With strong advance sales already on the books, travel agents are looking to 2017 as a year of growth, barring unpredictable or unforeseen issues.

"Projections on '17 are incredible," said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer at Travelsavers and the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel. "We are seeing high-double-digit increases and projections on '17 in just about every segment."

Advance bookings for 2017 are looking solid enough at Cruise Planners that the network is already starting to focus on marketing initiatives for the third and fourth quarters of the year, said COO Vicky Garcia.

But overall, it is a cautious optimism, and with good reason. A little over 12 months ago, in the fall of 2015, the year ahead looked like it would be a very positive growth year, yet 2016 ended up being fraught with trials that agents were forced to overcome, from the terrorist attacks in Europe to Zika to the uncertainty of the U.S. presidential election. Yet overcome they did, with most reporting good results, albeit not as good as initially expected, toward the tail-end of 2016.

Virtuoso is expecting year-over-year growth of between 4% and 5%, according to David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships.

Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales at Avoya Travel, said 2016 "was OK, but it was a bite-scratch-and-claw year where you had to really, really work."

2016: Overcoming obstacles

One major hurdle to overcome in 2016 were terrorist attacks throughout Europe, first in Paris at the end of 2015, then in Brussels and Nice, France, in 2016. But European bookings are on the upswing heading into the new year, a positive sign for the next 12 months.

Koepf said that while he doesn't anticipate business coming back to where it was in the years leading up to the Paris attacks, "certainly I think that the demand is climbing back up and  there has just been such a natural desire to travel there that I think Europe is going to see a stronger year" in 2017.

"There's the pent-up demand of 'We didn't go to Europe last year,' or 'Let's go now,'" said Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network.

Europe bookings in the year ahead will also likely be aided by seasoned travelers who tend to travel irrespective of world events, unlike some first-time travelers who might be more put off by a Europe trip in the aftermath of an incident.

Agents can expect demand to resume with the conclusion of the U.S. presidential election, which executives said was undoubtedly a factor affecting sales in 2016. Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of Signature Travel Network, called the election a "major distraction" in 2016 that "kept clients from making decisions until 2017."

Now, though, agents are enjoying a sales bump from "pent-up demand" following the end of the election, Travelsavers' Mazza said. That demand is bleeding into 2017 bookings.

The results of that election, however, have given birth to one of biggest unknowns heading into the new year: what effect the Trump administration and its policies will have on travel and tourism.

One of the biggest question marks involves Trump's position on travel to Cuba. Regulations on Americans' travel to the island were loosened significantly by president Obama, but president-elect Trump has threatened to roll back those changes on a couple of occasions.

Putting an end to Americans' opportunities to travel to the island would effectively shut down a niche that many agents are just beginning to tap into: Demand for Cuba travel is high, as indicated by the island's ranking as the No. 1 emerging destination in 2017 on Virtuoso's Luxe Report, a survey of 772 of the consortium's agency partners.

"We have a new president-elect, and what he and his new platform decide to do with things like Cuba, we've got our eyes [continuing] to watch that," Fiorino said.

Zika was another negative factor in 2016, with headlines dominating consumer media for the first half of the year. However, as media attention has died down, so, too, have inquiries from agents' clients. Most said that while the virus did have an impact on business, often shifting travelers of childbearing age away from destinations where Zika was being locally transmitted, its overall effects were not as bad as expected.

For example, while CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. reported witnessing a destination shift among younger clients, "We never saw a significant impact to begin with," said senior vice president Debbie Fiorino.
In fact, Fiorino said the companies are expecting increases in both cruises and resort vacations headed into the new year. She forecasted "significant growth" for resort vacations, especially.

The value of the U.S. dollar, especially compared with currencies like the euro and the British pound, certainly promises a good year ahead. Travelers' dollars will stretch further overseas, making trips more affordable and attractive.

Technology will also likely play a big part in 2017. Between consortia, hosting networks and third-party providers, new technology has been consistently introduced over the past few years, and more is in the pipeline to improve agents' workflow and communications with clients.

New hope for the new year

Travelsavers' Mazza said that 2017 "is looking extremely optimistic. Agencies not only within our group [but] within the industry that we have been speaking with are seeing a tremendous surge of business, which is fantastic for our industry."

In particular, she said, travelers are looking for the expertise and services that agents offer.

"It's just a fantastic time to be within our industry because opportunities are incredible right now," she said.

Jamie Biesiada is Travel Weekly's senior editor covering retail.

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