Traveling for the majority of the first half of 2020 has been delayed in a way the industry has never seen, yet wanderlust and desire to venture out into the world are very much alive. How are those adventures going to look different?
The numbers for recovery are promising. A Longwoods International survey indicates nearly 7 in 10 respondents miss vacationing a lot, and a U.S. Travel Association report shows the majority of travelers (6 in 10) will be eager to travel for leisure once the pandemic passes. It's important to note that international travel is likely to return at a slower rate.
As many destinations around the country and world begin to reopen in varying stages, approaches are changing.
Catherine Prather, NTA President, sees tour operators across North America planning travel for 2021 while also hoping to hit the road this fall.
"The operators confirmed what we've been hearing about the type of trips that consumers will take first: closer to home; tours to adventure, outdoor, natural settings; and in smaller groups, especially with family and friends," said Prather, noting operators are developing more driving tours until travelers feel safe to fly again. "Challenges that operators face include pricing tours with fewer passengers, getting group space on airlines, and finding restaurants that can safely seat groups and offer customized meals."
Tour operators are eager to connect with DMOs and suppliers as they build programs for new areas.
"They are counting on DMOs to know what's open and what's attractive for groups in a city. Now is a great time for destinations and suppliers to reach out to operators," Prather continued. "As travel opens up and things remain a bit unstable, it's important for everyone to work together and remain flexible and open to new ideas. That's how we'll recover."
Peter Pantuso, ABA President and CEO, says recovery will be slow and it may take up to two years before the industry returns where it was pre-pandemic. Pantuso added that ABA believes when Americans start to travel again, we'll see a spike in domestic tourism.
"Most people can't wait to get out of their homes and explore the world around them after being cooped up for months," said Pantuso. "It will be a gradual return to travel on motorcoaches, trains and airplanes—anything that has strangers riding together—but we'll see groups of friends and family hiring charters and traveling together. As comfort levels grow, we'll see growth in passenger numbers. It also depends on how fast states move through the phases of reopening and what their rules are."
Joy McNealy, Senior Sales Manager, and Kay Poole, Sales Manager, Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, note responsible travel will be the new norm.
"Destinations have an obligation to demonstrate what local partners across all sectors—restaurants, lodging, attractions, et cetera—are doing to create a safer environment for visitors," they said in a statement. "Communication between the clients we serve and the properties they visit here in Pigeon Forge is more important than ever before, and we are ready to begin that one-on-one discussion which is the first step in getting groups back to our destination."
Theresa Belpulsi, Vice President, Tourism, Sports and Visitor Services, Destination DC, says the organization is working closely with industry partners and following the lead of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for welcoming visitors back.
"Virtual creativity and staying engaged has been the name of the game," Belpulsi said. "We've held online sales calls and happy hours with customers, have created an online global travel agent training program, and have created new itineraries looking toward 2021."
In Ocean City, Maryland, "The ocean is open." Many hotels and short-term rentals are active, accepting reservations and offering flexible cancellation policies for future trips. While the beach and Boardwalk are welcoming guests, visitors are encouraged to be responsible and adhere to current safety guidelines.
Visit Virginia Beach has been asking its partners to provide information on what they're doing as they offer centralized information in one place for tour operators.
"In Virginia Beach, we believe in the power of partnerships," said Jim Coggin, Tourism Sales Manager, Visit Virginia Beach. "We are working with tour operators to develop bounce-back tours, new itineraries based on social distance requirements, and ways for tour operators to convey the message to their clients on what our partners are doing to assure Virginia Beach is a safe, clean, and welcoming environment."
When flying, many airlines have been blocking off middle seats as a short-term precaution. It's likely some COVID-19 related procedures and policies will stick around for the long haul. Delta has said the extensive sanitizing procedures it has already implemented to combat the spread of COVID-19 will be in use for the foreseeable future. Travelers could anticipate boarding planes from back to front, to reduce passing more people; being required to wear face coverings; and a streamlined food service.
In a report released by SimpliFlying, it's predicted over 70 areas in the passenger journey are expected to change or be introduced from scratch, to restore confidence in flying. Other changes air travelers could eventually experience might include providing an immunity passport confirming the presence of COVID-19 antibodies, going through disinfection tunnels, having their temperature taken with thermal scanners, and showing up at the airport much earlier than before.
Maverick Helicopters, one of the largest aviation-based tourism companies in the world, has implemented many safety changes—among them eliminating use of microphones on headsets used during flight, wearing masks and distributing any to passengers who need one, and developing new private flight options.
Across the travel industry, touchless options will become common for elements such as ticketing, identification, check-in, payment for goods and services, and automated food and service ordering and pickup. It's also clear travelers will want safety guidelines clearly spelled out every step of the way, for them to make confident travel decisions.
SEA LIFE Orlando, Madame Tussauds Orlando, and other attractions that reopened in May ensure social distancing measures are enforced with directional markings, allowing guests to better distance themselves while exploring the attraction, and have increased sanitation.
Among the measures being taken at Track Family Fun Parks in Branson, Missouri, are disinfecting attractions between each ride, providing additional hand sanitizer stations, and temporarily closing some attractions and indoor options to allow maximum social distancing.
A Better Solution
During these challenging times, Flight Sugar makes it simple for tour operators to book, sell and manage airfare for individual travelers around the globe. A mapping feature allows the capability to visually locate travelers at any given date range and the ability to easily track and access reporting of travelers' itineraries when navigating unexpected barriers. Flight Sugar offers the tools and support needed to manage clients' travel, given any circumstance.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for Groups Today.
This article originally appeared in the July/Aug 2020 issue of Groups Today.