The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) released new findings from a survey of its tour operator active members about post-COVID 19 plans for recovery and resumption of business. According to the survey, which was conducted in late October, two thirds (69 percent) of respondents say they are confident or highly confident that guest bookings will increase in 2021. Nine out of 10 members expressed their company’s outlook for resumption of business in 2021 is optimistic or cautiously optimistic.
(Note that the survey was conducted before Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca-Oxford announced positive results from its vaccine trials.)
When asked about growth in new bookings in the last 60 days, two thirds (63 percent) of tour operator members reported an increase in new bookings, while 29 percent reported no change. In August, only one-third (38 percent) of active members had seen an increase in bookings for the two months prior.
As a follow-up, USTOA asked when new passengers are booked to travel, based solely on bookings made in the last 60 days. Active members reported the following:
- Roughly 92 percent of active members are reporting travel bookings third quarter of 2021, while over three-fourths (79 percent) report new bookings for the fourth quarter of 2021.
- Two-thirds (69 percent) report passenger bookings for second quarter of 2021, while one-third (33 percent) report new bookings for first quarter of 2021.
- A fifth (21 percent) of members report bookings for Q4 2020 and 60 percent report 2022 bookings.
- The remaining 2 percent reported no new booking in the last 60 days.
Cancellation/refund policy was named as the number-one most frequently asked question from active member guests who made new bookings in the last 60 days, followed by health protocols and health/COVID insurance policies. Likelihood of travel ranked fourth, followed by changes/limitations of itinerary. Size of group was asked least frequently.
Working Alongside COVID-19
Half (49 percent) of responding tour operator members operated or will have operated tours/packaged travel itineraries between July and December 2020. The active members who have operated during the coronavirus pandemic were then asked what the biggest challenges were in operating this year. Different quarantine restrictions in states/countries ranked first, followed by coordination of protocols across states/borders, and limited availability of rapid testing came in third. Flight availability/scheduling/connectivity ranked fourth. Customer reluctance to comply with protocols was named the least challenging.
USTOA also asked what feedback active members received from customers who traveled with new wellness protocols put in place. A third (33 percent) of members said that all of their customers reported that new wellness protocols did not hinder their experience, while another 29 percent said only a small number of customers reported that the wellness protocols put in place hindered their experience.
The age groups of passengers who traveled and are booked to travel between July and December 2020 are as follows:
- Roughly 43 percent were Baby Boomers between the age of 56 and 74
- The next highest category was Generation X (ages 40 to 55) at 26 percent
- Millennials (ages 24-39) followed at 15 percent
- Generation Z (ages 23 and younger) were at 8 percent
- And the remaining 8 percent were ages 75-plus
Restarting Operations in 2021
For the remaining half (51 percent) of USTOA active members who did not operate or do not plan to operate in 2020, one-third (31 percent) of those members say they plan to restart operations before a COVID-19 vaccine is available. More than half (54 percent) remain unsure whether they will operate before or after a vaccine.
The same group was asked if they will restart operations with the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing at airports and 42 percent said yes, while the remaining 58 percent are still unsure.Only six percent of responding active members plan to wait until they can operate at normal capacity before restarting operations.
Customer confidence was named as the biggest challenge or obstacle to operating in 2021. Border closing and confusion across countries/states followed, with uncertainty of COVID-19 vaccine in third. Coordination of protocols across states/borders/suppliers ranked fourth, followed by the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing, flight connectivity, COVID-19 insurance coverage, the news media cycle, and insecurity about suppliers (closure of hotels and others, inconsistent pricing, etc.).
Reinforcing the significant contribution travel advisors make overall to USTOA members’ businesses: 88 percent of responding members plan to utilize travel advisors to generate sales as they resume business in 2021. Additionally, 80 percent of members report that travel advisors will play very important or important role in their business in 2021.Three-fourths (72 percent) of members expect business booked by travel advisors to increase or maintain the same in 2021.
Trends and Forecasts
When asked what the top three international destinations that travelers are booking, based on new reservations only, Italy topped the list, which also topped last year’s hot destination list. Ireland followed in second, with Germany, Greece and the U.K. tied for third.
On the home front, Alaska, Arizona and California tied for first as the top domestic destinations that travelers are booking (based on new reservations only). Florida and Utah tied for second, followed by Wyoming in third.
Based on new customer bookings, active members named small group tours as the most popular travel product for 2021. Private groups ranked second, followed by FIT, river cruising, small ship cruising, and classic group tours (25-plus passengers). Ocean cruising (medium to large ship) was named the least popular.
Active members believe safety and wellness will have the strongest influence on consumers choosing a travel destination in 2021. Border reopening/government travel restrictions will have the second strongest influence on travel destination decisions, followed by distance/ease of travel to and from destination, value, and outdoor components.