The recovery has begun for guided tour companies, but the real key to how the year turns out lies in the first quarter, said Steve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus family of brands.
The good news is that consumer demand is strong, most agree. The biggest issue now is whether the places customers want to go will let them in.
At Globus, the management team is thinking of 2021 as the first phase of recovery, slowed by an enduring “delay in the market” in exotic destinations like South America, Asia, the South Pacific and Africa. The time frame in which those markets open, and in which customers feel comfortable again with the travel process, will determine how the year goes.
Guy Young, U.S. president for Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, said, “Our bookings are very erratic; with omicron they are starting to suffer a little bit. But we have a huge amount of forward bookings, and we expect to have a strong Q1. We don’t see many cancellations. But we do see some hesitation. What we need is to get travelers confident again.”
All eyes therefore are on Q1, which will determine if there really is new demand — and if the year is going to be strong or just a bridge to a better 2023, Born said.
Looking good in theory
In theory, 2022 should be a good year for escorted tours, which offer travelers an additional layer of protection and remove many layers of hassle. The smaller and more private itineraries introduced during the pandemic seem to have legs. Globus’ small-group tours of 24 guests are outpacing the regular 36-guest itineraries, despite a cost premium of about 10%, and at Collette, sales of Exploration small tours (max 24 participants) have doubled since 2019, with 20 new itineraries, said president Jaclyn Leibl-Cote.
Abercrombie & Kent, meanwhile, has a “very, very positive” outlook, based in part on a 12% increase in group size and a 26% increase in bookings that include five or more guests, as extended families plan to travel together to international bucket-list destinations, said Ann Epting, its senior vice president of private jet and special interest travel.
But Epting agreed that the key will be which destinations are open.
A&K had five 25-day international private jet trips scheduled, but “unfortunately the first was in February, and more than half of the countries weren’t open,” so it was postponed to 2023. Just a seat or two remain on the remaining four tours in 2022, and for the first time Epting is working with customers who want to charter another plane to follow the same itinerary. “I haven’t seen that before on a 25-day trip on a 757,” she said.
At Collette, projections for 2022 are “very strong,” Leibl-Cote said, and even 2021 turned out to be a good year. “We have to continue to watch the news cycle, but I do feel each year will be stronger than the last,” as long as the key destinations of Central America, the U.S. and Europe remain open through the winter.
“As spring hits, I think demand will be there,” she said.
One other stumbling block to watch is staffing issues, which are likely to continue not just for tour operators but also for the suppliers with whom they partner, said USTOA chairman Scott Wiseman, senior vice president of Apple Leisure Group. But Leibl-Cote said that customer ratings continue to soar despite service issues at hotels, as travelers understand the issues and are grateful just to be out there again.
Listening to many of the USTOA’s members, Wiseman said, “it is clear that everyone is energized to continue to thrive as we enter 2022.”
Indeed, said Born, “we’re preparing for a good year. We’re expecting Q1 to be very active, where the questions people have get answered or they get impatient enough to just go anyway.
“Our Q1 message to customers is ‘Just Say Yes.'”
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