Agents, operators: Domestic is an easier sell

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NEW YORK -- As travel bookings begin to rebound, travel agents and tour operators are reporting that not all destinations are bouncing back at the same rate.

Overall, domestic and North American itineraries appear to be an easier sell, though some travel professionals are not optimistic about big events such as the Super Bowl.

And while international business is coming back for some firms, clients seem to be wary of Europe.

At Maupintour, president Heinz Niederhoff said some clients have "switched European bookings to domestic. It's not overwhelming, and it's short term."

Though Europe is down, Niederhoff said Maupintour's bookings for the new year are still strong to South America, Asia, China and East Africa.

"What people are afraid of is not flying but being away from the family," he said. "They want to go to closer destinations, in case they become stranded. They want to be where they can drive home."

In the same vein, Douglas Risser, co-owner of Menno Travel Service in Goshen, Ind., which has a significant motorcoach business, said, "I definitely think there is more of an interest in booking trips closer to home because of uncertainty about what will occur."

"I think that come January, North America will have had a very strong year, with other areas like Europe suffering from lower tourism. But domestically, it wouldn't surprise me if consumers stay away from some of the bigger name places like Disney and the Super Bowl for fear they might be potential targets," he added.

Likewise, Margaret Webber, an outside agent at Clock Tower Travel in Sharon, Conn., said her firm has seen a rise in demand for domestic travel. She suggested agents try to exploit the trend with suggestions to go "off-the-beaten path."

"Rather than going to the usual major populated centers, clients can visit lots of different rural communities across the country in places like Maine, the Adirondacks, Hershey or Lancaster, Pa., coastal New England, Cape Cod," she said. "Clients have a good opportunity now to visit some of the places they've always wanted to see."

Suzanne Slavitter, vice president of Sports Empire of Los Angeles, said, "Agents are telling me they are still selling domestic travel. Nascar races are still selling." The Super Bowl, however, is down.

"I don't expect it to be a great Super Bowl season, although we are still selling, even with the date change," she said. "The 25% we are down is all the Super Bowl."

Slavitter said she also has seen a shift toward more moderately priced products.

John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours, said, "A large majority of our bookings are domestic motorcoach. Not only are individuals saying they want motorcoach tours, the really sharp group buyers are adjusting to the marketplace and saying they want motorcoach and train tours."

Stachnik said while bookings overall are back to 70% of normal, international bookings are lagging. In past crises, such as the Gulf war, Stachnik said, "domestic motorcoach travel came back first, then domestic air travel, then international air travel."

That trend is playing into the hands of Brennan Tours president Robert Brennan, who said the company is getting a good response to "European Vacations in Canada" that were introduced last August based on economic trends.

The rail-based itineraries emphasize the British cultural influence in British Columbia and the French culture and history of Quebec.

"We're already getting responses to those new tours," Brennan said. "From the comments from the agent community, they may have had people going to France, now for the next year or two they are going to stay closer to home. Clients want to fly three to five hours, not much more."

But Far & Wide chief executive Phil Bakes said that while Europe is slow, other long-haul destinations are picking up some of the difference.

"The more popular destinations are going to be the South Pacific, Asia -- China in particular -- and North America as a whole. Latin America is going to be a beneficiary. We're way ahead of where we were last year [for Latin America]. As to Europe there is some natural reluctance. It will be fine, but in the short term it's not a growth market."

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