The USTOA held its annual conference last week in Orlando. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke with CEO Terry Dale about a victory, at least temporarily, for national park tour operators, member optimism about 2020 and what people should know about 2019's collapse of three tour operators.
Q: The National Park Service decision to not implement the $300 per coach commercial use authorization fee seems like a big victory.
A: It doesn't mean we can celebrate and exhale, because I fully expect at some point it will be revisited, the plan revised or something. The good news is, it's stopped for now. In all honesty, they didn't engage the industry adequately to understand the impact and how to execute so that it was not so burdensome. Fortunately, everyone has been really in their face about the impact. You don't many times hear that a regulatory body is not moving forward like this. A lot of industry associations and companies were vocal.
Q: Between that proposal and the Statue of Liberty limiting tour guide access and Rome banning tour buses, are tour operators being unfairly targeted when it comes to overcrowding issues?
A: Sometimes it's a knee-jerk reaction from a government or a city council. They feel they can at least say, 'We've addressed it because we've taken step X or step Y.' I think we have a responsibility to be more proactive in building relationships with the leaders who make decisions like that. If overcrowding is an issue, then lets's talk about meaningful solutions that can work for us and can work for the destination or the monument.
Q: Three tour operators collapsed in 2019. What should USTOA members do to instill confidence in consumers and travel advisors that this is not an industrywide issue?
A: This is the first time in my almost nine years that I've experienced this. One was a USTOA member, and what's critical is to communicate about our $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program. We are here to help consumers with their deposits. We'll do our darnedest to make everyone whole. It's really about: Book with confidence with a USTOA member.
Q: Is $1 million enough? In some cases many millions in payments were lost.
A: It all depends. What we do is work with the customer and the credit card if they used one, and hopefully they can recover some from the credit card and some from us. Depending on the business size and how much future bookings they have, it may not be enough. We take it seriously, and our goal is to help them get whole again.
Q: A USTOA survey shows that 82% of members believe sales will increase in 2020. That's good news for an election year in which some think there could be an economic slowdown.
A: I was personally pleased to see the optimism expressed in that survey about 2020. Anecdotally, I've heard that advanced sales look robust. The early indicators look encouraging. But an election year can be a challenging one, and I think this one in particular will be extremely challenging. So I hope when we're here a year from now, we find that our forecast materialized.
Q: Some of your members are moving away from using "tour operator." Will the USTOA go the way of ASTA, which went from using "agent" to "advisor"?
A: There is some repositioning within some of our members as far as how they brand and talk about the experience. Some use guided, some use escorted, some use tours. As a trade association, we've got a diverse portfolio of members, and we respect whatever somebody wants to do as far as how they brand and position their experiences.