SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Executives attending the U.S. Tour Operators Association's annual conference said that booming sales before the attacks in Europe have been a saving grace.

"It was going to be a big banner year prior to the terror attacks," said Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette and chairwoman of the USTOA.

Prior to the coordinated Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, Collette was "up leaps and bounds for 2016," Twidale said. "Suddenly Paris happened and ... we lost that big bump."

She added that since Collette was so far ahead going into 2016, "we were just slightly down from where we budgeted."

John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours, said that his company, too, was flying high prior to the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice.

"Leading into 2016, we were up, we were really up, to the point where we got giddy," said Stachnik. "We got to March 2016 and things started going downhill to the point where we are behind where we were a year ago. Now, don't feel too sorry for us because since 2010, we're still up 80%."

Stachnik said that beginning in March 2016, Mayflower Tours' sales were down for seven straight months compared with the prior year. But starting in October, things started to turn around. Sales in October were up 10% over the year before, and sales in November were up 50%, so he is cautiously hoping that business is starting to rally.

Tour operators are conveying to agents and travelers that it's a great time to hop the pond.

"The good news is that everybody is reporting extremely strong forward bookings for 2017, and indeed, if you wanted a perfect scenario for Americans traveling to Europe, you have it here -- a continent with availability and a hunger for business, and a dollar showing the sort of muscular strength not seen for 30 years," said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tour Operators Association.

According to Tommy Ryder, head of groups for wholesaler Travel Bound, "Paris has had a major comeback at the moment." He added that now is the time for U.S. travelers to go to Europe, with a favorable exchange rate, lower occupancy rates and attractive airfares.

Despite the challenging year tour operators faced in 2016, the industry still experienced growth overall, albeit much more modest growth than in years past.

In a USTOA annual survey of its members, tour operators reported an estimated total of $14.8 billion in sales for 2016, 3.5% ahead of the $14.3 billion in sales they reported last year. That is down from 5.5% growth in 2015 and 8.7% growth in 2014. USTOA said 88% of members responded to the survey.

Tour operators will have moved 8.58 million passengers by the end of 2016, flat growth from the 8.55 million they moved last year, USTOA said.

The USTOA's "hot" destinations list for 2017 has Cuba ranked No. 1, followed by Italy, Iceland, the U.K., Spain, Ireland and Australia.


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