The 2016 USTOA Executive Committee from bottom left to top left: Dana Santucci, Paula Twidale, Terry Dale, Harry Dalgaard, Charlie Ball and Jerre Fuqua // © 2015 United States Tour Operators Association
Feature image (above): USTOA CEO and president Terry Dale at the Annual Conference & Marketplace in Chicago // © 2015 United States Tour Operators Association
Spirits were high at the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) Annual Conference & Marketplace, where the newly-elected executive committee revealed the results of its annual travel trend and forecast survey of USTOA’s active tour operator members. The event took place from Dec. 3-5 at Hyatt Regency Chicago.
“By and large it has been a resilient market,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA.
Among the good news was the fact that travel agents are dominating USTOA members’ bookings. The majority of surveyed members (87 percent) reported that they used travel agents to sell product in 2015. The survey found that 55 percent of USTOA member bookings were made through a travel agency, and 91 percent of members predict that business through travel agents will stay the same or increase in 2016.
In addition, nine in 10 tour operator members believe that 2016 will be a growth year, with 57 percent feeling “optimistic” and predicting a “boom year” with growth ranging from 7 to 10 percent.
Three-quarters of members surveyed reported an increase in sales over 2014 (40 percent of which saw an increase of 10 percent or higher). Seventy percent cited an increase in passengers in 2015, and 60 percent reported a growth between 4 and 9 percent.
Thirty-nine percent of USTOA members attribute growth to an improved economy and higher consumer confidence, and 47 percent of USTOA members plan to increase staff.
Though the survey was conducted before the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., terrorism attacks, members had already named terrorism to be the No. 1 threat. Nonetheless, spirits at the conference were hopeful.
“Americans have been more resilient than they have ever been,” said Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette and newly-appointed chairman to USTOA. “They’re in a wait-and-see mode.”
Charlie Ball, executive vice president, land operations and customer service for Holland America Group, added that this time of year is typically slower for tour operators. Twidale expressed that while current bookings haven’t been affected, there could be an effect on future bookings.
“We had quite a few cancellations for Paris itself, but it was mostly limited to Paris advanced bookings for 2016,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations.
Dalgaard said he has seen a bit of churning (of travelers delaying their bookings). Overall, Dalgaard said that compared to the amount of room nights Avanti does in Paris, attrition is minimal.
“We have been through this in the ‘80s, ‘90s and certainly in this decade,” Dalgaard said. “The American traveler is a much sturdier creature.”
Dalgaard added that he has never seen such support for France in the U.S., which could be a positive sign for travel.
“I think we might see something new develop here,” he said. “We might even see the traveler go and support the destination. It’s an early projection, but I think that the amount of support in the U.S. for the French was the highest I’ve seen in a long time.”
Meanwhile, Twidale expressed that operators should take care in continuing to support destinations around the world.
“Travel is an economic engine, and it affects a lot of lives,” she said. “Unless there’s a good reason to pull back, we can’t succumb to fear and we have to continue to travel.”
Twidale expressed frustration about the recent U.S. Worldwide Travel Alert, which ASTA also criticized for being vague. She said that many American travelers don’t understand the difference between an alert and a warning.
“It was overreaction and irresponsible,” she said. “We are intelligent enough to see what’s happening in the world, and if there’s a reason to pull back, we will do so responsibly.”