Board members of the USTOA toured the northern Atacama desert // (c) 2010 Janeen Christoff
Sixteen members of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) toured Chile last month as part of the group’s annual out-of-country meeting.
The organization’s board and other members were present to take part in an activities-filled fam trip that visited the capital city of Santiago, the southern Patagonia region and the northern Atacama desert.
In Santiago, the USTOA board held a closed-door meeting at the W Hotel Santiago and then participated in a seminar and trade show at a nearby conference facility. The events gave USTOA participants the opportunity to interact with Chile-based suppliers and journalists and to both reflect on the current market conditions and share their impressions of Chile with local attendees.
Discussions touched on a variety of current challenges to the travel industry — from the global economic crisis to natural disasters including Iceland’s ash plume and the earthquake in Chile.
Overall, however, the tone was positive. All the USTOA members participating in the forum reported improved booking trends for 2010, compared with the year before.
“Things are very unpredictable,” said Nico Zenner, president of Travel Bound, acknowledging challenges created by the economic downturn and multiple natural disasters. “If we have stability, I think we will have a really good year.”
Roger Mahil, owner of Sita World Tours, agreed.
“We are now seeing a definite increase in inquiries,” he told the audience, “We see that some destinations like Chile that were [negatively] affected are now back up.”
“2010 has taken off with a great start,” said Rakesh Dewan, director of worldwide operations at Tauck World Discovery.
But he noted that travelers are now very deal- and cost-driven.
“At the end of the day, they are looking for value,” he said.
“The products that we are selling are the ones with special offers,” said Ron Krueger, executive vice president of Pleasant Holidays, adding that travelers are doing more research than ever before booking.
“The new market is educated, Internet-ready and independent,” said Eileen Lowe Hart, senior vice president of marketing and product development of Isram World.
Booking trends were also a hot topic. John Hanratty, chief marketing officer at Travel Impressions, said that more than 70 percent of his company’s bookings are now made online.
“It’s a huge shift,” said Hanratty. “The customer has many more places to shop today.”
He also noted that, now, more travelers visit sites like TripAdvisor.com before speaking with travel agents or booking themselves.
“It’s very important that [agents] scan these sites.”
Harry Dalgaard, president of Rail Europe Inc./Avanti Destinations, cautioned that even with the current emphasis on cost, suppliers — and agents — shouldn’t forget the value of their work.
“Don’t get caught in the price-value relationship,” Dalgaard advised attendees. “Focus on the quality. Focus on authenticity. Enough with the discounts, we’re selling dreams.”
John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours and chairperson of the USTOA, wrapped up the seminar by presenting a check for $5,000 to Pablo Moll, general manager of Turismo Chile, which will be used for earthquake relief in Isla Mocha, a small island west of the Arauco province that suffered damage from the earthquake in February.