Embracing Europe

Unfavorable exchange rates? Freedom fries? Forget all that. Barring an unforeseen tragedy, Westerners are heading across the pond in droves

By: Dennis McCafferty

Like the weather in London, the U.S. travel picture to Europe has been dreary for too long. A double-barreled whammy hit the booking business with the domestic economy sagging and terrorism threats looming. Then, there were all of those harsh feelings among U.S. citizens toward the French over Iraq.

But like a brilliant sun shining upon Paris in spring the travel forecast for Europe is considerably brighter this year.

Indeed, agents are getting swamped these days with these kinds of requests:

“I want to take my wife on a gourmet tour of Italy. Are there affordable packages out there?”

“My granddad was in Normandy on D-Day, and has always wanted to go back just one more time. Are there tours over there that would appeal to him?”

“Can you get me a hotel and tickets in London for ‘Phantom of the Opera’?”

The answer to all three questions is an assured “yes”. (Or “oui” or “ja” or “si”.) Oh and, by the way, agents are even able to get some nice add-ons to packages, like free or choice tickets to Broadway-level shows like “Phantom” in London.

It’s all part of a tourism blitz in Europe, sparked by pent-up demand among travelers after the long layoff, as well as creative and cost-friendly packages arranged by tour operators and cruise lines. And even the sagging value of the U.S. dollar isn’t hurting business these days, travel industry representatives say.

At press time, the March 11 train bombings in Madrid hadn’t upended European travel as of yet, although executives were anxiously watching the situation. George Delanoy, owner of Brea, Calif.-based Brea Travel American Express, said one client canceled a Spain-Portugal tour but was looking to rebook at an alternate locale in Europe.

“We’re tracking this every week,” he said.

Delanoy has had a great quarter, however. European cruise and tour bookings doubled in the last three months over the same period last year. He cites pent-up demand and said a poor currency exchange isn’t stopping travelers.

“Maybe they’re more accepting of the rate difference because things are relatively good here in the U.S.,” he said. “And with the cruise lines, the exchange rate doesn’t matter as much because so much cost is contained on the ship. Some tour operators raised their package pricing by just 7 percent. So the less favorable exchange rate is not currently creating an obstacle to our selling the European product.”

The statistics bear this out. After two years of declines, annual U.S. travel to Europe is expected to have increased by 2.8 percent by the time 2003 figures are finalized, with nearly 11-million flight departures, according to research from both the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries at the U.S. Department of Commerce and New York-based Donald N. Martin and Company Inc.

The European Travel Commission estimates that, this year, U.S. travel to Europe could increase from 3 to 7 percent, based upon analysts’ projections.

In California, European tourism offices are as busy as they’ve been in recent memory. The Switzerland Tourism office in Santa Monica, Calif., which serves the Western U.S. and Mexico, reported a 4.6 percent increase in travel from the U.S. to Switzerland in December compared to the same month last year.

“With joy, we are seeing how the working spaces of our trade partners are occupied again,” says an elated Michael Schandroch, manager of the office. “When asking for training sessions, we can hardly find any free slots because the reservationists are so busy. Americans are a curious and appreciative traveler. They will not, in the mid- and long-run, be subdued in their eagerness to travel.”

In Los Angeles, the phone messages and e-mails are flying at the VisitBritain office. There were 241,000 visitors to the U.K. last December, up 14 percent from the previous December.

Agents are finding many deals to please their England-bound clients: The Athenaeum Hotel and Apartments in London is offering special pound-for-dollar rates, which provide U.S. visitors about 40 percent in savings. The rates are available through April 30.

Virgin Vacations is offering “buy one/get one free” tickets to “Thoroughly Modern Millie” through May 6. VisitBritain itself offers a Great British Heritage Pass that provides free entry into more than 600 stately homes, castles and properties throughout the country.

Also in Los Angeles, the German National Tourist Office is handling double its previous number of inquiries from agents and tour operators, and its “Destination Germany” road show in February was immediately sold out in Orange County, Calif., Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver. Nearly one-quarter of U.S. visitors to Germany are from the West Coast.

Universally, tourism officials and tour operators say that California is the hottest state for agents, but that the Western region in general is very strong. The Italian Government Tourist Board is seeing a more than 5 percent increase in activity, with the number of U.S. travelers to Italy in 2003 estimated at 3.3 million. About 30 percent of those travelers arrive from the Western U.S.

“The West Coast American is an especially good traveler for our country,” says Enzo Colombo, the Los Angeles-based travel commissioner for Italy. “It is a more educated, sophisticated and culturally curious group of people. They are interested in the culinary quality of life, as well as good wine. In the West, they know more about wine than any other place in America.”

Of particular interest these days are smaller Italian destinations such as Cortona, the village featured in the book and film “Under the Tuscan Sun.” These kinds of towns are less crowded and more affordable than the more familiar-sounding destinations such as Rome, which helps offset the decline in the U.S. dollar.

Tour operators are reaping the rewards. Tauck World Discovery eschewed the move by some tour operators to add surcharges onto Europe prices set last fall. “Fortunately, when we set our prices last September, we had the financial strength to buy millions of Euros when the dollar was much stronger, so we will not have to absorb as much of the difference in exchange rates as many other tour operators,” said President Robin Tauck. “Our pricing integrity is a core element in our relationship with our agents and customers.”

Bothell, Wash.-based wholesaler EEI Travel saw European bookings increase by 20 percent last year over 2002.

“The top destination for forward bookings is Italy for us,” says CEO Paul Barry. “The frequent traveler knows that air capacity is quite restricted to Italy, and they need to book early in order to find space. For the other top destinations of Britain and France, our clients know that there are more air options, so they can wait.”

Littleton, Colo.-based tour operator Globus and Cosmos is seeing a more than 50 percent increase in European travel from the U.S. this year. As for specific countries, Italy and Britain are up more than 100 percent.

“Baby boomers are helping lead this increase they’re exploding for us,” says Steve Born, director of marketing for Globus and Cosmos. “Last year, a third of our travelers were boomers, and this is growing.”

While Globus and Cosmos implemented a 6 percent average surcharge since setting prices in September, the dollar has weakened 16 percent against European currency, so the packages are still a relative bargain.

Ramsey, N.J.-based GoGo Worldwide Vacations is seeing nearly twice the amount of Europe business as it did in 2003. It helps that the wholesaler has convinced its hotel partners to increase the availability of rooms at contracted rates, resulting in, for example, the recent lead price for a three-night, air-inclusive (from New York) London package for $299 per person.

“London is our hottest destination,” says Beth Kaplan, director of European marketing at GoGo. “As a great add-on, we also can reserve seats for some top-running shows in London, like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Phantom’.”

With more than a quarter-century as a top escorted tour and cruise wholesaler to Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Anaheim, Calif.-based Insight Vacations is reporting a 40 percent increase in bookings for 2004 over last year.

A recent promo that ended on Feb. 15 helped, with a “buy one/get one at 50 percent off brochure air” sale. Italy, Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe are the hot spots right now.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” says Insight President Marc Kazlauskas. “It’s all about pent-up demand. Consumers love Europe and have put off going there for three years now. With the economy improving, consumers feel more confident in spending for a trip there.” Insight pays a minimum of 10 percent commission on land and 10 percent on air.

Not all the demand is coming from the last-minute, bargain-hunting crowd either. Wholesaler Business Travel International reports that this year’s bookings are up 10 percent so far on the corporate side; leisure travel is up 5 percent.

“I detect a slight reversal in the trend to book at the extreme last moment,” says Alexandra Lorenzen, vice president and COO at BTI’s New York office. “Some of our customers are planning for meetings and conventions a few months in advance again. Leisure business is picking up as well, with a lot of families traveling to classic European destinations such as Rome, Paris, London and Milan. Many have elaborate itineraries now, with up to six destinations for 10 to 20 days.” Commissions range from 8 to 10 percent.

As for France and that whole “freedom fries” blowup? Why, that’s so forgotten and forgiven. Agents are too busy booking trips for Americans who are tres enchantés with the idea of going to Paris to even think about hard feelings.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based wholesaler Discover France saw December 2003 sales soar 114 percent from December 2002, with strong sales to Paris and Tour de France tour bookings at an all-time high. The active-traveler outfit is marketing tours that start at $689 for four nights, with many seven-night tours still priced at less than $1,000. Commission rates are 8 percent for travel agents, and 10 percent for Discover France-certified agents.

“France is coming back,” says Loren Siekman, president of Discover France. “The outcome of the war and questions of the U.S. government’s intentions have caused the media to let drop the French position. Once it is out of the media, the populace seems to forget. Also, the segment of the population that travels to France and Europe tends to be of higher education and income and is perhaps less susceptible to media propaganda and politics of the moment.”

Savings abound in myriad ways. Valdagno, Italy-based Jolly Hotels, which pays 8.5 percent commission, is offering discounts of up to 50 percent for weekend stays at four-star properties through December when booked seven days or less in advance. Sample prices include Rome and Milan for $86 a night.

Rail Europe and Destination Europe Resources are offering a free France Railpass this summer to veterans of the battle of Normandy, to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day. For other travelers, it’s also offering a special, three-day France Railpass for $199, valid for travel between June 1 and Aug. 31. (For more on D-Day packages, see box below.)

Cruise lines are also reaping the rewards of the boom. Crystal Cruises reports that European bookings increased 57 percent over the last year, with one recent week posting a 300 percent increase over the same week in 2003.

With the U.S. dollar so weak, Americans are more likely to book a cruise, as even something as simple as nail polish can cost U.S. visitors $23 in Europe. Seabourn Cruise Line touted cruising as a hedge against the weaker dollar simply by paying for European luxury in advance with U.S. currency. Seabourn’s tagline for the summer: “The Yachts of Seabourn: Keeping your dollar strong in Europe this year.”

Sidebar: D-Day Tours

With the 60th anniversary of D-Day being celebrated on June 6 this year, interest is high for travel to England and France. Here, some appropriate packages.

Discover France

Bicycle and walking tours of Normandy, priced at $795 for four nights on bike and $1,319 for a seven-night walking tour.



Globus and Cosmos

Cosmos tour packages to France visit the landing beaches of Normandy, the Arromanches, St. Laurent and the American Military Cemetery. Nine- and 15-day tours from $659 land only.

Globus offers three French trips that include the Memorial Museum for Peace, the American Military Cemetery and the Rangers Memorial at Point du Hoc. Nine- to 14-day packages start at $1,029 land only.



Insight Vacations

A 10-day tour to Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley includes visits to Omaha Beach, the American Military Cemetery and the bunkers and Rangers’ memorial at Pointe du Hoc. Priced from $1,425 land only.



Clipper Cruise Line

The 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer offers three different voyages that visit the battlefields of Normandy. One, a 12-day journey, includes visits to the American Military Cemetery; Utah Beach, including the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere Eglise; the Museé de Debarquement in Arromanches; the Patton Monument near Avranches; Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum and more. Rates start at $4,840, double, including all shore excursions and three nights at the Churchill InterContinental in London. Departures are May 23, May 30 (with a full day at Caen and Honfleur for the landing beaches on June 6) and June 6.



Holland America Line

The Noordam is operating an 11-day Dover roundtrip departing June 2. Ports of call include an overnight at Cherbourg, Saint-Malo and Honfluer, France. Prices start at $1,539.



Oceania Cruises

The Insignia, scheduled to makes its debut April 3, is offering two-for-one fares from $2,499 per person on a 14-day cruise from Lisbon to London. Ports of call include Honfleur, Saint-Malo, Plymouth and Arromanches. Two-for-one airfares also are available, priced at $650 per person from LAX.




Normandy Tourist Board


Normandie Mémoire 60ème Anniversaire


French Government Tourist Office