as soon as late 2020.”

Along with going after the ‘18-to-Thirty-somethings’ market, which he predicts will sell well globally, Russo says their private travel department has been seeing increasing attention recently.

“The idea of travelling with people you know, trust and want to share the experience is very appealing,” he says. “We’ve even introduced the ‘Book Your Bubble’ collection to help interested travellers, with assistance of their travel professional, to choose the destination, trip and dates themselves. We’ve opened up some cost saving measures and perks that we previously did not offer in the private travel realm to help nurture this interest and help agents attract bookings.”

As for particular destinations, G Adventures is noting a lot of interest in Europe, especially across the Local Living and Marine travel styles.

“So staying in an agriturismo [farm stays] in Italy or sailing around the Greek Islands,” he says. “We’re also seeing interest in once in a lifetime trips such as the Northern Lights in Iceland, and trekking Everest Base Camp. Our new Travel with Confidence policy, and Travel with Confidence Plus Collection, are also helping travellers feel more reassured when they book.”

Throughout this time, he says he’s been excited to see how travel professionals continue to reinvent themselves, their offerings and methodology to adapt to the new reality.

“It’s important for us all to recognize travel will look different as it returns,” he says. “People’s health and safety, and making travellers feel safe and secure, is going to be everyone’s main priority so it’s important for agents to meet their customers where they are at in terms of building their confidence to book a future trip. Also – don’t forget that today is a great day to learn something new or expand your ambitions. Have you always wanted to get into group travel or attract another client base but were always too busy? To quote author Karen Lamb, “A year from now you may wish you had started today.” Seize the day!”

"We are still seeing our average traveller age in Canada trending higher than the rest of the world so we see great opportunity for agents to start looking at targeting the younger travel demographic."

“At G Adventures we’re passionate about bringing travel back the right way, so not only will your customers receive the best service, they can travel knowing their dollars are going to support those local communities who are desperately in need of tourism income as a result of this pandemic. We call it ‘Retravel’ and we’d be honoured to deliver a life-changing experience to your clients.”

Sean Russo

Photos courtesy: VisitBritain/Casper Farrell; VisitBritain/Ryan Lomas; VisitBritain/Ramona Jones; VisitBritain/James Relf Dyer; VisitBritain/Silvia Barchi; VisitBritain/Gavin Kerby and VisitBritain/Mark Tiernay.





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