The talk at TREX: Insights from Travel Exchange ’22
December 7, 2022
By Bob Rouse
At Travel Exchange in Reno, Nevada, last month, National Tour Association members generated business contracts, relationship-building, and community spirit. The annual conference also produced a wealth of insight into the packaged travel industry, according to NTA President Catherine Prather.
“The feedback I’ve received from members indicates that the travel industry’s bumpy road will smooth out a bit in the next two years, and some new paths are likely to open up for tour operators,” said Prather, noting that 130 tour operators attended the show, with overall registration up 20% over the 2021 event. “We packed an incredible amount of business, education, and networking into our four days in Reno.”
Challenges remain, though, for tour operators who design and conduct multiday tours, Prather said, most notably in tour suppliers’ staffing. The issues are twofold.
“The most apparent problems caused by staff shortages are reduced hours at restaurants, reduced services at hotels, and fewer motorcoach drivers to handle multiday group tours,” Prather said. “But our operators are also dealing with a second phase of staffing issues, and it relates to inexperience.”
Prather has been in touch with operators who say that when they contact hotels and restaurants to get rates and dates for future tours, they are spending a good deal of time explaining common practices and operations associated with scheduling groups. The problem has been exacerbated by a surge in transient travel.
“We believe this is short-sighted and the transient market will come back down to Earth,” Prather said. “Our hope is that, with more information and education, suppliers will recognize that tour operators will be back year after year with their groups, and it’s unwise to turn them away during a short-lived surge in transient business.”
Timing and timeliness are also concerns that were expressed by operators. “We’re hearing that some suppliers are quite slow to respond to operators’ requests—which might be related to staff shortages,” she said. “And when they do respond, their cancellation policies often are not in line with late-booking trends that appear to have intensified during and after the pandemic.”
The news is not all bad, though—far from it.
“Our operators—those based in North America as well as overseas—report seeing a strong demand for 2023 and 2024 travel,” Prather said. “And while business activity is up significantly this year, part of that increase is a result of tours that were postponed in 2020 and 2021, so most operators are withholding judgment about “back to normal” business until they see how the next two years shake out.”
Prather has also heard from sellers who attended Travel Exchange, and the suppliers and DMOs who met with operators in a variety of settings were encouraged by shifts they are seeing.
“DMOs tell me that while interest in established destinations remains strong, tour operators are also more open to adding off-the-beaten-path destinations—unique experiences with local opportunities,” Prather said. “Operators also indicated their guests want to spend more time in a single destination, which jibes with feedback we gathered in August that showed travelers are less willing to go from hotel to hotel and prefer hub-and-spoke tours.”
Sustainability, or meaningful travel, is also on the mind of consumers, according to Prather. “Travelers are asking more questions about giving back to the community, service activities, and exploring other cultures when they visit a city,” she said.
Other common themes include the following:
- Operators continue to form smaller groups to better work with constraints in hotels, restaurants, and airlines.
- More travelers are seeking expert advice in planning their vacations instead of turning to the internet.
- Some operators are offering a deluxe tour option—more inclusions and fewer passengers.
- Travelers are attracted to flexible itineraries that allow them to choose from several options.
- Operators have extended their planning window in order to lock in space and rates earlier than before.
The blend of positive news and ongoing challenges creates a productive road ahead for NTA, Prather said.
“So many of the challenges we’re seeing in packaged travel can be solved when our members work together,” she said. “I’m confident that we can devise ways to better educate industry professionals to overcome our roadblocks and build a smoother, more profitable, road ahead.”