Lucrative group travel making a strong comeback, say agents, tour operators

Lucrative group travel making a strong comeback, say agents, tour operators

TORONTO — Talk about a quick pivot.

After two years of tiptoeing around promoting travel, lest any pro-travel messaging sounded tone-deaf during the pandemic, travel advisors are now so inundated with booking requests they’re having to set up auto-responses telling clients how best to secure their time and expertise.

That’s certainly the case for Cindy Almond, owner of Romance and Foodie Travel, and a group travel specialist.

Almond puts it this way in her automatic email message: “Due to the overwhelming demand for travel plan management, I currently have a waitlist for incoming travel inquiries. I pride myself on excellent service and as such, in order to provide that level of service I cannot take on too many clients at once!”

Anyone interested in Almond’s services can use her online calendar to book an appointment. Urgent requests are directed to a member of her team, whether it’s about an all-inclusive vacation, a destination wedding, Europe, Disney and more.

Almond’s agency does its fair share of group business, and we asked her what trends she’s seeing with her group bookings.

Groups have always been a lucrative side of the leisure travel market for travel agents and tour ops too, and private ‘bubble’ groups were among the first to come back when travel restarted last year.

That’s still happening, only now the bubbles are bigger, with more family members.

“More and more I’m getting small groups of four or five families travelling together for an all-inclusive getaway,” Almond tells Travelweek. “And they’re planning earlier than usual for winter, and asking for March Break 2023 already.”

Long lead times for groups are common – but so are very short booking windows, as bookings at this point in the pandemic continue to swing from one extreme to the other.

Says another group travel expert, Transat’s National Groups Director, Pat Brady: “The biggest group trend we are seeing right now is around the booking window. More friends and family groups are looking to travel last minute (within 60 days of booking), whereas these trips were normally booked further out.”

One of the biggest segments of the groups market – destination weddings – is well into recovery mode, adds Brady. Her message to travel agents with wedding clients? Book soon.

“Destination weddings are also coming back and some of the key hotels offering wedding packages are rapidly filling up. Agents should book as quickly as possible to secure their clients’ first choice,” says Brady.

“KEEPING AHEAD OF DEMAND”

One challenge with group travel’s recovery is the slow turnaround times with getting group quotes.

Many tour operators haven’t been able to re-hire employees fast enough. While things are improving, some travel advisors are stuck in the middle of a tough situation, asking for patience from clients looking to book while losing patience waiting for the quote to come back from the supplier.

That hasn’t been an issue for Goway.

While the tour operator – like many in the industry – is at the mercy of the local suppliers who may be short-staffed, Goway’s Shirley Rourke says Goway was able to bring back the majority of its team last year. “Since then we have steadily been recruiting and will continue to recruit to assist in keeping ahead of demand. Goway’s Groups Only is fully staffed and able to turn around quotes fairly quickly.”

Rourke, now with Goway for more than 17 years, has been immersed in group travel in recent months, taking over the role of VP, Goway’s Groups Only from industry veteran Barbara Norton.

We wanted to know what group travel trends she’s tracking, from the tour operator side. Just like Almond and Brady, Rourke reports shorter lead times. “Generally groups book 12-18 months out. Now we’re seeing lead in time reduced to three to six months.”

She adds that as destinations open, more group travel bookings are coming in for more far-flung spots including Dubai, Iceland, Europe and Africa. Not surprisingly, given Goway’s specialty in Australia and New Zealand, group bookings are coming in for those destinations too. Australia is now open to fully vaccinated Canadians, and New Zealand follows suit May 1.

For the full story check out the April 14, 2022 issue of Travelweek here.