Operators sweeten the pot to help spark Europe sales

The Brussels tourism office set up three public phones as part of its #CallBrussels campaign, including this one in the city’s Molenbeek borough.
The Brussels tourism office set up three public phones as part of its #CallBrussels campaign, including this one in the city’s Molenbeek borough.

In order to reignite Europe bookings, which have been lagging in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, tour operators have kicked off the busy selling season with more aggressive promotions and incentives than usual, hoping that their 2016 Europe business can still be salvaged.

“The expectation was that 2016 was going to be a good year,” said Trafalgar President Paul Wiseman. Then, two things happened: The news media seized onto coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, and a series of deadly terror attacks were carried out in Paris. We saw, pre-Christmas, the growth that we had all but evaporated."

So, in order to minimize any potential losses that might spill over into 2016, tour operators have started off the year by investing in loftier deals and more attractive travel agent incentives in an effort to get the Europe travel market moving again, and it appears to be working somewhat.

Many operators, for example, have managed to negotiate more favorable fares with airline partners, which in turn is helping to convert travelers they say are still in a bit of wait-and-see mode with Europe.

Steve Born, senior vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands, said, “Our airline partners have been more accommodating, as they’ve seen strong results and see that we can move market share for them with a good offer to pair with our land [packages].”

Born said the company’s Europe bookings thus far are up slightly year over year, and he attributes that in part to an aggressive air offer the company introduced at the start of the year for flights to Europe with Globus, Avalon and Monograms itineraries.

“That had an immediate impact, as we had a very strong first week of the year,” he said. “My sense is that agents are beginning to use deals like this to work very hard to let their clients know that now is the time to make your travel plans.”

Wiseman said Trafalgar’s shareholders decided to invest tens of millions of dollars in order to extend Trafalgar’s early payment discount (which includes both a reduction of the packaged tour price and an airfare discount), originally scheduled to expire on Dec. 17, until Jan. 28. In the first week of January, Trafalgar’s Europe bookings came in ahead of 2015 bookings in three out of the first five selling days.

But Wiseman cautioned that deals alone are not the solution.

“I think the promotions are definitely kicking in,” he said. “But there is an underlying concern from our point of view that unless we address this issue of confidence, the overwhelming sentiment can undermine the market.”

He said that unless tour operators and travel agents are more proactive about re-instilling confidence in a shaken traveling public, the 2016 season is still at risk.

“You cannot make up in July for what you need to sell in February,” Wiseman said. “The peak is always somewhere in [the first quarter of the year], so who takes the role to counterbalance the negativity? It has to be the industry.”

Along those same lines, in an effort to offset the drop in foreign tourism to Brussels in the wake of the arrest of terror suspects in the city and subsequent lockdown that followed the Paris attacks, Visit Brussels launched a campaign it hopes will help re-instill some of that confidence in potential foreign visitors.

Dubbed the #CallBrussels campaign, it was designed to enable locals to convince visitors of the safety of their city. Three phone booths were installed at the Mont des Arts, the Place Flagey and in the Place Communale, which is in the city’s Molenbeek borough, so that passersby could answer calls from foreign tourists. The calls were made to the phones between Jan. 7 and Jan. 11 via the website Call.brussels, and a webcam filmed the interactions.

According to Visit Brussels, 12,688 people from 154 countries called in. A film portraying those calls is being broadcast on Call.brussels and on YouTube.

“Over the past few weeks, the international media has portrayed Brussels as a war zone that tourists would do well to avoid,” Visit Brussels said in a statement. “This has obviously had dire consequences for the tourist sector, which is currently experiencing a noticeable decline. Yet life goes on, and the European capital is as packed as ever with tourist and cultural activities.”

As for how much and whether the suicide bomb explosion in Istanbul last week, which killed 10 people, including nine German tourists, will negatively impact travel to Turkey, tour operators last week said it was too soon to tell.

Elsewhere in the world

As operators and destination marketing organizations in Europe continue to fight to rebuild Europe’s reputation as a safe and desirable place to visit, other destinations have already started the year off with stronger bookings.

Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette, said the operator has seen a lot of interest in travel to Canada as well as in domestic travel, specifically to the national parks, which were expected to see a boost this year due to all the publicity surrounding the centennial anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service.

Born said 2016 is looking like a “tremendous year” for North America, the South Pacific and Asia, with South America also continuing to show growth. Those destinations, combined, are up more than 20% year to date compared with last year, he said.

“Within that, I do believe there are some travelers who have ‘traded’ from Europe plans, but in large measure, it’s more due to the appeal of those destinations than out of concern for Europe,” said Born.

“For example, if you had a National Parks tour on your wish list for a while, [there is] no better year than 2016 due to the centennial.”

Felicity Long contributed to this report.

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