At the US Tour Operators Association's Annual Conference & Marketplace in Scottsdale, Arizona, professionals from a range of industries are sharing insights on the state of organized touring and the health of the industry as a whole. And while there is certainly wisdom in caution, the overall mood of the conference's first day was one of enthusiasm and hope for 2014. The overall positive expectations for 2014 are the end result of years of planning and developing new initiatives.
Social & Connected: How the Virtual World Drives Travel in the Real One
Terry Dale, USTOA's president and CEO, began the first day's general session with videos of Matt Harding, who has made a name for himself traveling around the world and dancing with locals. His YouTube videos garnered millions of views, and USTOA partnered with Harding to help promote his efforts. Harding himself put in an appearance, and said that he hoped his videos would help inspire more travel. His advice to those who have never left their home country was to “just get up and go,” he said, adding that the hardest part of travel can often just be taking that first step.
Harding's videos have reached millions of viewers and encouraged a global mindset—a quality that appeals to the next generation of travelers. The ever-connected millennial generation is a target demographic for every kind of business, and as Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics, Digital Leader and Crisis explained at the general session, reaching this group requires new kinds of innovation. “You must get creative in your marketing,” he told the crowd. Comparing business to a game of chess, he agreed that content may be king, but culture is the checkmate.
Rob Torres, managing director travel, Google, offered similar insights: “Travelers are more digital than ever before,” he said. “They're connected 24/7, and they're social.” A full 20 percent of searches every day are new terms (Qualman shared the same statistic), so keeping on top of trends to have your business show up in the search rankings becomes increasingly vital. “They're not looking for answers,” Torres added. “They're looking for content. If they can't find you, you're out of consideration.” Mobile phone and tablet optimization are no longer luxuries, but necessities, he added: 50 percent of users search the web from their phone, and 44 percent read business reviews on their mobile devices. “This is an opportunity to let people know you're there,” he added.
Video sites like YouTube and Vimeo are also gaining in popularity not just as platforms for watching quick clips, but for searching for information. An impressive 50 percent of business travelers shoot video clips while on the go, Torres said, and he estimated that YouTube (which is second only to its parent company Google in terms of searches) may soon overtake its owner. “Visual is stimulating,” Torres said, “and it makes perfect sense for travel.”
That logic led to the latest initiative for USTOA: The Travel Now! Campaign will create “webisodes” from affiliated operators' “Live Like a Local” tours around the world, providing video content through TripFilms for a range of platforms that can be used by agents to educate their clients on a destination. “Video is where it's coming from,” Terry Dale said after the general session. Bloggers from Afar Media will join tours for a day or two and report back on what they experienced. Currently, four or five videos per destination are expected, but after the general session, Dale expressed hope for more, and for it to expand further. The program will launch in spring, he added, and the partnership with Matt Harding will continue.
In the middle of 2014, USTOA will also launch its first-ever online travel agent training system to help agents feel more confident when booking tours with USTOA members. (The program will include a “mythbusters” feature to help dispel misinformation.)
By the Numbers
With all these initiatives, USTOA set some significant goals for 2013: A social media reach (tallied by total impressions) of 2.5 million; a website reach (tallied by visits) of 24,000, 12,800 Facebook fans; and a media reach (tallied by total impressions) of 100,000,000. By December, the social media reach was 6.3 million, the website reach was 58,432, the Facebook page had 13,038 fans and the media reach was counted as 144,824,782.
An independent survey by PricewaterhouseCooper looked at some trends from 2013 and forecasts for 2014. In 2013, 89 percent of members responding to the survey saw an increase in business over 2012, two-thirds of which (62.5 percent) said sales increased by 10 percent or more. Looking ahead, nine in 10 of active tour operator members anticipate a growth in sales in 2014 with nearly two-thirds of members “optimistic” and forecasting a “boom year” with growth anywhere from 7 percent to 10 percent or higher.
“All summer, I kept hearing that 2013 is really ending much stronger than anticipated, and that sales for 2014 are better than people had hoped for,” Dale said. The survey “more than” reconfirmed what Dale and the team had heard anecdotally. Committee Member Paula Twidale emphasized that 2014's bookings are not just for the first quarter, but for the whole year, and incoming Executive Committee Chairman Jerre Fuqua (also president, TRAVCOA and YMT Vacations) noted that trips for 2015 are already underway. “We're seeing growth across all categories,” he added. “Usually, the trend is that the most expensive segment stays the longest or goes first. Now, we're seeing growth in both value and premium tours.”
The relationship among travel agents, tour operators and the travelers themselves is also improving as people regularly see the value in working with travel professionals. Executive Committee Secretary Harry Dalgaard (also president of Avanti Destinations) said that when people want their vacations “to be beyond their expectations,” they know they can't do it alone. “They want to have an advocate when something goes wrong,” he said. “When the flight is canceled, they want to call someone to fix it...They see the value in expertise and advocacy.”
To help every industry professional understand that relationship better, USTOA is launching a partnership with Cornell University's Johnson Business School. Five MBA students will help collect and analyze critical data on current USTOA travelers...and non-travelers. By creating a profile of the travel demographics, professionals will get a better idea of what motivates people to book USTOA tours—and to identify key inhibitors to booking an organized tour, or even booking any travel at all. With a range of threats and concerns, agents and tour operators need to focus on how to keep their core competencies in line and to keep safety in mind. “The USTOA network can help people know what's going on and when it's safe to go,” Dale said. But even during economic downturns and political upheavals, he added, “people are resilient, and they will go.”