Travel insights from tour operators

Even as president of a 96-year-old travel company, Tauck's Jennifer Tombaugh was caught by surprise multiple times by how much travellers were eager to lock in post-pandemic trips ahead of time.

“We have never seen the level of advance bookings for 2022 than we have right now,” Tombaugh tells Travel Courier. “It really speaks to the pent up demand and that energy that people have to get out and explore the world again.”

Although bookings are not yet at 2019 levels, the resurgence is giving the tour operator hope for the remainder of 2021 as it prepares for a robust year across the board in 2022.

“Vaccications as they were called a few months ago are a real thing,” she says. “We saw that back in April when all of a sudden the volume in our call centre — and this is true for many other tour operators and travel advisors — everybody, at least in the U.S. travel industry, saw a spike in call volumes because all of a sudden people were saying ‘I’m vaccinated, where can I go, when can I go?’”

Notably, she says the bulk of bookings are new and not just guests who are rescheduling previous travel plans.

As for what’s selling well, she says it’s steady across all of the places the company operates and she’d be hard pressed to find a place that isn’t.

“It’s crazy. I’ve really never seen anything like it. We are seeing tremendous lift everywhere. The U.S. is having an exceptional year this year, obviously it was the only place people could go up to recently, but that is carrying into 2022. I think we’ve all discovered our backyards again. Europe is booking very strongly. Particularly for Canadians, river cruises always book strongly for us. We’re seeing demand grow even in exotic destinations, on African safaris, getting back to Israel and Jordan. Even Australia and New Zealand, especially because Australia and New Zealand have been so strict about managing this virus. Japan has a tone of pent up demand because we’re now onto two years of not being able to travel during cherry blossom time.”

Tombaugh expects the growth trajectory to continue for the next 12-18 months as people continue to act on taking multiple trips as well as extending trips for a longer period of time.

“I think you are really seeing that rebound of people that have their bucket list and they’re making their dreams come true. Granted it’s a smaller percent of our travellers but we are seeing people booking two or three or four trips next year,” she says. “I can point to Portugal, France, Spain, Greece, we’ve been able to add three departures on our sailings in Iceland and they sold out in four days. Literally, as we’re able to open up a destination, we’re selling those programs.”

Similarly, Anita Emilio, Vice President of Sales, Trafalgar, Costsaver and Brendan Vacations Canada, is witnessing a surge in advance bookings with the strongest amount of Canadian bookings coming in from May 2022 forward.

“Bucking the trend is that we are already seeing bookings for 2023,” she says. “We are seeing bookings increase every day as the world opens up and destinations are welcoming back Canadians. News of restrictions lifting both here and abroad are allowing clients to move from the dreaming stage to the booking stage. Our guests, like us, want to get out and explore after more than a year and we are ready for them to join us.”

Emilio says there’s also been increased demand from the travel trade as well. Overall, Europe continues to experience pent-up demand.

“The top trending trips for 2022 bookings are: Irish Experience, Italy Bellissimo, Best of Italy and Best of Ireland and Scotland,” she says. “Italy and the U.K. are longstanding favourite destinations of Canadians and are conveniently ready to reopen their borders to fully vaccinated travellers. Clients are also interested in revisiting their favourite places and with a fresh appreciation.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Americans are jumping on the opportunity to travel domestically. 

“National Parks and itineraries bringing clients to wide open spaces are most popular, including Hawaii,” she adds. “Canadians… are looking further out into late 2021 and 2022 and prioritizing heading to Europe first and foremost.”

Although in the past, Canadian travellers tended to book closer to departure dates, Emilio warns that inventory for 2022 is going to be limited so the time to book is now.

“With U.S. travellers already booking strong for 2022, we need to ensure our Canadian clients know waiting will not be in their best interest and we are encouraging them to get something booked. We can always change that, but we cannot recreate space that is already sold,” she says. “What is selling well this year are the places where borders are open and are bucket list destinations in Europe, Italy and Ireland.”

The trend continues into 2022, but there’s also been interest in more ‘exotic’ destinations, including Egypt, Turkey, Japan and South Africa.

“The duration of trips being booked is longer than it has been historically, so instead of taking a couple of trips in a year, guests are booking that epic trip they’ve been dreaming of,” she says. “Not being able to travel has reignited a wanderlust spark in us all.”

Another notable trend is the overwhelming amount of interest in group travel for 2022.

“The last 18 months have had people so disconnected from one another, friends and family want to travel together and reconnect through shared experiences,” she says. “Clients are wondering what it will be like on their first big trip, wanting to ensure they visit all the must-sees, enjoy one-of-a-kind experiences and share them with their friends and loved ones.”

Collette has also seen a significant increase in bookings over the last several months.

“Our calls started increasing in late January, shortly after the rollout of vaccines in the United States,” Jeff Roy, Executive Vice President of Collette tells Travel Courier. “We anticipate bookings to be on par for that of 2019, when we finished with one of our best years in history. Each week we’ve been breaking call volume records and it hasn’t slowed down even at this point in the summer.”

For tours departing during the remainder of 2021, the tour operator is seeing a strong booking pattern within the domestic U.S. 

“We’re also starting to see Europe on the books for both 2021 and 2022, especially as regions open throughout the country,” he adds. “Oberammergau and Floriade, both special events for 2022, are certainly peaking interest with our guests.”

Similar to the surge in bookings following the vaccination rollout in the United States, Roy foresees a Canadian rebound now that the number of fully vaccinated Canadians grows strongly.

“Bookings have notoriously averaged about 12-18 months in the past, meaning that the guest may make plans for up to a year and a half in advance. Now, we’re seeing some guests who are booking only 2-3 months out. They want to travel right now as opposed to thinking well into the future,” he says. “Bookings within the United States are certainly leading the way, as we predicted for the return to travel. We’re also seeing Europe really coming back strong for the second half of 2021 and into 2022.”

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