2007 Tour Trends: Report from USTOA

PHOENIX—"It wasn't fantastic, but it was a good year." This statement from Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), seems to best sum up the overall atmosphere of the New York-based organization's annual conference, held in Phoenix this past weekend. Though many tour operators reported strong business growth for 2006, a handful expressed an eagerness for an even better 2007. Bob Whitley

"For one thing, the number of U.S. passport holders continues to rise," says Nikos Tsakanikas, chairman of USTOA and president and CEO of Homeric Tours. "The price of gas is down and major airlines have posted significant gains as they recover financially or emerge from bankruptcy. Last summer the average transatlantic load factor was a healthy 83 percent and the London bomb plot and resulting security hassles did not appear to deter travelers."

In a survey released at the conference by USTOA, more than 60 percent of members reported strong growth through 2006, with tour operators achieving sales that surpassed 2000, considered a banner year by many. Western Europe tied with Central Europe, the Baltics and Russia for destination packages with the highest year-over-year growth in 2006. Over 50 percent of USTOA members once again reported Italy as the top international destination for tours and packages. Domestically, California and U.S. national parks topped tour operators' lists for the first time. Nevada Stresses Adventure

Whitley was optimistic that 2007 would bring an end to the much-maligned legal battle with Far & Wide, which in 1998 began acquiring travel companies and in 2003 declared bankruptcy. "We're feeling really good right now," he says. "We have a lawsuit against the officers and directors of Far & Wide to recover the consumers' money and I feel like in the next six months or so, we're going to have good news to report."

Tour operators at the conference reported strong consumer interest in two niche areas over the past year: river cruises and responsible travel. Whitley categorized river cruises as the motor coach of the future. "We created a new operation to cater to river cruises," says Phillip Gordon, president and CEO of Globus Family of Brands. "We're seeing potential to go from one product experience to another, but motor coach is still going strong."

Sustainable tourism—travel that involves volunteering or giving back to host communities or countries—seems to be more of a burgeoning trend. "It's a bit of a stretch at the moment, but I see it growing," says Bronwyn Wilson, president of Australian Pacific Touring. "There's a ground swell among consumers wanting to make sure they are not altering the sites they visit. It's absolutely profitable and people want to do it," echoes Harry Dalgaard, executive vice president of marketing air, car and hotels for Rail Europe Group.

At the conference, USTOA named its board of directors and officers for 2007. New board members include Ron Letterman, chairman of Classic Vacations; Ed Neer, president of Aberdeen Tours; John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours; Jim Barsch, senior vice president of Pleasant Tours; Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours; and Dalgaard of Rail Europe Group. Both Ball and Stachnik also were named officers for 2007 as vice chairperson and treasurer, respectively, joined by Homeric Tours' Tsakanikas as chairperson and Kevin Eakin, president of Travel Connection, as secretary.

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