TORONTO — The worst is finally behind us, at least that’s what CATO’s Brett Walker believes.
As Chair of the Canadian Association of Tour Operators, Walker has had his finger on the pulse of travel trends throughout the pandemic, advocating for policies that would stimulate the industry’s recovery and sounding the alarm on urgent needs of CATO’s members. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride, to say the least, with plenty of lows that tour operators are still recovering from.
But now, after nearly three years of the pandemic and many lessons learned, Walker tells Travelweek that he’s seeing a “strong demand curve,” and that booking windows are once again returning to typical pre-pandemic timelines.
“In 2022 we saw advance booking trends tighten or shorten compared to three, four years ago, which was understandable with so much uncertainty,” says Walker. “However, for 2023, we have seen the advance booking timelines expand to where they were before, which, for Europe and Australia, are generally eight months in advance of travel, and closer to nine months for Asia and Africa.”
In addition to longer booking windows, next year will also see operations largely return to normal, adds Walker.
“The labour markets, supply chains and having more supply in general are going to reduce many of the operational burdens the industry has faced in the past. And the fact that advance purchase timelines have settled back to where they were prior to the pandemic is another sign of consumer confidence in the future,” he says.
Next year’s success has been teed up by the significant strides made by tour operators this year, adds Walker. Despite ongoing challenges like inflation, high fuel costs and the war in Ukraine, there’s been a prolonged period of stability and certainty as a result of reopened borders and unimpeded travel that’s leading many people to book travel. In 2022, tried-and-true destinations did particularly well, says Walker, who also serves as General Manager of Collette.
“Destinations that were familiar seemed to be favoured by clients, with Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Costa Rica and our domestic tours, in particular the Maritimes, well outpacing all others,” says Walker.
But in 2023, booking trends are swinging towards the more exotic, he adds, with Australia and the South Pacific leading the charge among other far-flung destinations like Egypt, Jordan, South Africa and Peru.
All this is excellent news for travel advisors, who Walker says are more popular than ever, one of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic.
“For travellers who used a travel agent previously, they no doubt are even more convinced of their worth. And for those who were on the fence about using a travel agent prior to the pandemic, they are more likely to turn to a professional now for help,” says Walker. “Travel has become more complex. Apart from the administrative aspects of travel, there is now a greater sense of risk.”
He adds: “Who’ll be there to help in the event of further lockdowns or even repatriation? Travel agents. I am convinced more travellers want to enjoy their vacation without all the intricacies and transactions that are inevitably part of any itinerary, now more than ever.”
Despite the positive outlook for 2023, for both tour operators and travel advisors, Walker warns that there are still challenges ahead, namely recruiting and retaining staff. Throughout 2022, many suppliers have had to deal with staff shortages, which have led to long call centre hold times.
But Walker encourages everyone to continue to work together, to maintain that spirit of camaraderie and togetherness that united the industry throughout the pandemic. His advice heading into 2023?
“Leverage contacts,” he says. “We all have friends and acquaintances but we don’t always have the right contacts. We can all get caught up in reasons why it’s easier to simply stay in our own lane without worrying about others. But travel is a very complex ecosystem that includes inordinate parts and tourism partners, here, there and everywhere – each one with a particular view of things. CATO is just one organization among many that helps support collective issues and the health of our sector. We must continue to work together as an industry and support each other.”