Recommend’s Editor-in-Chief Paloma Villaverde de Rico had a few moments to catch up with USTOA’s president and CEO Terry Dale during the organization’s annual conference & marketplace.
Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): What were some of the items that surprised you most from the annual travel trend and forecast survey?
Terry Dale (TD): I was surprised at the level of sales and passenger growth for this year, and the reason I was surprised was because it seemed like anecdotally what I was hearing for the first quarter [of 2015] was not demonstrating the strength that we thought we were going to have when we created our forecast in the fall of 2014. We came in with a pretty robust forecast for this year, and then it seemed like the first quarter it wasn’t materializing to meet that trend. Of course, we had the Paris attacks then, Ebola was still heavy on a lot of people’s minds, so I was pleasantly surprised when our numbers were reporting double-digit growth.
PVR: In terms of emerging destinations, were you surprised that Ethiopia made the list of top five?
TD: I was surprised, but again, I heard over the course of the year, a couple of members saying, ‘We’ve developed product for Ethiopia,’ and I said, ‘Really?’ So obviously they have their ears to the ground when it comes to what they are hearing from consumers’ interests and likes, so I was surprised, but now it’s starting to make sense.
PVR: Regarding USTOA’s Packaged Travel Index: Future Travel Plans study, which surveyed 1,500 U.S. travelers with passports, why do you believe the number of packaged bookings increased?
TD: I think there’s always the convenience, but in these more uncertain times, I think there’s an element of ‘let’s go with a brand or company that has another layer of safety, security, and on the ground professionals; god forbid something happens, we have a caretaker, we’ve got a safety net.’ I think that may also play into why we are seeing some upward movement in that area.
PVR: On the flipside, people want to fit in with the locals and do something unique. How do packaged tours fit into this mode of travel?
TD: I think tour operators are building in flexibility, and wisely so, because everyone wants to put their own thumbprint on the experience and you can’t when it’s completely rigid and completely defined. So the way you do it is you build in that flexibility or build in options A, B or C for the consumer to say, “It’s C because I’ve always wanted to have that type of experience.
PVR: Why do you think travel agents are still such an integral part of the member bookings?
TD: You need that educated travel advisor to guide you to the right product, the right company, and the right price point. It’s so critically important. We are all time-deprived. Yes, we can do a lot of research, but it takes such diligence, and it takes a lot of time to get it done right. Kudos to the travel agent community, too, for upping the game when it comes to education. The professionals are taking it seriously. I think the travel agent community should feel pretty confident. We can all remember the days when ‘oh, they are gone, and they are dinosaurs.’ Those days are gone.
PVR: So with all of the disruptions around the world, why do you feel USTOA members are still overwhelmingly confident about 2016?
TD: We are seeing the American traveler show more resilience. We always talk about risk-adverse Americans. There will always be a sizable part of the population that is risk-adverse , but those who are truly bit by the travel bug, it’s not going to get in their way. Travelers are mindful of their environment, they take precautions, they don’t stop living. [Avanti Destinations president] Harry [Dalgaard] made a good point [during the USTOA press conference]. He mentioned the San Bernardino incident, and said, ‘We wouldn’t tell people now to not travel there.’
PVR: What are takeaways do you hope USTOA conference attendees walk away with after hearing the Terry Talks (TED-style talks)? During this year’s Terry Talks speakers included Ron Insana, Sr. Analyst with CNBC; Amy Curtis McIntyre, former CMO of Airbnb and founding CMO of JetBlue Airways; Major Brett T. Williams, USAF (Ret), Director of Operations, US Cyber Command; Irshad Manji, Founder and Director of Moral Courage Project; Dr. Carolyn Coarsey, PhD, Co-Founder & President of Family Assistance Foundation; and Roger Dow, President & CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
TD: My goal is to provide professional and personal growth, and I want that growth or awareness to not be limited to only travel. I think that cyber security is a big topic these days; the economy is always going to be relevant, but to have a discussion or to have a thought leader talk about the Muslim community [Irshad Manji]—we have Muslim travelers and we go to Muslim, it’s an issue. I think to put it on the table demonstrates that I am not going to shy away from a topic like that. I think we should have a conversation, or at least if it causes you to pause and think abut it in a different way, then it’s accomplished what I want.
PVR: In one word what does travel mean to you?
TD: Enlightenment. I was going to say freedom, but I think enlightenment; I like that.
For more information on the 2015 USTOA Annual Conference & Marketplace, click here.