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Representing a variety of tour companies — from guided and escorted operators to those specializing in FIT and customizable travel — the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) has been a voice for suppliers for more than 40 years. In addition to providing benefits for its members, the organization is a source of education and assistance for both touring travelers and their advisors.
We chatted with Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA, to get a closer look at the latest in tour operator trends for 2018.
What trends are you seeing in the tour sector that you think will gain momentum in 2018?Art and culture, adventure and family travel continued to be important categories for our members in 2017 and will most likely continue to grow in popularity in 2018. USTOA’s Annual Member Survey results were released at our Annual Conference last November, and the results revealed that culinary travel is an additional trend we’re seeing. Hot destinations for the tour sector included Australia, Spain, Iceland and Italy.
Tour operators need to constantly innovate to set themselves apart. Do any companies or initiatives come to mind as being especially cutting-edge in the way they attract business?Tour operator members often look to new or emerging destinations, themes and partnerships to keep travel options fresh. The Middle East is uncharted territory for most travelers, and operators such as Alexander + Roberts have begun offering trips to the region, including its Persian Moments in Iran tour. Operators also use hot trends or themes to create new itineraries or experiences like once-in-a-lifetime adventure travel. For example, travelers can climb Mount Kilimanjaro with Goway Travel or kayak through Arctic waters with Quark Expeditions.
Our members also find new ways to speak to guests through partnerships, such as Tauck’s recently expanded partnership with filmmaker Ken Burns. Tauck and Burns are offering a five-day Washington, D.C., event in 2018 that features a full roster of insider experiences, such as private guided tours of the U.S. Capitol — including its underground tunnels — the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
Additionally, Holland America Line recently partnered with O, The Oprah Magazine to create new programming, including an onboard book club, meditation, tai chi and healthful-cooking demonstrations for guests.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about escorted tours? Some travelers see tour itineraries as a vacation that follows a strict schedule. And while there are itineraries that can provide structure, there also are plenty offering ample free time throughout a trip to explore on one’s own, as well as FIT trips that allow more flexibility for travelers to decide their own path. Operators continue to expand offerings with varied trip layouts and destinations that speak to all demographics.
How do you characterize the relationship between travel agents and USTOA members?Travel agents are essential to the success of USTOA tour operator members. USTOA and our members offer extensive resources to agents interested in the tour sector, including a yearly Business Resource publication with information about USTOA and our members; multiple webinars throughout the year on different destinations and topics; and a monthly travel agent newsletter that features current campaigns and highlights member products. These tools are excellent resources to help advisors get an idea of what USTOA tour operators offer.