Myth or reality: Are travel agents really booking more new clients nowadays?

Group bookings are in demand: “Agents should be reaching out to clients, the business is there”

TORONTO — Even in these atypical travel times, there are booking trends. 

And after almost 18 months of the COVID roller coaster, with restrictions on everything from leaving the house, to socializing, to leaving the country, one of the biggest trends for forward bookings is group vacations.  

Agents are seeing an uptick, and so are suppliers.

“There is definitely a demand for groups,” says Pat Brady, National Groups Director for Transat. “We started seeing an increase in sales back in late winter 2020/early spring 2021 for fall 2021 / winter 2022 departures.”

While there’s still demand for group vacations for this winter, she adds, Transat is also now seeing increased demand for summer 2022 and winter 2023 too. “Summer 2022 demand includes Europe and South programs,” says Brady.

Travelweek touched base with both sides of the distribution channel as part of an ongoing series of articles looking at travel trends coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Travel advisor Kim Hartlen has a group departure on the calendar already – for fall 2021. The Halifax-based advisor’s Kim Hartlen Travel-TPI agency is known for its hosted group trips, notably with Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts.

“Kim Hartlen Travel hosted groups are doing very well and my first group is off to Beaches Turks & Caicos in October 2021,” says Hartlen.

Group travel is Hartlen’s bread and butter and while the pandemic has impacted her business – as it has for everyone – she’s come back strong. “I have been personally hosting group travel for the last 14 years and each year I add on more groups. For 2022 I have three groups and the response has been amazing. People want to get back travelling and they want me to be there for them.” 

Groups, particularly hosted groups, could have an edge in the market as travellers seek not just booking assistance, but also on-the-ground support. Clients are now navigating a world where travel has been transformed, and travel advisors are in a key position to guide the way. Says Hartlen: “More than ever people are seeing the value and want to feel safe when they get back travelling again.”

Melissa Erskine is another travel advisor finding success with hosted groups. The Burlington, ON-based Erskine linked up with another Nexion Canada agent, Teena Dowd, and as a team they facilitate a growing number bookings for cruise groups, plus some all-inclusive groups as well.

Erskine and Dowd are using smart strategies to showcase cruise ship health and safety protocols. Simply put, if a client is reluctant to come to the cruise ship, then Erskine and Dowd will bring the cruise ship to the client – virtually, at least. “Teena went on two cruises recently with two different suppliers and documented the whole process for our clients,” says Erskine. “We want to instill confidence in cruising again.”

And what about wedding groups? Few sectors of the travel industry have been upended more than destination weddings. The good news is, destination wedding bookings are picking up.

 “Weddings continue to be a big portion of our sales. Now many are planning for winter 2023 and summer 2023,” says Transat’s Brady.

Brady adds: “The feedback I have heard is that wedding ceremony slots are filling up with the popular hotels.”

The uptake for those wedding ceremony slots is no doubt fuelled in large part by U.S. couples now that Americans are travelling in droves again.

Karen Lantigua, owner of Oakville, ON’s, says she’s had “lots and lots of enquiries” for weddings and has even booked a destination wedding for December 2021. 

Now Lantigua is waiting for those enquiries to convert to bookings. “Our conversion rate is much lower than usual [with the pandemic] so we are not seeing the bookings coming in compared to the number of leads we are getting,” she says.

Still, says Lantigua, “I do feel confident that we will see more commitment in the coming months.

As for more traditional groups of friends and family travelling together, Transat’s Brady adds that she’s seeing a growing trend of smaller leisure groups where family and friends are re-connecting.  “We anticipate there will continue to be opportunity for agents with this segment throughout fall/winter 2021/22 departures, as there could be last minute bookings, i.e. within four months of departure,” says Brady.

Small family groups are booking key vacation periods including Christmas 2021,  school break 2022 and Easter 2022, she adds.

“Agents should be reaching out to clients. The business is there,” says Brady. 

To read the full article, including details about Transat’s group booking incentives, click here.