This story originally ran in the June 4, 2020 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — Companies normally ‘think big’, but when it comes to escorted group touring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many will instead ‘think small’ with sized-down tour groups, as they formulate plans for restarting operations in a very different world.
Just like with the big-ship cruise lines with thousands of passengers in a contained space, just like airlines and long-haul air travel, all eyes are on escorted tour companies to see how they will navigate post-COVID-19 travel expectations, with all the social distancing and health and safety protocols that come with them.
Marketing messages will change accordingly. A new survey by the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), with many members operating in Canada as well as the U.S., shows that 79% of USTOA members say they will approach messaging to consumers and the trade differently than in the past, with the highest number of respondents citing more of an emphasis on health and safety, followed by the advantages of small group sizes.
Escorted tour companies, especially those operating in destinations in Asia and Europe, got a head start on dealing with the coronavirus crisis as COVID-19 swept across China and the rest of Asia in January 2020, and then Italy in February and March before impacting the rest of Europe, North America and the rest of the world.
Travelweek reached out to several escorted tour companies to get a sense of how they’re faring, what they have planned and to find out if escorted touring is still a compelling travel option in a post-pandemic world (the answer, of course, is a resounding yes).
While the bulk of Tourcan’s business is customized, private or semi-private tours, “the area where we will see changes is with group travel,” says Tourcan’s General Manager, Phillip Solomon.
He says Tourcan’s in-destination suppliers are already looking at ways they can ensure healthy travel conditions, for everything from the number of people in a coach and in safari vehicles, to how to deal with numbers of people visiting sites.
Tourcan clients impacted by cancellations, who are under deposit or fully paid up, get up to two years from the original date of travel to take their trip, pending supplier terms and conditions.
Asked what destinations will open up first for Tourcan, Solomon agrees with prevailing opinion that local travel will probably be the first to get off the ground, followed by destinations that are within easy reach. “In this latter category, destinations we sell such as Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and maybe Peru could be some of the first as they may be identified as ‘closer to home’. Longer haul travel to destinations in Asia and Africa will probably take a bit longer.”
Tourcan is working hard to stay in touch with agents, and clients, through informational webinars. “These are not hard-sell events, but rather information events and destination specific,” says Solomon.
The challenge – and this is true across the industry – is the long list of unknowns. “We are all still in a developing learning curve right now and what constituted a group three months ago, may no longer apply in the future,” he says.
GLOBUS FAMILY OF BRANDS
Navigating the coronavirus crisis “has been a whirlwind to say the least and we wouldn’t be where we are today without the strong partnerships we have developed over our 92+ years with our travel advisor community and all our partners around the world,” says the Globus family of brands’ Director of Marketing, Chris Jones.
The company’s ‘Dreaming Doesn’t Stop’ campaign and Destination Series of short informative webinars have been well received by agents, he adds.
Italy is the backbone of the company’s product offering, so Globus was dealing with COVID-19 very early on, back in late February when Italy began to shut down. And even before that, when Asia was first impacted.
The company has established a worldwide On-Trip Assurance program with enhanced protocols and procedures, says Jones, and that includes safe distancing and masks. The wireless Globus Go Beyond listening devices in Europe allow for safe distances between tour participants.
Jones says Globus’ “robust portfolio of amazing Canadian tours” – including many tours that are probably already on people’s bucket lists – will give the company an advantage when travel reopens and those first trips, no doubt domestic, get booked. “From Newfoundland & Labrador, to exploring the Gaspé peninsula to experiencing the wonder of the Inside Passage, there is undoubtedly something for everyone,” says Jones.
THE TRAVEL CORPORATION (TTC)
With 42 brands, many of which offer escorted tours, The Travel Corporation (TTC) is heavily invested in the future of group travel.
Asked what keeps him up at night amid the coronavirus crisis, TTC Chief Executive Brett Tollman says: “To be honest, everything keeps me up at night right now. There is such a deep worry for everyone.”
In addition to the socio-economic impact, with millions out of work or furloughed, and the immediate health crisis itself, Tollman says there are worries “about when this is all going to over or when we will recover as nobody knows what the future holds. … We recognize that it could take some time and we don’t have control over what happens to our incredible industry which includes our loyal Travel Advisor partners who are struggling to make ends meets right now, our airline partners who are losing hundreds of millions of dollars every week. Everyone in the industry is hurting.”
And yet there are opportunities too amid the pandemic, as it forces companies to reevaluate best practices, and adjust accordingly. “In terms of opportunities, we are looking at different ways to operate and different ways to become contactless and touchless sooner. We have ramped up our technology investments to prepare for these future times,” says Tollman.
Among its new protocols, TTC will be adapting to the right size groups, based on government distancing requirements.
The brands are also working to ensure travellers are divided into smaller groups at each stop, so that physical distancing requirements can be met. Stringent on the road safety protocols, and travel directors trained in TTC’s new and enhanced hygiene and physical distancing procedures, are two more additions to a long list of new protocols from the company.
Other initiatives could include the possible installation of dividers on the back of every headrest, having an empty seat next to guests to align with new distancing protocols, and how guests will disembark and board the company’s luxury motor coaches, says Tollman.
He also says TTC is “looking at all the steps along the way throughout the journey in getting from point A to B. Unlike a 5,000-ocean passenger ship, we will truly look to offer small group travel.”
Tollman says TTC will soon be announcing its new domestic guided holidays “that are very much designed for your Canadian market due to pent-up demand for Canadians yearning to travel again and who would like immersive and authentic local experiences in their own backyard.”
TTC works very closely with the trade and that relationship with agents will continue, he adds. “In today’s world and even tomorrow’s, protecting the profitability of our Travel Advisors’ business is important.”
TTC is hosting agent training webinars on the future of travel and these new protocols. Advisors are also receiving brand emails and updates from their Sales Managers with webinar dates and session times.
Asked about the impact of COVID-19 on CIE Tours’ operations, as travel restrictions begin to lift in some countries (but are still a factor in Canada), Rosanne Zusman, Chief Commercial Officer for the Ireland and Scotland specialist, has this to say: “We are encouraged that people’s enthusiasm for travel is still undeniably there. In addition to the many 2021 bookings that are the result of re-scheduled 2020 departures we have some entirely new bookings coming through which is a positive indicator.”
Zusman says CIE is anticipating demand for smaller tours and private experiences as people return to travel with more caution. “We have already seen significant growth in demand for private and small group itineraries over the past few years, particularly for specialty itineraries and multigenerational travel. This trend may increase even more so going forward,” she says.
Face masks, sanitizing stations, more frequent coach cleanings will no doubt be part of the new regime going forward, and possibly health questionnaires and/or temperature checks, says Zusman. “These are potential new protocols the industry is exploring.”
In destination, like other escorted tour companies, CIE is working around the clock to confirm new safety and health protocols with its ground handlers.
And just as tour operators are adjusting, most local suppliers are still planning in conjunction with local authorities, and the situation and requirements are evolving rapidly. “Stay tuned,” says Zusman.
ROYAL IRISH TOURS
“We are surviving,” says RIT Sales Manager, Jonathan Sargeant, when asked how the company is doing amid the pandemic. Agents can reach RIT res staff who are working at home. “If advisors do have queries about bookings, they can email us, or they won’t be on hold for long periods if they call, and it’s definitely the best way to get in touch with us,” says Sargeant.
As for bookings, Sargeant says RIT has moved the majority of its passengers on up to Aug. 31, 2020 departures to 2021 dates. “I would say 80% of guests have been happy to move, and accept our future travel credits, while the rest have chosen to cancel.”
He adds: “It’s a tough time, but we are trying to use it wisely, and on a positive note, we will have more lead-in time to plan for 2021. While group travel is a key part of our business, the FIT side is also strong, so we anticipate we might see an increase in FIT and smaller family group trips in 2021.”
Sargeant says RIT is looking at using larger coaches for smaller groups when it restarts operations. “Our first class coach tours generally operate with 38 guests maximum on a large 45-seater coach. We will now either run two coaches for this size a group, or have a maximum of 22 – 24 guests on a coach this size. However, we are waiting for some guidance from governments in both Ireland and the UK in terms of what the maximum allowed on a coach will be.
Like everyone else, Sargeant says it can be tough to know what the new normal will be in the interim.
Neverthless, Sargeant and RIT Sales Executive, Orla Killeen continue to reach out to advisors with updates, “albeit virtually”, through weekly Zoom webinars, virtual trainings and Facebook Live. And, he adds, “good old fashioned phone calls.”