When the 2016 Travel Industry Survey asked travel agents what types of suppliers they used for tours and packages, traditional tour operators were still overwhelmingly the most popular suppliers, but they were down to 84% compared with 90% in the 2015 survey. For the largest retail agencies, that figure dropped to 80%.
Senior editor Sarah Feldberg spoke to Ensemble Travel Group's Suzanne Hall, senior director of hotel & resort and land suppliers, about the data.
Q: Is this trend something you're seeing at Ensemble?
A: I don't think so. This is an odd year, because it was a little bit all over the map. We have actually seen an increase in escorted tours. Globus, for example, we're having a really, really good year with them. What you're finding would be contrary to what our numbers are indicating. That said, it's no surprise that experiential travel, however that is booked, is on the rise, because that is what most consumers are requesting.
It's also true that most of the consumers who are using a travel specialist are probably those who require or wish for something that is a little bit more local in flavor and color.
Q: Is that trend affecting suppliers?
A: I think that if one were to just ask the broad question: Are your customers seeking less traditional travel? I think the answer is yes.
How a travel agent ultimately decides to book that can happen in a number of ways, be it with a local destination management company (DMC), with a company that is very niche or with a tour operator they have used and trusted over the years that has successfully been able to incorporate elements within what they offer so they deliver what the customer wants.
And this year, there have been challenges: You've had Zika, you've had terrorism, you've had real uncertainty and concerns about travel.
Q: When you talk about the rise in experiential travel and the preference for local color, are there suppliers you see growing to serve that?
A: Now, in 2017, just about everyone's incorporating that local flavor into what they do. There have always been specialty suppliers, [and] that's always been their platform. That's what they do. Maybe they're reaping the benefit of having had the experience of really honing that concept, but I also think there's so much out there that others can incorporate into the product.
Q: What other tour or package suppliers do you think are on the rise?
A: This is more niche, so the numbers aren't going to be there, but in keeping with the trend of looking for more hands-on experiences and off the beaten path, definitely for sure travel agents are using the local DMC to construct their tailor-made packages. I think we're going to see more and more of that. That [fully independent traveler], the tailor-made FIT, before going through a traditional tour operator, some of that is now going to the local DMC.
Certainly consortia, we all have our programs. Our program's called Ensemble on Location, but we all have this global network of in-country specialists, and our members can go to them for customized FIT, or they can use them for shore excursions or however they feel is best suited for their customer. There has been an interest in seeing the value of using a local partner. That I do believe is increasing.