USTOA's State of the Industry Discussion

From Left to Right, moderator Anita Mendiratta, founder and managing director of Cachet Consulting and a regular travel consultant on CNN; John Hanratty of Travel Impressions; Paula Twidale of Collette Vacations; John Stachnik of Mayflower Tours; Elizabeth Crabill of Travel Bound; Jerre Fuqua of Travcoa and Stacey Orlando of Pleasant Holidays.

WAIKOLOA VILLAGE, Hawaii - As part of our ongoing coverage of the 2012 United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) Annual Conference & Marketplace, the 40th annual event, Travel Agent sat in on the USTOA's State of the Industry panel discussion.

Hosted by the opening session's key not speaker, Anita Mendiratta, founder and managing director of Cachet Consulting and a regular travel consultant on CNN, the panel discussion included Elizabeth Crabill of Travel Bound, Jerre Fuqua of Travcoa; John Hanratty of Travel Impressions; Stacey Orlando of Pleasant Holidays; John Stachnik of Mayflower Tours and Paula Twidale of Collette Vacations.

Some of the more pressing issues that the panel tackled included social media, the obstacles facing tour operators, airline relationships, trends affecting the industry and more.

Mendiratta kicked off the session by asking panelists what causes them to lose sleep at night.

Hanratty says world events is the main thing that keeps his mind occupied since "any natural distaster or political event can turn your world upside down."

And most of the panelists agreed.

"Every morning I have one eye open and one eye shut and I'm checking my Blackberry and hoping that nothing has happened during my usual four hours of sleep," says Orlando.

On the flip side, Twidale says people's undying will to travel is what helps her catch some Z's at night.

"Confidence comes from people wanting to travel," she says. "People will still save that discretionary income for travel because we need it. And that gives me confidence."

Mendiratta then asked the panel to point out some trends in the industry. While Fuqua pointed to a consistent "world resiliency," Orlando and Twidale cited the increase of Generation Y, or "Gen Y," travelers and the boom of the multi-generational traveler.

"The world's resiliency is really important for me," says Fuqua, who noted that Americans are still traveling despite the economic downturn. "The resiliency of that sort of desire to travel is imbedded in people who didn't want to endure that gloom and doom. Resiliency is something that should never be underrated in business."

As far as specific client trends go?

"Gen Y customers spend a lot of money on travel," says Orlando. "They didn't make the bad investments that some of us in this room made. And they are staying lounger than the (Baby) Boomers."

To that effect, Twidale urged attendees in the room to make trips attractive for the entire family, to make them family events.

When Mendiratta brought up the subject of social media, some panelists urged using it to network with people other than customers while others warned not to become "a slave" of it.

"It is also a tool for connecting with B-to-B customers and with the press, the media," says Crabill. "We all know we need to use it as a tool for our products and those are all important opportunities. But also use these tools to connect with everyone you work with and not just consumers."

But Stachnik contends that he is seeing "too many people becoming a slave to social media. There is nothing like getting in room and talking to people one on one."

Perhaps the most honest moment of the morning came when Mendiratta asked the panel if green matters when it comes to clients booking travel.

"Should it matter? Yes. Does it? To our consumers? I'm not sure if it matters," says Twidale.

And Hanratty agreed.

"Everyone would agree that going green is a good thing for the planet," he says. "But the customer or consumer is not willing to pay for that, not willing to pay a premium for those issues."

The most critical moment of the panel discussion came when Mendiratta asked what the USTOA can offer members to make it a stronger association.

"Advocacy," says Hanratty. "We need to do for these members all of the things that they can't do for themselves."

Orlando says the USTOA needs to continue to educate consumers on the value of a tour operator since "there are still lot of consumers that don't know what a tour operator is, what we do."

According to Crabill, however, airline relations continues to be an issue that will continue to inhibit tour operators until it gets better.

"We need more routes, need more seats and need better prices and those are huge macro-level issues that are difficult to deal with," says Crabill. "Keeping an eye on airline relations is very critical for us."

Keep visiting for more updates from our ongoing coverage of the 2012 USTOA Annual Conference & Marketplace.