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A glance at the results of the recent USTOA Active Members survey, which was conducted in early November with an 86 percent response rate, gives an indication that travel for 2022 is looking up. This piece of data alone says it all: Nine out of 10 USTOA Active Members anticipate growth in sales in 2022. Two thirds of those respondents are “optimistic” and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from 7 percent to 10 percent and higher.

During the USTOA press conference, which took place yesterday as part of the 2021 USTOA Annual Conference & Marketplace, currently taking place in San Diego, California, Elizabeth Crabill, CEO, CIE Tours International and vice chair, USTOA, said, based on survey findings, there’s “expectation that 2022 will be better, with overall sentiment much more positive than it was the year before.”

That said, “While the members are confident moving into 2022, they are not really blind to the fact that some threats are still out there and could impact consumer confidence,” Crabill added.

In terms of potential threats to confidence in travel in 2022, the pandemic/health crisis topped the list, followed by global financial instability at number 2 and recession at number 3. Also on the list are political instability, strength of dollar, terrorism, natural disasters and tourism overcrowding.

“While this year’s survey reveals more confidence moving into 2022, our members are not blind to the challenges that lay ahead on the road to recovery.”
— Terry Dale, President & CEO, USTOA

When it comes to the biggest challenge or obstacle to operating in 2022, border closing confusion across countries/states topped the list, followed by customer confidence. Coordination of protocols across states/borders/suppliers ranked third, followed by threat of quarantine, news media cycle, COVID-19 vaccine mandates, flight connectivity, insecurity about suppliers (closure of hotels and others, inconsistent pricing, etc.), staffing/hiring and COVID-19 travel insurance.

“I think it’s interesting to see that news media cycle,” said Crabill, “moved up to the top five compared to last year, when it was a little bit further down in eight. So, I think that most of our membership has learned this year that changes in customer behavior can very much be driven by news media cycles. A perfect example is when the EU announced they were moving the U.S. into the red list back at the end of August, a lot of members saw an immediate and swift impact from that.

“Within that, around 74 percent of active members who operate in Europe reported that guests with existing 2021 European bookings postponed their travel or rebooked to a future date.”

“When you look at 2022,” said Scott Wiseman, sr. v.p. & general manager, ALG Vacations Corporation and chairman, USTOA, “there are a lot of new bookings that fall under 2022,” with members reporting that 59 percent of existing bookings for 2022 are new bookings and 41 percent are rebooked passengers from canceled trips in 2020/2021. Three fourths (75 percent) of 2022 Active Member existing bookings are to international destinations; the remaining quarter are to North America destinations (U.S., Canada, and Mexico).

Left to right: Jeff Roy, Elizabeth Crabill; Charlie Ball; Madhvi Buch; Scott Wiseman and Terry Dale.

“As far as booking patterns go,” Wiseman noted, “it’s really been all over the place based upon what’s happening, but as we reported this, we were seeing most, a third, reporting within four to six months of departure and another quarter that are seeing within seven to 12 months of departure.

“That’s really showing us this continued uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the different variants; it’s really influencing customers’ decisions to book closer to departure.”

When asked about their company’s outlook on when the travel industry will see a full recovery of business, half (53 percent) said by end of 2023, while 20 percent responded end of 2022. Another 20 percent of members foresee a full recovery of business by end of 2024. The remaining 7 percent reported recovery by 2025 and beyond.

That’s a “relatively positive outlook from our members,” said Madhvi Buch, sr. v.p., The Travel Corporation USA and treasurer, USTOA, “as far as the future and the recovery.”

Regarding travel advisors, Buch noted that, they “have always played a very big role in the members’ business.” With that in mind, it’s no surprise that 87 percent of responding members plan to utilize travel advisors to generate sales as they continue to resume business in 2022; 76 percent of members report that travel advisors will play a very important or important role in their business in 2022; and nearly nine out of 10 of members expect business booked by travel advisors to increase or maintain the same in 2022.

“We know the landscape is shifting as far as the travel advisor industry, but the members seem to be very bullish when it comes to the travel advisor community,” said Buch.

And which destinations are USTOA Active Members saying are at the top of the popularity list? As Buch said, “Europe had a clean sweep,” with Italy grabbing that number-one slot, followed by France and Greece, tied for second place, and Ireland ranked third.

On the home front, said Jeff Roy, executive v.p., Collette and secretary, USTOA, there’s still “a preference for wide-open spaces. We asked this question as a write-in and there was an overwhelming response when it came to national parks as a top choice, with Alaska following very closely and Hawaii a close third.”

Other key trends point to small group tours as the most popular travel product for 2022. FIT ranked second, followed by private groups, classic group tours (25+ passengers), river cruising and small ship cruising. Ocean cruising (medium to large ship) rounded out the list.

“Classic group tours moved up to fourth from sixth place,” said Roy. “This along with small group tours reinforces the many benefits of traveling on a guided escorted tour. Tour operators take the guess work out of travel, and alongside COVID, our services our truly invaluable for consumers. It’s the same trend you see with travel advisors—any extra layers where the customer has to do less thinking is really better. Customers don’t have to be left having to think about all the protocols.”

And similar to last year’s annual survey, tour operator members believe safety and wellness will have the strongest influence on consumers when choosing a travel destination in 2022. Border reopening/government travel restrictions will have the second strongest influence on travel destination decisions, followed by value, distance/ease of travel to and from destination, state department travel alerts and outdoor components. Sustainable tourism practices were named as having the least influence.

Looking to the future, said Charlie Ball, executive v.p., Holland America Group and immediate past chair, USTOA, “the issue that bubbles to the top among USTOA Active Members is sustainable travel.” Members are thinking, “as we build, that we do so in a more thoughtful way and that it’s sustainable. For our business, it’s becoming more and more relevant. Terry likes to say, ‘sustainability is a journey,’ and I think our membership has done a good job rising to the occasion.”

In fact, more than half (56 percent) of responding Active Members have formal policies, procedures and metrics to measure social and/or environmental impacts of services. Roughly a quarter (22 percent) of the USTOA tour operator membership say sustainability is “important” to their customers while another two thirds (62 percent) report it is “somewhat important.”