Tour operators survey shows optimism on a brighter 2021

Tour operators survey shows optimism on a brighter 2021

Travel bookings are on the rise and USTOA members are confident about a travel recovery in 2021, particularly in the second quarter and beyond, according to a new survey.

A full 98% of members who responded to the latest USTOA poll said they intend to restart operations in 2021, and 63% reported an increase in bookings over the last 60 days.

“In August, we asked the same question and only a third (38%) of active members had seen an increase in bookings for the two months prior, showing a positive increase in momentum in consumer travel planning since early summer,” said USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale.

Twenty percent of association members said they had already started operations in the U.S., and another 28% said they planned to restart before the end of the year. A full 50% said they expect to return to Europe by the second quarter.

Among new bookings over the last few months, nearly two thirds, or 65%, of  the members polled said the new bookings were to international destinations, with Europe — and Italy in particular — topping the list.

Even so, that percentage represents a shift to more interest in domestic U.S. travel.

“When we first asked this question in the May survey, 80% of current membership bookings were to international destinations, with 20% of bookings in North America,” said Dale. “As the year progressed, we have seen a gradual increase of North American bookings, now at 35% of the overall portfolio.”

The survey, completed at the end of October, showed that 92% of members reported new travel bookings for the third quarter of 2021, while 79% reported new bookings for the fourth quarter of 2021.

Two thirds, or 69%, reported bookings for second quarter, while a third logged bookings for travel in the first quarter.  

The Middle East and Africa were the most popular destinations for early international travel, with 33% anticipating returning to the Middle East in the first quarter and 28% to Africa. Another 28% said they expect to resume travel to Africa in the second quarter.

The survey showed small-group tours were the most popular travel product booked in recent months for travel next year, followed by private groups, FIT and river and small ship cruising. Ocean cruising on medium and small ships was the least popular.

On the home front, Alaska, Arizona, and California were cited as the top domestic destinations. Florida and Utah tied for second, followed by Wyoming.  

Data from the USTOA survey on popular destinations for 2021 travelers. Source: USTOA

The survey also reinforced the role of travel advisors, with 88% of responding members saying they intend to use advisors to generate sales as they resume business in 2021, and 72% saying they expect  business booked by travel advisors to increase or maintain the same levels as in 2021.

The latest survey was taken before the presidential election and news about new vaccines being submitted for approval.

And while 54% of members said they were unsure whether they would restart operations before or after a vaccine is available, 31% said they would restart beforehand. Fifteen percent said they would wait for a vaccine, while 42% said they would restart operations once rapid testing is available in airports.

Not surprisingly, tour operators cited customer confidence as the biggest challenge or obstacle to operating in 2021, followed by border closings and confusion about quarantines and vaccine availability.

Nonetheless, Charlie Ball, the USTOA’s chairman and executive vice president for land operations at Holland America Group, said that “travelers appear to be fairly excited about travel and anxious to be back out there.”

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