Tour Operators Look to 2003 With Hope

Officials at USTOA conference discuss strategy for new year

By: Robert Carlsen

WHISTLER, B.C.Tour operators, like travel agents, are confronting a sluggish economy and an apprehensive traveling public, but with a new year looming, optimism seems to reign, according to participants at the 24th annual U.S. Tour Operators Association conference here last week.

In his opening remarks, Ed Jackson, serving a second consecutive term as USTOA chairman, said, “To quote a travel industry executive, ‘This has been the year from hell.’ Or, as Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, recently said, ‘While the economy is softening, there is no evidence that it is accelerating on the down side.’

“Put in real terms, the economy is still sluggish, but the worst may be over,” Jackson continued.

“Those of us who are veterans of the industry, know that ups and downs are a reality of our business, and that the industry will recover. In fact, some sectors have already shown improvement,” he said.

“Destinations closer to home, family travel and even luxury travel have shown growth. The long-term potential for vacation travel is strong.”

At a tour operator panel, 11 executives pondered a war with Iraq and repercussions it might bring.

“Let’s face it, we’re in a business that people don’t actually need it’s their choice to travel or not,” said Brian Stack of CIE Tours International. And, right now, with U.S. troops mobilizing in the Mideast and the White House issuing daily warnings of impending conflict, Stack said he just wants to “get it over with and, if the war is successful, I think you’ll see people willing to travel again, and rather quickly.”

Stack and other company officials agreed that, since Sept. 11, contingency plans are more important than ever. And they are more distressing to formulate, too.

“I have two doomsday plans in my office,” Stack said. “One covers drastic cost-cutting and the other, a maintenance mode.”

Arthur Tauck of Tauck World Discovery said that he honestly doesn’t know what would happen following an invasion of Iraq. “But I do know that this is a different situation than 1991 terrorism has changed all that.”

Tauck said that the potential aftermath of a war “frightens me. Why would an American travel abroad, leaving loved ones behind, and become a target of terrorists just because he or she is an American?”

Arthur Tauck’s son, Peter, president of Tauck World Discovery, said his family’s company has two contingency plans a war plan and what he called a “lethargy” plan.

“In this economic climate,” he said, “we have a difficult decision to make: Should we be conservative in our promotions or aggressive?”

From the audience, Patrick O’Shea of Far & Wide commented, “Consumers are tougher than you realize. Our job is to regain their confidence.”

And Philip Gordon of Globus & Cosmos said the tourism industry’s greatest challenge is countering media distortion.

“All of us tour operators, tourism boards, hotels, airlines should get together and send a positive message. For example, airport security has been improved is a positive, not a negative,” Gordon said.

Most panel participants agreed that, as the Baby Boomers age, escorted tours will flourish. “As you grow older, you tend to get grouchy and impatient. Escorted tours can eliminate the hassles of travel,” Arthur Tauck said.

“Besides, if something bad happens abroad, wouldn’t you rather be with a group?”