Summer Travel Off to Last-Minute Start

Survey highlights growing challenges for agents

By: Dennis McCafferty

When it comes to leisure travelers’ preferences these days, “better late than not at all” may be the message a preference that experts say travel agents need to prepare for now more than ever.

That’s because the most recent findings from a top industry association indicate that a significant number of intended travelers are planning to book their trips late this summer.

More than 80 percent of travelers said they will take at least one leisure trip this summer, but 41 percent of those same travelers said they haven’t yet made specific plans to do so, according to the new survey from the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America.

“That number is quite high since we’re pretty much in the summer season right now,” said Andrea Stokes, director of marketing and international research for the TIA. “We were shocked by this finding.”

Both the TIA and industry insiders say myriad factors are contributing to the trend.

Many Americans who have jobs are working harder to keep them, and are too time-pressed to plan a trip far in advance, experts say. And that lack of job security has resulted in many travelers being reluctant to book longer trips, or big trips six months or longer out.

And there are numerous online resources to help travelers find appealing packages at the last minute. The key phrase, “last minute travel” in a Yahoo! search gets 91,500 matches.

All signs indicate that travelers’ last-minute planning has now become incorporated into the travel culture.

“It’s not really about the one, big trip anymore, it’s about the shorter but more frequent ones,” said Stokes. “Those who are in the business of travel need to realize that it’s the three- to four-night package that the consumer wants, and often on very quick notice.”

The most recent TIA survey findings confirm those revealed in an earlier TIA-released poll: No less than 64 percent of leisure travelers say that they’ve planned at least one last-minute trip within the past year, and more than one out of four of those travelers say that they’ve planned all of their past year’s pleasure trips at the last minute.

This new and growing behavior in traveling is generating a wave of change in business practices.

“We’ve seen this trend even before Sept. 11, which changed everything when it came to travelers’ habits,” says Gail Fitzgerald, vice president of sales and marketing for the Mirage resort in Las Vegas. “We can blame ourselves for that, of course, by offering these last-minute deals. But it’s the airlines too. “These days, generally, we’re seeing 30 to 40 percent of our guests booking within three weeks of the trip, although that’s subject to change depending upon, for example, the time of the year.”

Later this year, the Mirage ( plans to provide a dedicated Web site for travel agents, on which they can get the latest on last-minute resort deals.

Of course, many destination resorts are attempting to counter the trend by offering great deals on longer stays, which are less subject to last-minute bookings.

The Villas Allure resort on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, has recently offered seven nights for $299 per person, the best offer that owner/GM Michael Whitacre felt comfortable with.

“I regularly receive e-mails for arrivals two to three days out,” he says. “I am offering this rate to hopefully spur some interest and stretch the booking curve out a bit longer.”

Agent Chris Russo, owner of Travel Junction/Travel Partners in Denver, says that of the three to five packages that he and his agents book a day, 60 percent are made with 30 days notice or less.

That’s up by around 10 percent from a decade ago.

“It is sometimes scary to see what kind of business you have on the books for the future, but then it all rolls in within 30 days or less before departure,” he says.

Pleasant Holidays, a Westlake Village, Calif.-based leisure-travel-package company, said it is seeing a 20 percent increase in last-minute travel bookings this year over last, and a 40 percent increase compared to five years ago. Pascale Gherardi, chief operating officer and vice president of Island Destinations, a Larchmont, N.Y.-based upscale tour operator to the Caribbean, Mexico and French Polynesia, is seeing a 30 percent increase in last-minute bookings compared to last year.

“We probably receive one a week,” she says. And she says agents should be aware that they can land value-added features in a last-minute package for their clients VIP treatment, room upgrade, late checkout times.

“The room would not have been sold if it weren’t for the last-minute booking, so why shouldn’t the client get an extra something for it?”