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Flexibility and Clear Communication Helping Tour Operators Conquer New Challenges

NTA—which is gearing up to host their 2022 Travel Exchange in Reno—recently shared a late-summer survey of NTA tour operators which shed light on the current state of travel demand. The survey also provided a closer look at how tour operators are handling the challenges posed by our new reality since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One positive takeaway? Two-thirds of responding operators report that 2023 bookings for domestic travel are meeting or exceeding expectations, with 33% terming business as stronger than expected. Just under a quarter (23%) say bookings are not as promising as they had hoped. The outlook for overseas travel is nearly identical, with only slightly fewer operators reporting stronger-than-expected bookings (30%).

Flexibility—something many are well acquainted with at this point—is proving to work in tour operators' favor and was a phrase that often appeared in the survey findings, along with "clear communication."

"Our tour operators are hearing a call for flexibility, choice, and individual experiences within a group itinerary, and that's what they're delivering," said NTA President Catherine Prather. "They are developing innovative itineraries with lots of options, both for their clients and for themselves."

After two years of travel opportunities diminished by official restrictions or traveler concerns, tour operators are seeing packaged-travel clients return. Some report seeing a heightened desire to fulfill bucket-list trips—including a post-pandemic feeling that tomorrow holds no guarantees. But the survey found that not all operators are seeing the same demands.

"The range in responses and observations from our operators matches the variety of clients they serve, the destinations they visit, and the experiences they specialize in," Prather said. "While some companies are simply picking up where they left off, others are dealing with shifts in client requests, including an interest in smaller group sizes."

Worker shortages and supply-chain struggles have been widely reported throughout the industry, yet client expectations of service vary. Operators report that while some clients understand these challenges, other travelers express frustration with anything less than top-notch service. At least one operator said they've eliminated baggage service at hotels because of chronic staffing shortages.

In addition, a bigger challenge for operators is staff shortages that lead to reduced hours or days of operation among suppliers—restaurants and experience providers that NTA operators count on for their groups' meals and activities. They're handling those challenges by adding flexibility and individual choice within their group itineraries.

"Tour operators might book fewer group meals in restaurants and instead allow clients to choose their own dining experiences," Prather said. "They're also providing unstructured time in the itinerary so their travelers can choose how to spend this free time."

Increased prices, too, have been a struggle for many tour operators and travelers—but not all. Some operators say their clients are not concerned with price and are willing to spend more to travel in a smaller group. Others say that increased prices are leading some travelers to delay or scale down their travel. And nearly all operators are doing their best to set prices now for future tours, according to Prather.

"Pricing an all-inclusive tour a year or more out has always been difficult, but with food and transportation prices increasing steadily, many operators are estimating a bit on the high side," she said. "They're also developing flexible itineraries that allow for changes they can make before the tour operates."

Prather added that while NTA operators are dealing with so many factors that are out of their control, they can control what they're telling their clients.

"We heard over and over that clear and honest communication—about prices, service levels, scheduling, and COVID protocols—helps to manage client expectations," she said.

Another key for tour operators is maintaining effective relationships with their DMO and supplier partners.

"Tour operators are still producing brochures with scheduled departures, but with shifts in traveler preferences, there are more calls for customized tours, which accentuate the need for quick access to a lot of good partners," Prather said. "And of all the operator responses I read, the most gratifying was the shortest."

Learn more by visiting NTA.

Courtesy of Groups Today.


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