Tour groups likely to be small during measured restart

Tour groups likely to be small during measured restart

As travel companies look to resume operations
in a post-pandemic world, tour operators say they are expecting a slow and
phased restart as they evaluate every aspect of their operations to meet a new
normal that remains largely unclear.

“When you shut down something as big as this, when you have
a threat as big as this, it’s going to take a bit of time to reopen it,” said
Tauck CEO Dan Mahar.

Indeed, for companies whose products rely on guaranteed
airlift, open hotels and restaurants, a variety of local and regional
partnerships and unfettered border crossings, restarting operations will depend
on a number of complex factors  —  not the least of which is ensuring that all of
those partners have instituted adequate health and safety protocols and are
following local mandates.

“We need to know the rules,” said Globus family of brands
CEO Scott Nisbet. “This whole situation made us look at everything. We are
looking at potential new ways to do groups, different destinations to focus on,
slightly different ways of traveling. We’re looking at all of it.”

So while many tour operators hope to resume travel this
summer or fall, executives say they are unlikely to see any real recovery until
2021.

In the short term, companies that sell guided travel say
they are focusing on domestic offerings and expanding what was already a
growing trend toward smaller groups and more intimate activities.

“One of the key perspectives on this is that many of the trends
that were dominant trends driving our strategy before are still relevant
post-Covid 19,” Mahar said. 

“Pre-Covid, the whole focus was on overtourism. We had a lot
of focus on breaking into smaller groups, reducing the number of guests of per
guide, making smaller riverboats, smaller cruise ships — all
designed to make things more personal.”

Those changes, he said, “are perfect for a post-Covid-19
world.”

“We feel very confident that we were moving in the right
direction, now more than ever,” Mahar said.

Other companies said they, too, were focusing on smaller
groups.

“We’ve had small group touring for over 10 years,” said Jeff
Roy, executive vice president of Collette. “It was doing extremely well this
year. And it’s up in the high double digits next year. But classic touring
continues to do well also.”

Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours, which specializes in
Ireland and the U.K., agreed.

“I can guarantee that for this transition period … there
will be much more smaller groups,” she said.

But in the long term, she said she sees no signs that the
traditional coach tours of 30 to 50 people will go away.

“The fact is we actually have people calling and booking and
expecting to get on a full coach,” she said. “What that tells me is it’s not
going to disappear. There are still people who like being with people and who
like the value of large tours.”

“The No. 1 reason people take a tour is, it’s easy,” Nisbet
said. “Travel is going to be much more difficult for a time. We are very good
at maneuvering around hassles. We will know all those guidelines and rules so
travelers don’t have to. We will be able to skip lines, which makes it easier
and safer. We will know all the hotels and venues that have the right protocols
in place, so we can keep people safer.

“If you think about it, if you are with the same group,
whether it’s 20 people or 40, you are with the same group of people all the
time,” he said. “If you go on a hop-on, hop-off bus … you are going to be
exposed to more risk.”

While most agree a 2020 restart in guided travel will focus
largely on North America or itineraries that focus on just one or two
countries, there remains a strong appetite in 2021 for Europe and more exotic
locales, the executives said. African safaris in particular are doing really
well, Mahar said. And Roy said, “South Africa is off the charts for us next
year.”

Adventure operators Intrepid and G Adventures have said they
are also seeing high demand for Latin America, particularly Peru and the
Galapagos.

For now, like the rest of the industry, tour operators are
focused on making sure they and their partners have the proper health and
safety protocols in place, from cleaning coaches more thoroughly and often to
providing lots of hand sanitizer and masks and making sure all their partners
are meeting proper standards.

“We know we have to take health and safety to a completely
different dimension,” Crabill said.

The companies said they are working collaboratively through
the USTOA and with other industry groups such as IATA and CLIA to adopt the
best standards.

The Travel Corporation previewed what some of the changes
will look like last week when it released an outline of its new protocols,
which include training its drivers to clean coaches more thoroughly, ensuring
guests maintain social distance on coaches, splitting guests into smaller
groups for meals and other stops and keeping lots of hand sanitizer and masks
on hand.

“As we adapt to this new world, our dedicated, diligent …
team members across the globe are preparing and will be implementing enhanced
training, procedures and numerous new measures throughout our various guest
experiences offered, with the very best possible care and service,” Travel
Corporation CEO Brett Tollman said in announcing the changes. “These new
protocols will be adapted and adjusted as needed, in a timely manner, as
governments define and implement what will be required in each country.”

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