Disappointment for Late Holiday Bookers

A recent American Express Travel survey of 402 agents on trends for holiday travel this year found that more clients will be traveling between Christmas and New Years than traveled at Thanksgiving. In calls to agents across the country, Travel Agent indeed found that Christmas week travel is very strong—but that there was still some availability if clients had fat wallets and flexible dates. The advice we kept hearing is to encourage clients to book as far out as possible—even now for next year.

In the opinion of Rabia Shahenshah of Tzell Travel Group in New York, it's not just about the have and have-nots—it's about the ones who book their holiday vacations months, if not a year in advance. No matter how much cash is at their fingertips, smart clients will plan and book their holiday trips as far in advance as possible to ensure not only best rates, but availability. "My clients have booked for the holidays," says Shahenshah, who cites Costa Rica, Cabo San Lucas and Cancun as some popular destinations her clients are booking this holiday season.

These could be your clients in Cancun if they booked holiday travel early enough

More people are booking vacations farther in advance: Shahenshah says that many of her clients began booking their holiday vacations as far back as February. Those clients were rewarded with prime rates and the safety of knowing that whatever they wanted would most likely be available. "My clients know what they want," explains Shahenshah, "and they won't book unless they can get it."

Shahenshah says that most of her holiday travelers look to book in warm climates and she lists Morocco as one of the more surprising destinations being requested.

For those who don't heed her advice and book closer to the holidays there are still some options available, but clients either have to be willing to spend a lot of money or be creative and open minded. "The middle inventory is gone for the most part," she says. "Spots like San Diego, though, are still doable."

Morocco is a surprise destination in demand

According to Melissa Garrison, vacation manager of Altair Travel in San Diego, the holidays are her busiest time of the year. She doesn't equivocate either: "Oh my gosh," she exclaims. "The week between Christmas and New Years is the most heavily booked time of the year...Kids are off from school, companies are closed, so there's a lot of demand," she says.

Garrison has faced obstacles when clients come looking to book a holiday vacation only weeks ahead of time. "We get calls now and space is just gone," she says. She does book customers who wait until the last moment on charter packages, which she says are still available, but these packages give clients less flexibility.

There's last-minute availibility in Aruba but it's out of reach for many families

Where Are Clients Traveling?

For this holiday season, Garrison says that the Caribbean is still the place her clients are most interested in, but she has booked some ski packages in Canada as well. She also booked a client to Pasadena, CA for the Rose Bowl Parade and Rose Bowl game itself.

"Our Christmas bookings are up considerably over last year," says Tom Bukaty, president, All-Inclusive Resort Travel in Margate, FL. Bukaty's company specializes in all-inclusive vacations, and he sees strong bookings for Jamaica, Punta Cana, Riviera Maya and Cancun. "We're seeing a good return to business in the Riviera Maya and Cancun—it's almost as though lasts year's hurricane setback didn't exist," he says. Bukaty also notes that his percentage of up-market all-inclusive bookings continues to rise, this year especially at SuperClubs. He attributes this to what he thinks is SuperClubs' "highly successful" passport promotion program.

Year after year, Roy Twiste, manager of the Leisure Division and VIP Desk for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, says he is used to receiving a last-minute phone call from a client inquiring about booking a Christmas vacation not only late, but also to a popular destination. This year was no exception. Last week, Twiste got a call from a man asking if there were any nonstop flights to Aruba from JohnF.KennedyInternationalAirport in New York City. Twiste told him "yes," he had available tickets for $783 each.

"When I told him the price, he thought it was for two people," Twiste says. "The fact is if you wait too long, you better be prepared to pay."

And that's why Roz Resnick, vice president of leisure travel for Austin Travel, now knows what most agents have learned over the years—those who book late are those who have money.

Booking Trends

"If you have the money to spend, it doesn't matter when you book your holiday vacation," says Resnick, whose company currently generates more than $100 million in sales, 50 percent of which is in upscale leisure.

This wasn't the case immediately following September 11, 2001, when travelers were able to find bargains and last-minute deals up to a week before Christmas. But things are bound to change in the travel industry, Resnick says.

"The one thing I've learned in this industry is that there is no such thing as trends," she says. "Once you expect one thing, you get the other."

And now that holiday traveling is popular again, if your clients don't have the money to burn, Twiste recommends that they book at least three months in advance.

The main concern with booking that early, Twiste says, is that plans change over time. To avoid that problem, he suggests insuring vacations. "It takes care of a lot of problems (if you insure your vacation)," Twiste says. "And it helps encourage people to book early. If you don't book early, be ready to spend. A lot of my last-minute clients aren't."

"I am hearing all good news," says Marsha Wienert, Hawaii tourism liaison, of the approaching holidays. She says that with Christmas falling on a Monday, the holiday period has elongated. "Traditionally, the 20th or 21st is when everything gets sold out," she explains, "but it's now the 17th and 18th."

The limiting factor this year for Hawaii-bound holiday travelers will be rooms, she predicts.

Those looking to stretch their dollars and have the flexibility to travel by mid-December will benefit from Hawaii's traditional brief post-Thanksgiving lull. If your clients can't act that quickly this year, it's something to keep in mind and suggest when they're planning fall and winter 2007 travel.

Meanwhile, the outlook for holiday travel to Kauai is comparable to last year, with demand ramping up beginning the second week of December, says Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. She notes that depending on their travel dates before the height of the holidays, agents may still be able to find some good airfares for their clients.

Although she didn't provide any specific numbers, Austin Travel's Resnick says holiday sales have been significantly down this year and blames in on the "overall hassle" of traveling near Christmas. "I think people are sick of it," she says. "They're sick of spending the money, they're sick of trying to find flights. I think they're settling for vacationing another time when it's easier."

To avoid losing the business of clients whose pockets aren't that deep, and to insure availability, it's not a bad idea to start talking to your clients this summer about their winter holiday vacations.