If 2022 is travel's comeback year, then sports tourism is aiming to be its MVP.
Luxury sports tours are more in demand than ever, according to packagers reporting their best year yet. They say pent-up demand for bucket-list competitions is sky-high after two-and-a-half years of pandemic-era restrictions and cancellations.
"The market is incredible right now," said Brian Ruede, COO of QuintEvents, a travel supplier that specializes in luxury sports event packages. "Formula One is on fire right now for QuintEvents. We're seeing a significant trend in people booking early and often. For the first time, a lot of events are completely selling out very early."
Revenue for QuintEvents' Formula One program is up more than 250% year to date from 2019. Excitement around new U.S. cities hosting the global racing events might be fueling the surge, Ruede said.
"This was the first year they did the race in Miami, and we just had the announcement that Las Vegas will come online in 2023," he said, adding that race locations Monaco; Silverstone, England; and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, are also among QuintEvents' biggest sellers this year.
The company also said that sales for the 2022 Kentucky Derby, held May 7, were up more than 65% from 2019 and 90% from 2021. That dovetails with numbers Louisville Tourism reported for the 2022 Derby, saying hotel occupancy rates were expected to reach 90%, surpassing the 2019 rate of 83%.
QuintEvents sold what it called Premium Access to the Derby with parties and in-track hospitality venues, offering what the company said was "by far the biggest experiential Kentucky Derby we've ever delivered."
"There's always your major, big bucket-list events where interest is driven because of the destinations," Ruede said. "But it's not always just the destination. A lot of times, it's the event itself."
Sales lagging for Qatar World Cup
At least one sports travel packager said that sales for the world's most popular sporting event are lagging this year for several reasons, including clients remaining wary of committing to international travel.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to host the soccer tournament. Due to the extreme desert heat in the Middle East during the summer, it's the first World Cup being held in November and December, as opposed to starting in late spring.
The time frame is another factor that Sports Traveler founder Anbritt Stengele said he believes is contributing to the company's lowest demand for World Cup sales in 16 years of offering the event. The company's Sports Traveler World Cup package includes a guided city tour and English-speaking hosts. "The event not being held in the summer creates a completely different dynamic for travelers to plan," Stengele said.
Sales of World Cup packages are lagging. Pictured, Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Photo Credit: Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy
The later dates, however, could work to Sports Travelers' advantage, Stengele said, as a longer selling period may give fans more time to decide if they want to attend, especially since travel restrictions and sporadic Covid outbreaks are still fresh in people's minds despite restrictions easing.
"Typically, interest for this event begins a year ahead of time, and strong bookings begin six to nine months ahead. The pandemic has changed all of this," Stengele said. "When we look at the destination and the pandemic situation around the world still continuing and creating uncertainty, I'm not surprised by this tempered interest right now."
The fact that the U.S. team qualified for the tournament at the end of March, after missing the 2018 tournament, could also boost sales from the U.S.
The event's organizers are also pulling out all of the stops to not only package the World Cup but the destination itself.
"As the first World Cup tournament held in the Middle East and Arab world, we have taken special care to infuse the Arab culture into every aspect of the tournament, meaning both the player and fan experience will be undoubtedly Middle Eastern from the moment they start their journey," said the Qatar entity overseeing the event.
The country has taken steps to ensure there will be sufficient accommodations, with cruise ships hosting visitors and regionally unique places to stay, such as "glamping-style desert camps."
Qatar Airways, the official airline of the event, offers flights from 13 North American gateways and is offering packages that include flights, accommodations and match tickets.