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Tour operators predict timing of travel’s return

May 19, 2020

Despite sidelined trips and postponed departures, NTA tour operators are still interacting with clients. And last week, in the NTA Traveler Sentiment and Demand survey, operators reported details of what they’re hearing and predicting.

“NTA operators are working with their clients to reschedule canceled tours and to discuss new ones, and this survey includes responses from companies of all sizes and travel products,” said Catherine Prather, NTA president. “It’s important to note that we’re in a rapidly evolving environment where new information can cause an abrupt change in travel and in traveler sentiment, so NTA and our members are continually reassessing the situation.”

More than half (55%) of the tour operators said they communicated in April with customers who were asking about 2020 or 2021 tours, but fewer than half (39%) actually booked new business.

Based on their conversations with customers, more than half of the operators believe travel won’t resume in substantial numbers until 2021, with 26% saying it will be in the first quarter of next year, and 33% looking to the second quarter. Nearly one in five (19%) believe travel will rebound later this year. One respondent doesn’t see significant travel returning until the spring of 2022.

Asked for their opinion about the type and timing of travel that people will be likely to take, three-fourths of tour operators believe that travel within a six-hour drive will be embraced before the end of the year, with travel by car returning a few months before short-haul trips on motorcoaches.

Operators are split about the public’s willingness to spend more time on a motorcoach. The same number—30%—predict a return to long-haul coach travel in six months as foresee a return in 12 months. The remaining predictions ranged from a few months to beyond 18 months. Operators also see a slower return to air travel: Most (78%) predict six to 12 months for a return to plane trips of less than six hours, with the resumption of long-haul travel coming at the end of that time frame.

Travel by rail is seen by operators as resuming in six to 12 months, but a return to cruising could take longer: 40% don’t see travelers returning to large-ship cruises for a year and a half or later, with even fewer (29%) holding those projections for river cruising. 

“Like every key segment of packaged travel industry—hotels, restaurants, transportation—tour operators have specific concerns related to traveler safety,” Prather said. “For that reason, we created the NTA Tour Operator COVID Task Force, which is developing guidelines for resuming tours. Also, as the news spreads as to what hotels, restaurants, airlines, and cruise lines are doing related to health and safety, traveler confidence will grow accordingly.”

In regard to activities that are components of many tours, large percentages of operators predict that travelers will, in the next three months, be willing to dine in restaurants (62%) or visit a shopping venue or a museum (both about 58%). Over half predict consumer comfort with hotel stays and theater performances in three to six months, with travelers eyeing a return to sporting events, concerts, theme parks, and festivals in six to nine months.

Tour operators are not united in their view of when consumers will want to travel with a group again. A quarter of them see it coming in six months, with a like number pegging the date at nine months, and another 25% forecast that comfort with group travel won’t resume for a year or more.

Not surprisingly, operators believe small-group travel will be the first to bounce back, with 65% seeing its return in three to six months.  Only slightly fewer (60%) see customized packaged travel returning in the same time frame, with scheduled departures, sports travel, student groups, and senior groups resuming, for the most part, in November and later.   

Most tour operators (74%) expect that travelers will practice social distancing within the group well into 2021, with more than a quarter predicting it will last for the foreseeable future. To reduce the transmission—and the fear—of coronavirus during future tours, operators say they will provide hand sanitizer (86%), encourage hand-washing (86%), provide disinfectant wipes (80%), space travelers apart from each other (71%), and deep- clean the van or bus every night (68%). Most (65%) said they will rely on destination and supplier partners to facilitate precautions, and a significant number said they will require mask use and take passengers’ temperatures.

Out of a number of possible steps taken by government agencies to protect travelers, tour operators believe the most important are strong sanitation protocols and widespread testing, followed by mandatory social distancing measures and required temperature checks. The survey was conducted between May 8 and 15 and reflects the responses of NTA-member tour operators. For more information about the association, visit NTAonline.com.

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