Gogo's John Van den Heuvel on Dominican Republic bookings

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Flight Centre Travel Group recently sent 60 travel advisors from its Gogo Worldwide Vacations and Liberty Travel brands on an educational trip to the Dominican Republic, where they met with government officials and hoteliers after a rash of scrutiny in the consumer press on tourist deaths in the country this summer. Senior editor Jamie Biesiada spoke with Gogo president John Van den Heuvel about Gogo's experience with bookings to the Dominican Republic and what looks like the beginnings of a recovery.

Q: What did Gogo experience when reports of tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic became commonplace in consumer media earlier this year?

John Van den Heuvel
John Van den Heuvel

A: We did ultimately see a reduction in bookings and cancellations, I won't hide that fact. We did have many travelers who still continued on with their plans to travel, but we did have a downturn occur.

However, recently, we've been running some promotions. We ran a promotion with Excellence Resorts, which was very well received, especially by repeat Dominican Republic travelers. We've seen an uptick in bookings in recent weeks, and I expect that to continue. The recovery is taking time, but it is turning around.

Q: Could you quantify the hit Gogo bookings took?

A: It varies month to month. I don't have an overall percentage number. You could probably say year-on-year we probably dropped a good 50% in our bookings. The downturn definitely hit hard, and it hit the hardest in June, July and August.

Q: Do you think the traveling public's attitude is shifting toward being more positive about the Dominican Republic?

A: I wouldn't say that the traveling public is unwilling, because if you look at it, the rest of the world outside of the U.S. is confidently still traveling to the Dominican Republic. It's that portion of the American public that currently has the concerns, where media coverage was. We at Gogo Vacations and Flight Centre USA recognize that bringing American business back to the destination, it's going to be an industrywide initiative. It will take some time and, I think, collective efforts from many people. But again, we are seeing a shift. The number of inquiries we're seeing, the conversations we're having with our customers -- it's going in the right direction.

Q: Did you see a shift in advisors' perceptions of the destination before and after the trip?

A: I wouldn't say from an advisor standpoint that perceptions changed before or after. I feel quite confident that this trip was just a reminder about the destination and what it has to offer. The consistent message I got from all of our advisors and consultants that were down there was how amazing this destination is. They were thrilled to be down there to experience the properties, to see the community, the Dominican spirit.

Q: What are the advisors hearing from clients?

A: Clients still have unanswered questions and hesitations about the destination, which was the intention of this trip: to get some hands-on experience in the destination. I'm confident that initiatives like this fam trip and continued communication with the Dominican Republic government will continue to help answer a lot of those questions and hesitations.

I genuinely feel it's all about moving forward from the media coverage, which is valid -- there are instances being investigated that need to go through the due process -- but the bottom line is this is still a destination that provides amazing travel experiences, amazing resorts.

The passion the people have in the Dominican Republic about the tourism industry can still be embraced. I think that's paramount for us to realize as a travel industry.

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