Tour groups likely to be small during measured restart

A tour group pauses for a photo in Italy last year. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jeri Clausing
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As travel companies look to resume operations in a post-pandemic world, tour operators say they are expecting a slow and phased restart as they evaluate every aspect of their operations to meet a new normal that remains largely unclear.

“When you shut down something as big as this, when you have a threat as big as this, it’s going to take a bit of time to reopen it,” said Tauck CEO Dan Mahar.

Indeed, for companies whose products rely on guaranteed airlift, open hotels and restaurants, a variety of local and regional partnerships and unfettered border crossings, restarting operations will depend on a number of complex factors  --  not the least of which is ensuring that all of those partners have instituted adequate health and safety protocols and are following local mandates.

“We need to know the rules,” said Globus family of brands CEO Scott Nisbet. “This whole situation made us look at everything. We are looking at potential new ways to do groups, different destinations to focus on, slightly different ways of traveling. We’re looking at all of it.”

So while many tour operators hope to resume travel this summer or fall, executives say they are unlikely to see any real recovery until 2021.

In the short term, companies that sell guided travel say they are focusing on domestic offerings and expanding what was already a growing trend toward smaller groups and more intimate activities.

“One of the key perspectives on this is that many of the trends that were dominant trends driving our strategy before are still relevant post-Covid 19,” Mahar said. 

“Pre-Covid, the whole focus was on overtourism. We had a lot of focus on breaking into smaller groups, reducing the number of guests of per guide, making smaller riverboats, smaller cruise ships -- all designed to make things more personal.”

Those changes, he said, “are perfect for a post-Covid-19 world.”

“We feel very confident that we were moving in the right direction, now more than ever,” Mahar said.

Other companies said they, too, were focusing on smaller groups.

“We’ve had small group touring for over 10 years,” said Jeff Roy, executive vice president of Collette. “It was doing extremely well this year. And it’s up in the high double digits next year. But classic touring continues to do well also.”

Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours, which specializes in Ireland and the U.K., agreed.

“I can guarantee that for this transition period ... there will be much more smaller groups,” she said.

But in the long term, she said she sees no signs that the traditional coach tours of 30 to 50 people will go away.

“The fact is we actually have people calling and booking and expecting to get on a full coach,” she said. “What that tells me is it’s not going to disappear. There are still people who like being with people and who like the value of large tours.”

“The No. 1 reason people take a tour is, it’s easy,” Nisbet said. “Travel is going to be much more difficult for a time. We are very good at maneuvering around hassles. We will know all those guidelines and rules so travelers don’t have to. We will be able to skip lines, which makes it easier and safer. We will know all the hotels and venues that have the right protocols in place, so we can keep people safer.

“If you think about it, if you are with the same group, whether it’s 20 people or 40, you are with the same group of people all the time,” he said. “If you go on a hop-on, hop-off bus ... you are going to be exposed to more risk.”

While most agree a 2020 restart in guided travel will focus largely on North America or itineraries that focus on just one or two countries, there remains a strong appetite in 2021 for Europe and more exotic locales, the executives said. African safaris in particular are doing really well, Mahar said. And Roy said, “South Africa is off the charts for us next year.”

Adventure operators Intrepid and G Adventures have said they are also seeing high demand for Latin America, particularly Peru and the Galapagos.

For now, like the rest of the industry, tour operators are focused on making sure they and their partners have the proper health and safety protocols in place, from cleaning coaches more thoroughly and often to providing lots of hand sanitizer and masks and making sure all their partners are meeting proper standards.

“We know we have to take health and safety to a completely different dimension,” Crabill said.

The companies said they are working collaboratively through the USTOA and with other industry groups such as IATA and CLIA to adopt the best standards.

The Travel Corporation previewed what some of the changes will look like last week when it released an outline of its new protocols, which include training its drivers to clean coaches more thoroughly, ensuring guests maintain social distance on coaches, splitting guests into smaller groups for meals and other stops and keeping lots of hand sanitizer and masks on hand.

“As we adapt to this new world, our dedicated, diligent ... team members across the globe are preparing and will be implementing enhanced training, procedures and numerous new measures throughout our various guest experiences offered, with the very best possible care and service,” Travel Corporation CEO Brett Tollman said in announcing the changes. “These new protocols will be adapted and adjusted as needed, in a timely manner, as governments define and implement what will be required in each country.”

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