USTOA Chair Sees Turnaround for Tour Sales

Charlie Ball, chairman of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), now holding their 2009 Annual Conference in Banff Springs, Alberta, expressed hopes that tour operators and the travel industry has reached the turning point in the economy and that business would improve in 2010.

Stressing the importance of value in tours, Ball expressed hope of an early turn around in 2010. “With the recession slowing and possibly bottoming, we should see even more people awakening to the reality that it's time for an overdue break," he said. "I’m happy to say that our members are beginning to report the "green shoots" of an increased booking pace, possibly a sign that recovery may be starting."

Ball told attendees that about 70 percent of USTOA members responded to a recent survey by predicting that business would improve in 2010, with 20 percent saying business had already rebounded. The majority of those who see improvement believe it will come within the first half of the year.

“What a year it’s been," Ball said. "Certainly one of the most challenging periods any of us have ever seen. Even with an absolutely unprecedented injection of public resources both here and abroad into the economy, unemployment has continued to climb, crossing 10 percent just last month. Fully 25 percent of all mortgage holders now owe more than the value of their home. American institutions which were once thought “too big to fail” failed. General Motors, Washington Mutual, Chrysler. In fact six of the 10 largest bankruptcies in U.S. history have occurred in the past 15 months.”

Reflecting on 2009, Ball cited several rough patches for the travel industry including Washington, DC taking aim at corporate incentive trips as suddenly Hawaii, Las Vegas and many other destinations felt the pain of being “politically incorrect.” Not to be forgotten was H1N1 which, according to Ball, was "all over the place, literally and figuratively, for much of the Spring and now as well, giving potential vacationers just one more reason to make 2009 the year of the staycation."

“Because of this, our businesses have all had to make very difficult decisions in the past year.," Ball continued. "Some involved dropping lines of business, some involved downsizing. None of these decisions were easy or made lightly, but hopefully having made them we will all be able to see this recession through until conditions turn back around.”

During tough times, Ball remains confident in the Assocation. “Through the unprecedented challenges of the past year and a half, the active members of USTOA have worked very hard to uphold our reputation of stability and dependability," he said. "Although two members have left our ranks during this time, neither did so through bankruptcy and not one consumer has suffered a loss through the transition. And while we’re sad to say goodbye to old friends, we are pleased to have welcomed three new corporate members to our organization and some 15 new brands. All in all our membership has increased slightly from last year at this time, and I’m happy to report that we are nearly 165 brands strong.

"First, most of us here are lucky to be heavily invested in the leisure side of travel," Ball continued. "According to the YPartnership, domestic U.S. business travel through September had seen a 7.5 percent decline year on year. In contrast, domesticleisure travel had fallen by only 2.7 percent or roughly a third of the decline in business travel. International statistics supported a similar trend, though not as dramatic. In USTOA’s own commissioned survey, three out of four Americans said they would travel in 2009, despite the recession.

“I’m optimistic because I cannot remember a time when the number one message of the USTOA brand – value, has ever been more relevant to the market," Ball continued. "According to USTOA’s consumer survey earlier this year, six of ten Americans believe packaged travel offers value. You see it everywhere   And this focus on value should be good for USTOA and our partners, because creating value for customers is what we've always been about. You can be sure our organization and its members will be reminding travel agents and their guests of these benefits as we begin to enjoy better times."