Slower travel. Smaller groups. Private everything. Shorter, more local stays. And an emphasis on the great outdoors over mainstream, popular urban destinations.
With every crisis comes changes, but never before has there been as much speculation about the degree to which travel companies will have to rethink — or “pivot” — their products, markets and business models as during Covid-19.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that the seven-month-long near-shutdown in international travel has given travel companies lots of time to think and plan. The downside is that the fast-changing nature of the pandemic has made some of the early pivots irrelevant.
Still, many of the products being brought to market for the expected return to travel are not so much new as reflections of trends and changes that were already taking place before the pandemic but are now accelerating.
And with so many unknowns regarding how long the pandemic will last, when borders to popular destinations like Europe will reopen and when we might see a vaccine or effective treatments, the big question for travel companies remains whether changes in consumer travel demand and habits will be temporary or mark more permanent shifts in behavior.
“That is the million-dollar question,” said Liam Dunch, who oversees Europe products for Abercrombie & Kent.
“My personal feeling is that, like a lot of these other crises — and we have been through quite a few — over time, the pendulum is going to swing back to the norm.”
As widely predicted, domestic and regional travel reopened first, as the bulk of borders remain closed to Americans.
And while some package operators and traditional inbound tour operators have had some success by quickly pivoting to more domestic offerings, most traditional guided travel companies abandoned plans for even U.S. tours this summer when varying state responses to surges made it difficult to navigate constantly changing state rules about quarantines and openings.
Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, for instance, created short, seven-day trips in Hawaii, Louisiana and the Southwest in hopes of restarting domestic travel while Europe and other destinations remained close. Initially, those were well-received, said Jon Grutzner, president of the two brands. And while those will be available for 2021, he predicts they will be temporary offerings.
“Ultimately, if people are going to do short-term, closer-to-home trips, they are going to do it on their own,” he said.
Ben Perlo, managing director of U.S. operations for G Adventures, would agree. He believes once borders open there will be a lot of pent-up demand for resuming long-haul travel, because people have spent this year crossing domestic and national park visits off their bucket lists.
“I do think long-haul is going to bounce back very, very quickly and with some strength to it,” he said. “But it all depends on regulations and vaccines.
In the meantime, one pivot G Adventures has made is the launch of day tours in Boston and Toronto, where it has offices. It hopes to expand those offerings to keep customers engaged.
“This is just very, very small,” Perlo said. “We just want to make sure the audience knows we are still producing experiences.
“This is just the first iteration. I think we will do more. This will be a constant evolution.”
Another evolution has been the development of products by tour operators for local rather than inbound markets.
G Adventures, for instance, has had about 20 departures in September and October running in Europe for Europeans for what are basically existing programs. Intrepid Travel has also been running some shorter trips for local and regional markets outside of the U.S.
“It has been very successful,” Perlo said. “We filled those departures, which was our initial concern. And we got great feedback.”
Globus, likewise, has developed domestic products for the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand, although like in the U.S., it hasn’t been able to launch those yet, said Steve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus family of brands. Their first trips since the pandemic will run in Canada and the U.S. this month and next.
Some river cruise companies, including Tauck, Avalon, Amadeus and AmaWaterways, which normally focus almost exclusively on the North American market, have also initiated partnerships that have enabled them to launch limited sailings in Europe this summer for Europeans and other non-Americans while Europe remains off limits.
“We have been operating cruises serving Germans all summer,” said Tauck CEO Dan Mahar. “That’s gone very well. Customer satisfaction is very high, and the experience is very similar to the traditional river cruise experience.”
While the companies have said they don’t expect to change their long-term focus away from the North American market, which commands higher prices, Mahar said, he expects the results and new relationships with European tour operators will lead to increased diversity among their river cruise guests.
As Americans do venture back across international borders, one area where tour operators say they expect increased demand is for packages and guided travel that focuses on a single destination, or what is increasingly being dubbed “slow travel.”
Born said Globus has been offering more single-country and single-city trips over the past decade, particularly through its Cosmos brand, calling it a macro trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic as travelers seek experiences with limited exposure and less uncertainty around potentially changing border rules.
“We’re expecting that to become a lot more popular,” he said.
Likewise, Perlo said G Adventures hasn’t necessarily developed new single-destination itineraries, but “we are going to double down our effort” on “live like a local” products where guests stay in one place with a local bed-and-breakfast-type sole proprietor and venture out each day from there.
“We feel like that product is really going to resonate,” Perlo said.
Grutzner agreed, saying one of the fastest-growing products for Insight Vacations is its Easy Pace Journeys, which provide multiple three-night stays at destinations. It’s “for guests looking for a more leisurely paced trip,” he said.
African Travel, meanwhile, has launched the Platinum Collection, single-country trips that have been developed with Covid top of mind, catering to travelers seeking more space and privacy. They include features such as private air charters, private guides, private safari vehicles, private villas or suites and chauffeured transfers.
“These are created to make sure that throughout your journey, you are traveling with people in your protected bubble,” said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel.
For people looking to avoid group travel with resort stays, Kensington Tours recently launched what it has dubbed the Resort Collection, which offers both a luxury stay and local experiences at some of the world’s most beautiful island and beach destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, southern Europe and the South Pacific.
Kensington said it works with experts in each region to develop personalized activity options, including history, sailing, scuba diving, fine dining, spirits, ecology and architecture.
Small, private groups
Tour operators are also tweaking their products to meet pandemic-related demand for small, private groups, mostly families and groups of friends who want to travel in their own bubble.
Operators like Tauck and A&K have for years focused on smaller groups, but Mahar said they have tweaked their marketing to appeal to this growing segment.
And more traditional tour operators like Globus and the Travel Corporation are making it easier for small groups to book the itineraries they offer for larger group travel.
Globus, for example, is expanding its Small Group Journeys, previously available in Africa and select Asia destinations, across the board. Those are in addition to its European Private Touring program, which is being repositioned as particularly pandemic-friendly. That program enables groups of two to 24 to create their own version of any Globus Europe tour and tinker with it according to the interests of the group.
Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, meanwhile, are offering private trips for groups of 12 or more. The option, which includes a per person surcharge for groups under 25, is available for most of the company’s winter and spring itineraries throughout Europe and North America.
Insight Vacations also offers the option of custom small-group trips with a minimum of 10 guests. And African Travel is offering small private-group trips for six and under.
“I have seen a big takeoff on group travel,” Banda said. “This is custom groups. Again, people traveling within their bubble. The number of group inquiries that we have received year over year is up over double digits.”
Intrepid Travel, meanwhile, has combined a host of the growing trends into one: private, shorter stay, small-group tours focused on families that are based in a single location.
The four Family Retreats itineraries include three-, four- and five-day trips for groups of up to 12 in Morocco’s Toubkal National Park, Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and England’s Cornish countryside.
Intrepid said it also plans to launch several family-focused tours in the U.S. and Canada later this year for those who aren’t yet ready to travel abroad.
One company that has made virtually no changes to its product line in response to the pandemic is Tauck, where Mahar said surveys of guests show they still want the same immersive small group experiences they are known for.
“When you’re in the middle of a moment like this, someone always wants to talk about how everything is going to change and there is going to be a new normal and everything is going to be different. I don’t believe that to be the case,” he said.
“We’ve done surveys of our customers in May and August and will do another one again in November. Where customers anticipate traveling has largely not changed. In fact, I think the vast majority of customers who rebooked for 2021 chose the same exact itinerary.”
A&K’s Dunch agrees, particularly when people talk about the future of travel being focused on remote, less-explored destinations.
“People are still going to want to see Paris. They are still going to want to walk through the Louvre. They want to do Rome, Florence and Venice. I don’t think the larger cities are going to be deserted. I think short-term there will be a shift in focus, but my feeling is that in a couple of years, it’s going to swing back to how it’s always been.”