Never in my 30 plus years in travel did I think I would see the day when FIT would shut down so abruptly, as it did in mid-March 2020, and for so long (six months and counting, now). Like most in our industry, we were ill-prepared for how a pandemic would affect our business. Now, having lived through the challenges of the last half-year, I see a future for leisure travel—and it includes "DIT" (Domestic Independent Travel).
For more than 60 years, we focused our leisure business on FIT, sending travelers to elegant, exotic and exciting locations on every continent from Europe to Africa and Asia. Like most of my colleagues, we did not prioritize DIT. Sure, we occasionally sent clients to popular warm-weather destinations like Hawaii, Florida and California, but we marketed very few other U.S. locations. Instead, we let many of our high-end customers book their own domestic trips.
Then came COVID-19.
Here’s why a concerted effort to incorporate DIT into your agency might be a good trend to follow for a while:
- It has become apparent, until a vaccine is available, most travelers are going to continue to feel more comfortable traveling within the United States than overseas, far from family and their healthcare providers. Not only are flights shorter domestically, the option exists to drive to a location if someone in the group is particularly vulnerable to the virus.
- Pent-up demand for travel is huge right now. People are desperate to get out of their houses, away from the rec rooms, and experience something other than their backyard, local park or outside eatery. Traveling some place new but open, like the great outdoors of the Rocky Mountain States, is a perfect option right now.
- Domestic travelers now need our services for the same reasons international travelers needed our help. We do the research to determine the safest and best destination; secure reservations (a must in the era of COVID) for everything from hotels and restaurants to tours; and advocate for them if issues arise while traveling.
Given that we do not know how long it will be until the world can safely reopen to uninhibited global travel, I see DIT as our leisure industry’s new marketing and growth area. I know we can provide a level of customer service domestically that will exceed what customers could arrange on their own. For a multigenerational family in need of a getaway, why not book a COVID-tested driver/tour guide who will take your customers around a national park or two. For a small reunion of friends or family, recommend an all-inclusive dude ranch that is safely following all CDC rules.
Whether customers want to ski, hike, bike, boat or just stare out at a beautiful landscape from a cozy cabin at a small resort, our industry is fully capable of finding the safest, least complicated option to boost the health and wellbeing of our customers during these trying times. Our agency advisors have the talent to shift from FIT to DIT for the near future. It is not just our passion, but our profession, to help people see new places, enjoy new experiences, and return with wonderful memories. We can still do that, but within our own homeland for now.
Chris Conlin is the president and CEO of Conlin Travel.