Tour ops see bargain-seekers, late bookers for winter season

By Michelle Baran

This holiday season, some tour operators are seeing customers take advantage of off-season rates to travel at home and abroad, while others are still hoping and waiting for last-minute bookings to come in.

"Ireland has opened up year-round," said Chris Accomando, president of Sceptre Tours. "That wasn't the case 10 years ago."

Customers looking for a good bargain are willing to head to Ireland during the colder winter months, he said, giving Sceptre Tours holiday business in a destination where that business didn't really exist in the past.

Other operators are seeing customers take advantage of value travel over the holidays, as well.

Acropolis in Greece"November and December of 2010 is 22% ahead of the same period last year," said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. He added that he expected that number to grow as last-minute bookings continue to roll in, especially for December.

"We have made November a value season to Europe and other international destinations," he said.

Stachnik said that Mayflower had strong bookings in November and December to Greece, on its Europe rail program and its Panama Canal and Mediterranean cruises. Domestically, Mayflower's Christmas in Branson, Mo., and Tournament of Roses in California programs are just about sold out, he said.

But not everyone is anticipating a robust holiday season.

"On a consolidated basis, we are looking at a soft 2010 holiday travel season compared to 2009, as of today," Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said last week.

But he added, "The booking window has shortened since last year, so we may see a last-minute pickup in bookings as suppliers are beginning to reduce or eliminate minimum-night-stay requirements, extending value-added amenities into the holidays and/or lowering prices to stimulate demand."

Richards is forecasting a slight single-digit increase in holiday travel year over year, assuming the booking patterns are close-in, which they were in 2008 and 2009.

With Christmas and New Year's falling on Saturdays this season, "travelers will not want to travel on these days," Richards said. "When you eliminate a weekend day from the travel equation, it makes it very difficult to sell and promote."

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