Western travel agents’ optimism about the year ahead reflects not
only their strengthened positions, but the growing signs of growth
in both travel and the economy.
Overall, the national economic outlook has improved
significantly with the stock market roaring back, positive
corporate quarterly earnings, and the fastest economic growth in
nearly two decades.
And there have been recent signs that the travel industry is
following suit: Hotel room demand rose 3.4 percent in September
compared to the same time last year, marking the second-largest
12-month comparison this year, according to Washington-based Travel
Industry Association of America.
Total travel agent sales in October rose 3 percent compared to
last year, and average sales per location set a new high of more
than $49,000, according to Arlington, Va.-based Airlines Reporting
Corp. Even the beleaguered airlines, while still struggling, are
showing signs of recovery with Continental and Northwest airlines
reporting profitable recent quarters.
“I can tell by booking flights these days that the planes are
packed, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights,” says
Keith Heiniger, agency manager of Los Angeles-based American Travel
Marketing. “The hotels are starting to get a little nuts, too. In
New York, you could get great rates in the summer, but all of that
stopped in September and they’re filling up. Our cruise-travel
people are pretty busy these days too, so that industry seems to be
coming back quite well now.”
There are telling anecdotal signs as well: Advance travel
bookings in Hawaii for 2004 are up 10 percent over the same time
last year, according to AAA Hawaii, and sales figures through
September are up 6 percent over the same time last year.
E-commerce is up at sites such as Waltham, Mass.-based e-Travel
North America, where customer transactions have increased 90
percent in recent 12-month comparisons.
“As a frequent traveler myself, I’m personally seeing more
crowded planes and airports,” says Scott Gutz, the site’s CEO.
Customer-service phone lines are also getting jammed. New
York-based TravelBound Inc., which links travel agents to
wholesalers representing more than 10,000 hotels and resorts,
expanded call center operations for North American tour operators
after a surge in bookings this summer.
Growth areas forecast for the year ahead include the family,
leisure and business travel markets as consumers’ incomes gradually
increase and fears of layoffs and terrorism diminish.
Among other research findings, family-travel specialists have
been encouraged by a recent report from Orlando-based market
researcher Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown and Russell that indicates
families are fed up with the daily grind and are seeking to spend
more quality time traveling together.
Already, Web sites such as FamilyTravel.com are seeing a surge
in user traffic and interest.
“Agents would be wise to recognize that Americans are eager to
spend more vacation time with family,” says Lynn O’Rourke Hayes,
editor of the Web site, where traffic was up 24 percent in the peak
summer months of 2003 compared with the summer of 2002. “That can
mean mothers and daughters at the spa, sisters exploring Europe
together, or a father and son on a fishing trip. Short holidays are
mini family reunions now. Our time and energy-starved travelers are
looking for three to four-day getaways and agents who can provide
travel solutions for them will garner their business.”
And, if agents really want to take advantage of the
economic-travel recovery on the leisure side, they need to take
advantage of emerging trends such as a shakeup in the traditional
airline provider model.
“On the leisure side, the gap between mainstream airlines and
discount carriers is narrowing,” says Tim Winship, publisher of
“Food service has largely been factored out of the equation. And
the perky, high-energy service of the low-fare carriers appeals to
many consumers, who are growing tired of the grudging,
‘service-with-a-frown’ that they get from the full-priced
airlines,” he says. “All of this leaves the consumer wondering: Why
would anybody pay more to fly an aging, crowded United jet, when
they can fly JetBlue for less, with more leg room, and seat-back
TVs on a brand, new plane?”
Winship forecasts discounters will increase their share of the
overall air-travel market to 40 percent by the end of 2005.
Tour operators are finding that special-interest travel is a
growing industry segment whether it’s adventure travel or
grandparent/grandchild travel or any one of a host of emerging
“We are constantly receiving positive, upbeat reports from our
tour operator members,” says Hank Phillips, president of the
Lexington, Ky.-based National Tour Association.
“The combination of economic improvement, pent-up demand for
travel and an increased acceptance of uncertainty as a fact of life
are contributing to the rebound,” Phillips said.
Salt Lake City-based wholesaler, Western Leisure Inc., is seeing
average persons-per-tour load factors increase from 35 to 45 per
tour now, compared with 20 to 30 per tour in the earlier summer
“The small rebound we have seen, along with a rise in the stock
market, makes people feel more at ease and, therefore they are more
likely to take a vacation,” says Keith Griffall, CEO at Western
“For seniors, the stock market and interest rates are more
important than the overall economy. So when the market seems to
stabilize, they travel more,” Griffall says.
And Western travel agencies are taking notice.
At Marina Del Ray, Calif.-based PNR Travel, sales this past
summer doubled those of the summer of 2002.
While the trend is more than welcome for PNR, it also represents
a mixed blessing.
“There are fewer brick-and-mortar travel agencies for the
consumer to pick from,” says Bob Kern, president of the agency.
“This concerns me for the industry as a whole. Travel agencies do a
lot of local grassroots marketing. “With less marketing going on,
there is more of a chance that the consumers will utilize their
dollars on different luxury items, such as cars and
On the corporate travel side, growth is also forecast, but is
not expected to swing back to the freer-spending days of the late
“We predict, for 2004, the beginning of a recovery in business
travel,” says Carol Devine, president and chief executive of the
Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association. “Yet,
corporations will still be focused on the bottom line, and the
cost-consciousness of the past two years will remain.”
But Devine does note a particular lodging-industry niche to
“Business travelers are also turning more to the extended-stay
lodging sector, which is now the fastest-growing segment in the
hotel industry,” Devine says.
“This market is catching the interest of business travel
professionals and people on extended work assignments because it
offers room rates much lower than other hotels while providing
similar amenities,” Devine says. “This demonstrates that travel is
still an essential part of doing business.”