USTOA: Attendees Take Stock of the Conference

As the USTOA Annual Conference and Marketplace wrapped up at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, numerous tour operators and travel suppliers sang high praises of the show and the opportunities it presented. 

Luxury travel consultant Alistair Ballantine has been attending the Conference and Marketplace since 1980, when he was with Abercrombie & Kent. “It was a small organization then,” he recalled, “just trying to get tour operators recognized.” Over the years, the event has grown from one-and-a-half days (most of which was spent golfing) to three full days with 850 people attending. “As a supplier, I came to meet 40 tour operators from around the world,” he added. “There’s a huge advantage in that they’re all in one room. It’s a cost-effective way to make connections.”

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Ronnie Harris, owner of Under African Skies, agreed that the conference was a great opportunity to get a wide range of tour operators in one room, and to keep the mood more collaborative than competitive. “It’s more social, less business-focused,” she said. “It strengthens ties and friendships and promotes networking. It offers opportunities for us to promote our portfolio.” 

Amy Terada of Pleasant Holidays appreciated the technological aspects of the conference, including the scheduling program Facetime. “It’s more focused and better for matchmaking,” she said. Informal gatherings like coffee breaks and a two-hour long networking event over coffee made it possible to arrange impromptu one-on-ones. “And some associate members had very, very full schedules,” she added. 

Britt Sorensen, marketing manager leisure industry for VisitDenmark, said that the overall vibe of this year’s conference was more positive: “Tourism is up and the economy is up,” she noted,  and Mats Wessman, company manager US for Visit Sweden, added that Europe’s visitor numbers had increased on the whole.

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Jim Holden, president of African Travel, said that while he already knows many associations with ties to Africa, he gets to see these companies in a “different light and environment” at USTOA. “It’s conducive to networking,” he said. “It’s not focused just on the product. This is a wide-ranging conversation. We can talk about all things to do with the destination with our colleagues. It’s a collegial atmosphere where we can learn from each other. The theme here is exchanging notes and promoting the destination.” All attendees, he added, have common interests, and ultimately want to learn how to do their jobs better.  

That “wide-ranging conversation” also helped bring people together in unexpected ways, he added. Sthu Zungu, president of South Africa Tourism North America, held a gathering for colleagues and shared a moment of silence with them upon learning of Nelson Mandela’s death. She was even able to deliver a homily for the former president and the much-beloved leader. An intimate, emotional moment like this, Holden said, would not have been possible at most other trade shows or conferences.

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