Tour operators reflect at the one-year mark
By: Ian Stalker
It’s been a year since the onset of coronavirus was declared a pandemic — a pandemic that’s been devastating for the travel industry in this country and abroad — but that doesn’t mean those working for tour operators have been idle.
In fact, it’s anything but, with tour operator representatives contacted by Travel Courier reporting that they’ve indeed been keeping busy over the past 12 months. And they’re remaining upbeat, convinced that better times are around the corner and are drawing closer.
“It’s officially been one year since all of our trips/sales have come to a mind-numbing standstill,” says Trish Sare of Vancouver-based BikeHike Adventures. “In July 2020, we ran one small group of local BC residents to Vancouver Island, and that was it. 95% of our travellers who were originally booked in 2020 postponed to 2021, the other 5% cancelled. Now most of those 2021 postponements are either postponing to the fall of 2021 or sometime in 2022.
“The good news is that we are feeling very optimistic that the tide is starting to turn for all of us in the tourism industry. There has definitely been an uptick of interest in the last two months, mostly from Americans who have already been vaccinated and are anxious to get back out into the world. They are looking for both international and domestic destinations/trips and are mostly traveling in their private bubbles.
“Our Canadian travellers are just as anxious to get back out there but are more interested in local trips this summer, mostly in their own provinces since our travel restrictions are much more stringent than those of our neighbours to the south.”
BikeHike staff has spent the past year building a roster of new Canadian trips for its portfolio and creating strategic alliances with US travel industry colleagues so that collectively it can fill trips in the US if Canadian borders stay closed to American travellers this summer.
“We’re closely monitoring each of the destinations’ travel entry requirements, restrictions, vaccination roll-outs and overall management of Covid and expect that not all of the countries that we operate in will be ready for travellers initially. We’re only planning to operate small groups in those countries that meet the WHO health and safety guidelines and protocols initially,” Sare reports. “Customized private departures have always been a large focus of our BikeHike offerings but going forward we’re putting a lot more of our energy into creating personalized, shorter duration, closer to home, tailor-made experiences for our travellers. We’ve also changed our terms and conditions to give our travellers peace of mind when they book trips in 2021 by offering refundable deposits and a lot more flexibility with final payments and trip cancellations should the world start to close again. And lastly we’ve been taking this reset time to strengthen our foundation by upgrading our digital marketing skills, optimizing our website and user experience, and personally keeping our connection alive with our travellers through Zoom chats, webinars and phone calls. We’ll be here for them when the world is safe for all of us to get back out into our wonderful world.”
Stephanie Bishop, who oversees the Globus family of brands in this country, says that the past year has seen it only offer a couple of its Escapes offerings in North America – including a Canadian Rockies Escape in October – and it has not operated tours in a year. But during that time it has unveiled new health and safety protocols and Peace of Mind Travel Plans as an answer to pandemic-related needs.
“We have used this ‘time out’ to innovate, change and evolve as a travel company. Because of that, we’re poised to present travellers better options for 2021, 2022 and beyond,” she says. “In the wake of the pandemic, for instance, we have launched Small-Group Discoveries worldwide for both Globus and Cosmos. In addition, we expanded Globus’ Private Touring program to Cosmos travellers in 2020. In June, we also unveiled a robust lineup of North America vacations to our Undiscovered series of tours, featuring off-the-beaten-path destinations and discovery opportunities closer to home.
“But that’s not all. Recognizing that there’s so much to see, this side of the sea, last week we launched a Canada Bucket List campaign which includes 15 Canadian itineraries. We placed a spotlight on six vacation opportunities for Canadians to discover – or rediscover – Canada (with other Canadians). And, Canadians can’t wait to travel: 2021 is a great year to discover our own country. In fact, in a recent survey of over 300 Canadian travel advisors, 75% confirmed that their clients have expressed an interest in taking a Canadian tour this summer; 93% were more likely to go if it was a tour offered exclusively for Canadians. As a result, we produced a guide to help advisors marketing their value when selling Canada to Canadians. This new program for Globus and Cosmos is a game-changer.
“And, of course we have made a concerted effort to enhance off-season Escapes (like the Canadian Rockies Escape we operated last October). These getaways offer travellers the chance to get away with fewer people for less money.”
Globus has also just introduced Choice Touring, which she says will sure to re-energize tour travel later this year and into 2022.
Bishop notes Globus brands go beyond traditional touring, citing the variety of travel styles it offers travellers.
“We’re not just land experts, we also provide travellers an award-winning river and small ship-cruise vacations with Avalon Waterways. River cruising is poised for a very strong, early comeback later this year and into 2022 (with early 2022 bookings up 200% over 2019, our last “normal” year).
“The depth and breadth of our travel portfolio offers travellers the choice and flexibility they desire. That’s one of the reasons travellers benefit from booking their vacations with travel advisors. We’re dedicated to our travel advisor partners, doing our upmost to make it easy to generate sales and success, including paying commissions upon receipt of booking payment.
The company last year created a “Why Book with a Travel Agent” e-guide for travel advisors to share with their clients.
“Needless to say, we’ve used every moment of this time away from travel to enhance opportunities to welcome travellers back to the world when the world is ready!” Bishop adds.
Wolf Paunic, head of Trafalgar‘s Canadian operation, acknowledges the past year has been challenging but adds that he’s convinced Trafalgar staff has risen to those challenges.
“This was a very long year indeed, it felt more like two condensed years as it affected both our travel/operational and product planning and sales cycles,” he says. “Our personal lives have been on pause, with the absence of international travel, yet professionally we ramped up all our planning activities to ensure we are ready to deliver the best and most relevant experiences when the borders open.”
And he adds he’s totally confident that the type of vacations Trafalgar offers are suited to satisfy clients when travel rebounds.
“Guided vacations are, without any doubt, the most complete, sustainable and responsible way of experiencing a destination,” Paunic says. “Relying on the vast knowledge of our Travel Directors and Local Specialists, our executive and planning teams have enriched our experiences in many ways. Trafalgar already included real connection with local people through our ‘Be My Guest’ experiences and now include over 1,000 across all the destinations we visit. We have carefully planned our MAKE TRAVEL MATTER experiences to ensure clients engage in sustainability initiatives, support the local communities we visit and help protect the wildlife or preserve artistic traditions. Our guests and partners are very sensitive to the impact travel has on local communities, and I am proud to say that Trafalgar, Costsaver and Brendan Vacations lead the way through our collaboration with The Travel Corporation’s not-for-profit, The TreadRight Foundation.
“A lot has changed in the past month or so,” he continues. “We are registering heightened interest for travel, and our virtual Ultimate Travel Events are drawing a lot of attention and engagement from the attendees. Transporting guests from one’s armchair to the hills of Tuscany, showcasing delicious cooking classes with our ‘Be My Guest’ hosts and uncovering local curiosities with our Travel Directors and Local Specialists, who wouldn’t want to attend?
“We are glad to see clients are ready to book and secure their seats for when travel re-starts. Our Real Travel Deals offering significant incentives to secure space on a chosen guided vacation for 2021 through 2023 are drawing attraction. The desire to travel is evident in the requests and online searching people are doing from home, so it’s a matter of when, not if, but there’s a shift in clients looking to travel differently. Guests are seeking greater support, flexibility in booking and confidence in knowing the ‘new’ parts of travel (such as the logistics, testing, possible health passports, plexiglass dividers, etc.) won’t impact the rich joy of exploration. Trafalgar is perfectly positioned to fill this void with our ‘Tour Differently’ formula, designed to meet and exceed expectations. Clients can book with confidence knowing we have secured the most reliable partners in each destination, with the most up-to-date well-being practices, and each of our itineraries is supervised by a Well-being Director while still meticulously led by our Travel Directors. We are excited to be clients’ solution for travel in a post-pandemic world.”