By now, as travel advisors, you’re aware that the present Government Shutdown, currently on its 27th day, is affecting your business and the travel industry as a whole. But, how is it specifically affecting the tour operators and the itineraries you book clients on?
Dan Austin, Austin Adventures’ founder and director, says that they’ve noticed a rise in consumer anxiety since the government was shutdown, at a time when many travelers are usually looking to book their spring and summer vacations.
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, “The Department of the Interior directed its staff, including National Park Service staff, to keep national parks as accessible as possible while still obeying the law. This means that approximately a third of our national park sites are completely closed, including places like presidential homes, museums and cultural sites with buildings that can be locked. Gates at many other park sites remain open, but few if any staff are on hand to protect visitors and park resources, and many visitor centers and restrooms remained locked and roads are closed due to weather.
With National Parks being partially open, or some of them closed, monuments not completely accessible, and TSA officials missing work, we reached out to tour operators to see how the shutdown is affecting their itineraries and what steps you should take to help those clients who are booked on trips where their itineraries might be hindered.
What is Being Impacted?
Fortunately, a few tour operators such as Austin Adventures, Globus and Cosmos, and Cox & Kings have reported no impact on their current tour offerings so far.
Austin reports, “None as of yet but we are prepared. We pulled off a Yellowstone winter trip just a few weeks ago during the shutdown. Xanterra had the lodges open and our guides managed the details just fine. That is the big difference with this shutdown from previous ones…Yellowstone Park is technically still open and accessible as of now.”
However, travel as a whole is still being impacted. “Guests can expect minor disruptions such as longer wait times for flights to get through TSA security checks, as well as minor inconveniences including closed visitor centers and concessions in National Parks,” says Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands.
Cox and Kings also references the airport setbacks, saying that the shutdown has caused inconveniences for all travelers at the airport.
“The shutdown may not be impacting passport applications and renewals just yet, but it’s having adverse affects on the logistics of travel itself,” says Jason Schreier, CEO of APRIL Travel Protection. “In addition to potentially deterring new bookings, long TSA lines and temporary closures can wreak havoc on existing vacation plans.”
Trafalgar, however, is offering travelers a 100 percent risk free guarantee on their National Park vacations to help settle traveler’s anxiety. They are guaranteeing full refunds to guests if National Parks are closed due to the U. S. Government shutdown at the time of their departure. This guarantee is applicable to 15 of Trafalgar’s vacations.
“The key is working with the guest to satisfy their needs and protect their precious vacation time…which we respect 110 percent.”
—Dan Austin, Founder and Director, Austin Adventures
Among the 15 guaranteed vacations are The Trailblazer itinerary, which visits national parks over eight days including the Grand Canyon National Park, Sedona, Lake Powell, and Zion National Park; the Best of the Canyonlands itinerary, which starts in Denver and has guests spend seven days exploring Vail, Moab, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyonland, the Arches National Park, and the Grand Canyon National Park; and the Wild West Cowboys and Buffalos’ 9-day adventure through Salt Lake City, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Keystone, Rapid City, and more.
However, Austin adds that, “We won’t get busy in the other national parks we visit until April. In the highly unlikely event that there is still some level of a shutdown, we will look at each and every itinerary and address the nuances of each. An example might be with our Montana Adventure where we spend four days outside the park and one in the park. If need be we would simply reschedule activities out of the park. As each and every trip’s exposure is different, we would have to look at each day and reference to the specific park and its current standing and accessibility.”
“We remain confident the shutdown will end soon, and the parks will get back to their mission established with our first National Park back in 1872: ‘For the enjoyment and betterment of the people.’” Austin said.
What Tour Operators Are Doing if Impacted
Having to be quick on their feet when facing detours in travel plans is not new to these tour operators. From weather to natural disasters, they’ve faced a few roadblocks with planned itineraries in the past.
“It’s not just government shutdowns that force us to act quickly and responsibly. We are faced with park, trail and even river closures from time to time,” says Austin. “Last year the fires in California shut down Yosemite National Park for a period. We were able to provide a different itinerary and routing for a few trips we ran and successfully (with their blessings) moved a dozen guests to another trip and destination. Any air change or penalty fees were covered by us so there was no extra out-of-pocket for the clients.”
For Austin Adventures, having a plan when these occurrences come up is key. Austin says they have a “wide range of options depending on specifics…from visiting alternative state, BLM, National Forest or Private lands (an example for us would be to do our scheduled horseback riding on a nearby Montana Ranch verses in Yellowstone park). The final extreme is always cancelling that affected trip and moving the guests to a different destination (at our expense). The key is working with the guest to satisfy their needs and protect their precious vacation time…which we respect 110 percent.”
Advice to Agents
“Patience, there’s no need to panic,” says Austin. “If the shutdown continues, communicate with the guest and the tour operator to confirm and fully understand any contingency plans for that specific tour or destination. If it just doesn’t look promising, consider other destinations or routes. Open and regular channels of communication between all is key.”
Austin notes, however, that “Trip insurance now more than ever will offer some peace of mind.”
Schreier also feels travel insurance is of utmost importance during these uncertain times. “Agents would be doing their clients a disservice if they didn’t encourage them to protect their travel investment in this climate. For clients who are on the fence, a ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ policy can provide an additional layer of peace of mind. Even more importantly, it could make the difference between a ruined vacation and customer who is with you for life because of the foresight you had today,” he says.
Austin wants to tell travelers that “First and foremost, this latest government shutdown should NOT shut down your vacation plans.”
The Shutdown’s Impact on Tourism as a Whole
Industry associates—American Bus Associations, International Inbound Travel Association, International Motorcoach Group, National Tour Association, Ontario Motor Coach Association, Student Youth Travel Association, United Motorcoach Association, and the United States Tour Operators Association—came together this week to urge Congress and the Administration to end the government shutdown immediately and end the harmful economic effects to the United States and its tourism industry.
The message read: “On behalf of the undersigned organizations, we urge Congress and the Administration to work together to immediately end the partial government shutdown. This shutdown is unnecessarily causing harm to the nation’s economy. We recognize that neither side wants to concede to the other, but this prolonged political fight will have negative impacts on the country—and our industries—for months and possibly years to come. Our members are already experiencing hardships and loss of revenue from the shutdown.
According to data from the U.S. Travel Association, in 2017 travel generated $2.4 trillion for the U.S. economy and supported 15.6 million jobs. Our various tour and travel organizations play a key role in generating that economic impact. Not only are the 800,000 federal workers impacted, but some of the most visited tourist attractions in our nation are closed—including various National Parks, the Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo. The National Parks system is already experiencing a maintenance backlog and now the shutdown compromises park services, visitor safety and maintenance. No business is unaffected by this government shutdown.”
“Without getting political, the current situation is unfortunate and unnecessary,” adds Austin in press materials. “The only people it is hurting right now are the government employees furloughed and the small businesses in and around our National Parks. But it has also got the public worried about how it might affect their vacation plans.”
Parrish notes that, “While our vacations are operating normally, our thoughts are with all of those affected and working tirelessly without pay. Time will tell how the shutdown will affect future bookings.”