It's Still Early But Avanti and USTOA Are Optimistic About Europe Bookings

Lapland, Finland Skiing
Among the remote locales that Avanti's guests are traveling to during a customized FIT is Lapland; that's often coupled with visits to Helsinki and other destinations in Finland. (Avanti Destinations)

Providing airlines re-establish or increase service on more European routes and more European countries develop specific international visitor protocols, “we anticipate that the number of travelers and of new bookings will reach 2019 levels by the end of the third quarter 2021,” says Paul Barry, CEO, Avanti Destinations.

While Barry notes that it's still a bit early to project the final 2021 bookings outcome, he's clearly optimistic.

Similarly, Terry Dale, president and CEO, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), tells Travel Agent that “we are feeling pretty darn optimistic... We did a survey where eight out of 10 active members…are enthusiastic, are cautiously optimistic about business in the third and fourth quarters of this year.”

Dale says USTOA members continue to provide positive comments to the trade association about how business is shaping up. He also believes the value proposition of the tour operator and travel advisor working together during the pandemic has been elevated.

While Dale stresses that “we never want to be too optimistic, we feel confident that things have certainly turned the corner.” In addition, he says USTOA’s members celebrated the fact that the European Union came out and said “we are ready to welcome U.S. travelers. Any step like that is huge."

Dale says that while each E.U. country still has the ability to create the right measures for their country and to protect their citizens, “it’s still signaling a very significant step from the E.U."

In the USTOA survey, Dale said members ranked Italy as tops for the most requested European destination for 2021 as well as 2022, while Greece, Iceland, Ireland and Germany were also high on the list.  

Trends in Europe Travel

As Europe begins to open up, Barry is seeing these developing trends for consumers booking his brand’s customized FITs. 

Multiple Locations, Closer Distances: While multi-destination, customized FIT itineraries have always been Avanti Destinations' specialty and continue to be in Europe, “we have seen a trend toward vacations that combine multiple destinations within one country, as opposed to multiple countries,” Barry tells Travel Agent.

For Avanti, Italy and Greece are tops in popularity this year among clients headed to Europe. Among their other top vacation choices are Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Croatia.

“Prior to COVID-19, Greece was in the top 10 [for Avanti], but never did this well,” says Barry, noting that it’s “definitely on the hot list.” One Avanti offering is the six-night "Greece: Splendors of the Southern Peloponnese," departing daily from Athens. Guests spend two nights in Athens, one night in Nafplion and three nights along the Peloponnese Coast.

Another insight? Prior to 2020, nearly all of Avanti’s bookings for Iceland were stopovers on the way to Europe. Barry says: “Now, we’re seeing complete Iceland itineraries, as well as combinations of Iceland with other European countries, such as Greece."

 
Acropolis, Athens, Greece

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece // Photo by TomasSereda/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

When multi-country is being booked, Barry says it’s both a classic combination of popular cities such as Budapest, Hungary, Prague in the Czech Republic, and Vienna, Austria, or combinations of less common city choices such as Amsterdam, Netherlands and Budapest; Munich, Germany and Portugal; or Rome, Zurich, Switzerland and Helsinki, Finland.

Iconic City Plus Secondary or Remote Locale: When travelers plan a European vacation, they’re often booking an itinerary that combines a capital city or popular city with a secondary city within that same country, or, alternatively, one that combines a city with “more remote locations where the countryside or nature are the main attractions,” says Barry.

He gives the examples of Croatia and its islands, Lapland in Finland and Greece and its isles. Barry also says that in Iceland, about 50 percent of Avanti’s room nights are booked outside of Reykjavik and similarly, 55 percent of room nights booked by Avanti in Ireland are outside of Dublin

Outdoor or Active Adventures: Advisors are adding a wide range of activities, including cycling and hiking, to custom vacations. “Roughly 10 percent of add-on ‘sightseeing tours/activities’ booked with us are for some sort of outdoor activity such as hiking or biking, especially in destinations outside in the countryside, Barry says, citing the popularity of those activities in Switzerland, Iceland and Scandinavia.

For example, in Finland and the Lapland region, Avanti offers a 10-day customized FIT that’s described as “Fantastic Finland – Summer: Helsinki, Ruka-Kuusamo, Rovaniemi & Kemi.” Travelers will explore Helsinki; experience Finland’s wilderness in the Ruka-Kuusamo area with hiking in Oulanka National Park or bear watching; and board a traditional riverboat on the way to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. This vacation is offered by Avanti from June through August.

In addition to hiking and biking, Avanti offers sailing tours, truffle hunting, ATV tours, horseback riding, snowmobiling, snowshoe treks, cross-country skiing, caving, snorkeling, kayaking and whitewater rafting.

“People want to be outdoors,” Dale acknowledges. “They want to experience something with nature.” He points to how Americans headed to U.S. National Parks in 2020 and earlier in 2021 and says that outdoor travel trend is global as well. 

For Iceland, between April and September, Abercrombie & Kent offers an eight-day “Fire and Ice” itinerary with many outdoor experiences. It's designed as a “Private Journey” and is priced from $13,495, per person, double occupancy.

More Trend Tidbits

European journeys are trending longer in duration. They’re also increasingly more private on many fronts. Barry cites more private sightseeing experiences and excursions being booked, as well as private transfers.

More pre-booking of entry tickets and day-tour options has also become the norm, given increased requirements for timed entries to museums and other attractions. In addition, many travel advisors are easing cruise clients into land FIT travel by adding on pre- or post-cruise extensions, Barry says. 

Aerial view over the village of Oberammergau

Passion Play performances in Oberammergau, Germany during 2022 are proving popular for U.S. travelers booking a European vacation. // Photo by manfredxy/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

For 2022, the once-a-decade Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany has always been a big draw and it is once again the case for next year, according to Avanti and other USTOA members

In addition, “even previous to the pandemic, we saw this trend of small group travel,” says Dale, noting that the pandemic accelerated that as people want to “travel with a bubble of family and friends who they trust” and believe are responsible in following safety protocols.

Even when opting for an escorted tour, offered by many USTOA members (not Avanti), travelers are seeking smaller groups. One option for exploring Portugal and Spain as a “Small Group Discovery” is Cosmos’ nine-day “Lisbon, Seville & Madrid” itinerary, which is an “active pace” tour. Guests spend three nights in Madrid, two nights in both Seville and Lisbon and one night in Portugal’s Coimbra.” This affordable tour is priced from $1,199 per person double for 2022.

The small group touring is likely to continue into the coming years. “That’s very much a trend and I think it will be for the foreseeable future,” notes Dale. People want to travel in smaller groups and with those they know. And for people traveling to and within Europe, the number one piece of advice from Barry? “We cannot overemphasize it,” he stresses, “book early.”

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