Travel agents booking vacations for early 2015 and beyond

By Tom Stieghorst
GTM conference 2014HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — In a sign of strengthening demand, vacations are being booked early for next year and even 2016, according to agents who attended Travel Weekly’s Global Travel Marketplace conference here.

The booking window is noticeably longer this year than it has been in the past, several agents said during the conference, held July 9 to 11 at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa.

“Normally this time of year we’re just sending people on vacations,” said Rob Clabbers, president of Cruise Holidays of Chicago. “We’ve been busy with people booking 2015.”

Anita Nooe, manager of Travel Planners in Flowood, Miss., noticed the same behavior, which she said she hasn’t seen in the recent past. “It’s very unusual,” she said.

Global Travel Marketplace, which is in its second year, brought together about 100 top-producing agents with several dozen suppliers in a series of one-on-one and small group meetings.

Agents offered a variety of reasons for the interest in future bookings, ranging from concerns that travelers will be shut out of their prime choices if they wait to a desire to escape the cold next year.

“They just can’t handle another winter,” said Karen Kimmey, owner of OK Travel Agency in Chicago.

Several agents said consumers at last seem to be exhaling after the economic trauma of the past five years.

“People are starting to get it. Travel is back. You can’t wait to get that deal,” said Debbie Muir, manager of Travel Authority — Royal Blue Travel Line in Ocala, Fla.

Some even said travel patterns are returning to a norm not seen in more than a dozen years.

“People used to plan travel a year and more in advance,” said Cheryl Perleberg, owner of To Go Travel Inc. in Tampa. “Post-9/11, people weren’t looking ahead and nobody was traveling that far.” That pattern is ending, she said.

“The most popular destinations are definitely selling faster,” said Oliver Kopplin, owner of Premier Global Travel Group of Boca Raton, Fla.
Agents said the rapid sellout of some river cruises this year has been a signal that supply in some sectors is limited.

“They really can no longer afford to wait if they want to get their first choices,” Clabbers said. “They can still book, but they’re not getting the good staterooms, they’re getting the ones above the engine room.”

Clabbers also said his agency has seen advance bookings tied to one-time cruises being staged by Cunard Line next year with special features to commemorate its 175th anniversary.

Others cite the upswing in multigenerational travel, which often requires bringing family members from different cities with different schedules into synchronization.

“With multigenerational travel, you’ve got to plan ahead,” said Mia Kim Park of Surf City American Express Travel in Dana Point, Calif.

Park said many of her clients are luxury travelers who have strong preferences. “If they want to go on a bike tour to a particular place, there may be only so many slots,” she said. “They want what they want.”

Other continents besides North America and Europe are especially hard to do last-minute. “Some of the destinations like Africa or Australia really require a lot of lead time to coordinate,” said Deborah Deming, an independent rep for Frosch Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif.

When it comes to cruise sales, agents such as Alice Lambie, of Alice in Traveland in Pewaukee, Wis., said that she could be selling even more 2016 cruises if more lines had their 2016 itineraries available for sale.

Lambie said clients are learning to book ahead because some cabin categories are hard to reserve.

“When you look for a suite, they’re gone,” Lambie said. “You can’t find them because people on the ship book them for next year before they get off.”

Another factor in extending the booking window is simply people catching up on vacations they missed during the economic downturn, said Claudia Darling, owner of Darling Travel in Carmel, Ind.

“It’s not so much that their finances are better, or they’re feeling locked out [of opportunities],” she said. “I think they’re just tired of not doing it.”

The supply squeeze also applies when booking shore excursions, said Julie Karp, co-owner of Shore Trips, a leading independent excursion supplier based in Milwaukee.

Karp told agents in a small group presentation that they shouldn’t hesitate to book excursions as soon as possible, because once the excursions are sold out there’s no remedy.

“Book now, and they can change their minds later,” she said.

Beyond a longer booking window, another trend apparent at Global Travel Marketplace was the growing interest among agents in selling wine and culinary vacations.

Food travel has emerged as something to brag about to friends, after the explosion of cable TV cooking shows in the past decade.

Agents said they are carving out expertise in that area because clients feel uncertain of their own judgments and lack connections in some cases to make arrangements at top culinary destinations overseas.

“You’ve got to do something that people can’t get on their own,” said Amal Mulhem, an agent at Carol’s Travel Service in Tinley Park, Ill.
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