There’s nothing like a wide-ranging survey to get the pulse of tour operators and their travel industry experience is telling them about future bookings and business, both during and post-COVID-19. The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) just released new findings from a survey of its Tour Operator Active Members about post-COVID 19 plans for recovery and recommencement of business activities. USTOA has conducted numerous member surveys to support and update its membership and the industry throughout the crisis with this survey a summation.

The best news is that nine out of 10 active members are optimistic or cautiously optimistic for a resumption of business in 2021. That is very good news indeed, demonstrating that while the industry may be down, it is by no means out.

The survey, conducted in late October, with an 88% response rate of USTOA Active Members, also concluded that two thirds (69%) of respondents feel confident or highly confident that guest bookings will increase in 2021.

Interestingly and despite COVID-19 infection numbers spiking almost everywhere, in the last 60 days, two thirds (63%) of tour operator members reported an increase in new bookings, while 29% reported bookings remaining the same.

USTOA
Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA

“In August, we asked the same question and only a third (38%) of Active Members had seen an increase in bookings for the two months prior, showing a positive increase in momentum in consumer travel planning since early summer.” Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA, added.

Not surprisingly and with a vaccine in sight, the survey also concluded that passengers booking in the last 60 days are very optimistic about booking in Q3 of 2021 (about 92% are reporting travel bookings Q3 of 2021) and 79% reporting new bookings for Q4 of 2021. A further 69% report passenger bookings for Q2 of 2021, while a third (33%) report new bookings for Q1 of 2021.  21% of members are booking for Q4 2020 and 60% report 2022 bookings with the remaining 2% reporting no new business in the last 60 days.

As to passenger queries, the survey concluded that cancellation/refund policy was the most frequently voiced concern from Active Members who made new bookings in the last 60 days, followed by existing health protocols, health/COVID insurance policies, likelihood of travel, changes/limitations of itinerary in that order.

 With 49% of respondents having operated or planning to operate tours between July and December 2020, Active Members who have operated during the coronavirus pandemic were asked what the biggest challenges were in operating this year. Top of the list were the different quarantine restrictions in states/countries, followed by synchronization of protocols across different states/borders, with limited availability of rapid testing in third spot. After that came flight availability/scheduling/connectivity with passenger hesitancy to comply with protocols named last as the least challenging.

Tour operators who had passengers travel with existing health protocols in place found 33% of members reported that all of their customers did not feel that new wellness protocols diminished their overall travel experience, while another 29% said only a small number of customers reported that the wellness protocols put in place hampered their experience. “The remaining 38% had not gathered feedback relating to health protocols which indicates that there was very limited negative feedback by customers,” Dale added.

As to the ages of passengers who booked travel between July and December 2020, 43% were baby boomers, with generation x at 26% and commensurately smaller numbers with the younger generations and the remaining 8% aged over 75.

Of the remaining 51% of USTOA Active Members who did not book business or plan to anytime in 2020, almost a third (31%) do expect to be back in business before a vaccine is available, while 54% are still unsure. Of the same group, when asked if they will restart operations with the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing at airports, 42% said yes, while the remaining 58% are still unsure.

 “Two thirds of Active Members plan to resume operations – alongside COVID-19 – even if that means lower passenger numbers or lower margins which is an encouraging sign for the resumption of business,” said Dale. Only six percent of responding Active Members plan to wait until they can operate at normal capacity before restarting operations.

Customer confidence took the biggest hit and remains a challenge to 2021 operations with generalized confusion about border closing and uncertainty across countries/states next in line; uncertainty of COVID-19 vaccine next with coordination of procedures across states/borders/suppliers ranking fourth, followed by the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing, flight connectivity, COVID-19 insurance coverage, the news media cycle, and uncertainty about hotel and other suppliers closures, uneven pricing, etc.) in last. 

The importance of travel advisors has not been forgotten during the pandemic with a whopping 88% of respondents planning to use travel advisors to drum up sales in 2021, with 80% stating that travel advisors will play a very important or important role in their business in 2021. 72% of members expect business to increase or remain the same in 2021.

Can you guess what the top international destination is, based on new bookings? “Italy topped last year’s hot destination list, and despite the challenges of the current pandemic, remains a top contender year after year,” Dale stated. Next on the list is Ireland, following by Germany, Greece and the UK, all tied for third.

Back in the U.S., based on new reservations only, Alaska, Arizona, and California tied for the top domestic spot with Florida and Utah tied for second, followed by Wyoming in third.

Based on new bookings, small group tours were the most popular for 2021, with private groups rated second, followed by FIT, river cruising, small ship cruising, and classic group tours (25+ passengers). Medium to large ship ocean cruises came in last and this should surprise no one, given the difficulties the cruise ship industry suffered earlier this year with COVID-19.

Survey respondents believe safety and wellness is the strongest influence on customers planning to  travel in 2021; border reopening/government travel restrictions are next in line as to influences on travel destination decisions, followed by distance/ease of travel to and from destination, value, and outdoor components.

“It comes with very little surprise that pandemics/other health crisis was named as the number one potential threat to consumer confidence for the year ahead,” said Dale. Recession was named the second global risk that could impact consumer confidence in 2021, followed by global financial instability in third.

For more information on USTOA, visit www.ustoa.com. For a look at USTOA’s survey focused on post-COVID-19 recovery and resumption plans for travel, click here.