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Tour operators retooling itineraries, looking forward to 2022

July 13, 2021

Viewing 2021 as a transition year—from pandemic to prosperity—tour operators are working with destination and supplier partners to get travelers back on the road. In a midyear business survey conducted by the National Tour Association June 16 through July 7, NTA members reported on current conditions and speculated on the future.

Asked to provide an overall outlook for the travel industry in 2021, NTA members are reporting signs of recovery, said President Catherine Prather.

“Travel business is coming back, even if members aren’t seeing a full rebound immediately,” Prather said. “What they are seeing is a stronger recovery ahead, and they’re eager to return to what they do best: building itineraries together.”

All three categories of NTA members are expecting 2022 to be a better year for the industry. On a scale of 0 to 10 (most optimistic), DMOs’ forecast for next year averaged 9.2, tour suppliers were at 8.8, and the tour operators’ outlook is slightly behind, at 7.8. In terms of catching up to pre-pandemic metrics, more DMOs (58%) are optimistic that they will outperform 2019 numbers this year or next than are tour suppliers (57%) and operators (36%). 2023 is projected by half of the responding tour operators to be the year that outperforms 2019.

Industry professionals have reason for optimism, even if it’s gradual. Most DMOs (83%) said visitation in their area is higher compared to the same period in 2020, but 65% are seeing fewer visitors compared to the same period in 2019. A majority of DMOs (59%) are seeing reduced capacities at tourism venues, and nearly all (94%) report worker shortages.

While business is decidedly better for tour operators this year, there are still some rough spots. Sixty-two percent reported having clients who canceled travel for the third quarter of 2021. When asked about activity in the last 30 days, 39% of operators said they had to cancel trips and make refunds, and 64% postponed trips until 2022. But on the bright side, one-third of them had received, in the past month, an “overwhelming amount” of bookings and interest for 2022.

Asked to speculate on the greatest opportunity for business growth in the months and years ahead, tour operators gave a variety of responses, which include the following:

  • Smaller groups
  • More diversified itineraries serving high-end FIT and special interest markets
  • Joint ventures with like-minded tour operators
  • New destinations and itineraries
  • Unique, personalized packages
  • Fewer operators in the market
  • Pent-up demand

NTA members package travel to, from, and within North America, as well as among international destinations, and most of the buyers who participated in the survey are from the United States (80%) or Canada (6%), with the remaining 14% based abroad. Operators said their clients’ interest in international travel is currently low—only 15% reported medium or high interest for the fourth quarter of 2021—but travelers are not writing off overseas travel. Sixty-three percent of tour operators reported medium or high client interest in international travel for the fall of 2022.

“And now is the time to plan, schedule, and book that travel,” Prather said.

What tour operators are doing now is using a skill developed during the pandemic: They’re pivoting. Two-thirds (65%) said they have modified their 2021 itineraries, and 56% said they are creating new itineraries for 2022. Asked about the last 30 days, 33% of tour operators said they have rerouted trips.

About half of responding operators (48%)—and 58% of suppliers—said they have not changed their pre-pandemic rates. Just under 30% of members in both categories reported that they have increased rates by 5% or less. And some—19% of tour operators and 13% of suppliers—said they have increased their rates by 6 to 10%.

As packaged-travel professionals adjust to 2021’s shifting landscape, they’re turning to each other for help. Nearly half (46%) of NTA tour operators said they are working with new destinations, new suppliers, or both. Asked to rate the information they need most from suppliers and destinations, operators gave the highest priority to changes in group policies, terms, rates, and offerings, along with updated contact info. That’s welcome news to Prather.

“The abundance of operators’ new and revised itineraries, plus their significant need to meet with DMOs and suppliers, makes our in-person Travel Exchange a must-attend event,” she said, referring to NTA’s signature event, slated for Nov. 14–17 in Cleveland, Ohio. “We’re packing face-to-face business appointments and timely education into a four-day show, and we’re bringing back our well-received Sales Missions and Best Pitch sessions, offering those virtually on Nov. 4.”

And as borders and budgets are loosening up, most members said they will be back on the road by November. Nearly all DMOs (98%) and most tour operators (83%) and suppliers (82%) said they are already allowed to travel for business or will be by the last quarter of the year.

That will be perfect timing for Travel Exchange, where buyers and sellers who have dealt with a less-than-perfect 2021 can work together and plan for brighter days ahead in the travel industry.

For more information about NTA and Travel Exchange ’21, go to NTAonline.com and NTAtravelexchnage.com. The 2021 NTA Midyear Business and Outlook Survey was completed by 183 active members of NTA: tour operators, tour suppliers, and DMOs.

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