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The talk at the recent USTOA Annual Conference & Marketplace was “2018 is going to be a banner year.” According to the annual survey conducted by USTOA, nearly all (95 percent) of USTOA tour operator members anticipate growth in sales for the year ending in 2018, with two-thirds of members optimistic and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from 7 to 10 percent higher. This bright view for 2018 comes on the heels of a year in which the majority of USTOA members reported a rise in sales, with half of those who responded to the USTOA survey citing an increase of 10 percent or higher. A third of those members who responded to the survey attributed the sales growth to an improving economy and consumer confidence.

It’s definitely a cheery outlook, but members also stated that one of the global risks that could impact potential growth in 2018 is global financial instability. Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA, attributes that potential risk tour operator members worry about “to human instinct or business instinct…the fear that perhaps the floor is going to fall out of the economy; is there going to be a correction? But it seems that from everything I’ve read and heard, there’s no reason to believe the market won’t continue on the path that it’s on in 2018. All the pre sales and deposits that are coming in are saying, yep, it’s going to be
a substantial year.”

So who’s traveling? A little more than half of the members who responded to the USTOA annual survey point to baby boomers as their customer base, and a quarter said that families represented anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of their annual passengers. And, of course, you’ve all been seeing and hearing about the growth in solo traveling, and USTOA members are seeing that trend move upwards as well, with almost half reporting that they saw a growth in solo travelers in 2017 over 2016. “You see a lot of people going solo,” said Paula Twidale, executive v.p. for Collette, during the show’s press conference with USTOA’s executive committee. “People don’t want to hold back. If they are not going with their spouse,” they’ll go solo. Their thinking is, “nothing is going to hold me back.”

The cherry blossoms in Japan. (JNTO)
The cherry blossoms in Japan. (JNTO)

And what destinations are solo travelers, families, Millennials and Baby Boomers seeking out? Well, the hot international destinations for 2018 are all over the map, with Australia eating up the number one spot, followed by Spain, then Iceland tied with Italy for the #3 slot, and France and Japan coming in at number 4 and 5, respectively. This was the first time Japan made this list, and I asked Dale what his members were saying about Asia bookings in general (Vietnam was named the third top emerging or “off the beaten path” destination for 2018). “I’m hearing anecdotally that things are healthy and I know several members who started with new product to that region within the last couple of years and the growth they talk about soundsvery impressive.”

One of the top experiences that travelers yearn for, whether they are traveling to France, Japan or Australia, is to live like a local, or to feel immersed in the local culture. “This will not go away,” said Dale during the press conference. “It’s the curiosity factor.” Twidale added that it’s about locals opening their doors, making one’s own meal with them. “It’s fun for everyone to do that sort of thing, at any age,” she said. Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, pointed out that currently those types of locally immersive experiences “are not so contrived. Locals are producing it,” with Charlie Ball, executive v.p. for Princess Cruises & Tours, adding that “we tried to manage the experience, and now we’re working with the locals to create” truly authentic experiences.

Luxury bookings, too, aren’t going away, with the executive committee stating that there’s more luxury product available as members upgrade their offerings. “There’s an inventory of higher-end experiences that people are willing to pay for,” said Ball.

And those experiences, noted Dale, are all available via USTOA’s online marketplace. “We are the only travel association that I know of that has an online marketplace where if you put in Tenerife, for example, you’ll see itineraries to the destination that our members offer, along with current pricing and consumer reviews. That’s a valuable tool once agents are aware of it, once they use it. There’s no other association that I’m aware of that has that rich source of information, allowing them to do the best job they can in closing a sale.”