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With travel restrictions still in place in many areas — and wary travelers favoring shorter trips — it’s no surprise that domestic travel is among the first segments to rebound during the coronavirus pandemic. As tour operators revamp and expand their U.S. programs and services to meet demand, travel advisors can find a fresh array of sales opportunities. But first, they may have to finesse their knowledge of new destinations and tour products as they master the challenges of selling packages designed for the new reality.
“Our bookings demonstrate a strong return for domestic travel, with its share already doubled for 2021 as travelers are itching to venture back out into the world, but, for now, a little closer to home,” said Melissa DaSilva, U.S. president of Trafalgar, Brendan Vacations and Costsaver. “Domestic has always been a big part of Trafalgar itineraries, but its share has almost doubled as we have created new opportunities to explore America’s backyard and reconnect people with travel when they are ready.”
To appeal to the public’s desire for natural settings, fewer crowds and shorter travel distances, Trafalgar recently introduced a series of small-group itineraries called Near, Not Far.
“We quickly launched these trips — recognizing the international travel challenges — to provide new options for U.S. travelers to experience the national parks safely and easily with a guide,” DaSilva said. “And for the first time, we are offering the option for travelers to book a private Trafalgar trip, with exclusive access to local specialists and guides, plus the hassle-free accommodations and excursions that travelers have come to know and love.”
Pleasant Holidays has also taken a strategic approach to reimagining its domestic offerings, according to Jack Richards, the company’s president and CEO.
“Way back in March, we read the research and did a lot of investigating as to how travel was going to unfold during, and immediately after, the pandemic,” he said. “Domestic came up at the top every single time. We focused on the drive market first, and by the end of March, we added about 100 new hotels to our portfolio in the smaller secondary cities because we felt people would want to avoid larger cities.”
Similar to other operators, Pleasant has debuted a variety of features, including free car rental deals, a traveler support page, a flat-rate $99 cancel-for-any-reason travel protection plan and online travel advisor tools that include Pleasant Pro Academy, a set of educational courses.
Overseas Leisure Group, meanwhile, has introduced Discover America, a luxury RV excursion program, as well as a Responsible Traveler Challenge that encourages travelers to get tested for COVID-19 during the 72 hours before departure. The company offers a $250 credit on each booking if all adults in the party have negative test results. In addition, Overseas is partnering with a company called EntrSafe on a COVID-19 electronic screening app.
“We believe that travelers, advisors and operators like us must play a role in keeping destinations safe,” said Felix Brambilla, the company’s CEO. “The challenge is to provide in-depth reassurance on safety without removing the magic of travel.”
For Globus Family of Brands (which includes Globus, Cosmos and Monograms), suspending operations through Oct. 31 was the best move to assure future success, according to Steve Born, the company’s chief marketing officer.
“At the same time, we had the opportunity to establish our new on-trip protocols, ensuring the safety and well-being of our travelers on their journey back to travel — this fall and beyond,” he said. “With help from our global health and safety team, we have introduced a new set of on-trip assurances, as well as a 2021 Peace of Mind Travel Plan.”
The free plan, included with all 2021 bookings with any of the Globus brands, allows travelers to move their booking to another destination, vacation, brand or travel date. In addition, the company has announced nine Undiscovered North America tours that focus on less visited regions.
'“We had actually planned for well over a year to introduce a new line of domestic products, so for us, we saw an opportunity that we already had in place,” Born said. “It wasn’t something that needed to be reactionary or a scramble.”
What’s Hot in U.S. Tour ProgramsNational parks, Alaska and the Western U.S. are among the destinations most in demand today, according to multiple tour operators. But, several also admit that, given today’s unique situation, the definition of what’s “trending” is different than before the pandemic.
“Part of a destination’s popularity is just by attrition,” said Dan Austin, CEO and founder of Austin Adventures, which recently launched upscale RV trips and homestays.
Probably 25% of bookings are with private planes. Normally, it is more like 5% to 10%.
He explained that since some destinations — even within the U.S. — have enacted travel restrictions, places that ordinarily would be a big seller are not even on the tour map this year.
“We have had to cancel Arizona and the Canadian Rockies, so a lot of the popularity is just based on what is still running,” he said. “Usually the Canadian Rockies is a huge program for us, and this year we simply cannot do it.”
Jeffrey Roy, executive vice president of revenue management, pricing and global air at Collette, agrees that it is difficult to analyze the long-term ramifications of a destination’s popularity, given the current situation. But he says it is easy to see what today’s travelers are craving.
“There is a clear trend toward open spaces, rolling pastures and a little less city life,” Roy said.
To give travelers a greater sense of safety when they tour, Collette recently introduced its Travel Well program, which includes a series of health-related practices.
Travelers’ preferences for privacy and distancing is especially evident in the boom in private plane tours.
“The increase in private jet travel is over the top,” Austin said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
Thirty-five percent of Overseas Leisure Group’s private plane clients in June and July were first-timers, indicating new interest in private transportation.
“Private aviation, once a luxury, is now considered by many to be a necessity,” Brambilla said.
Marty Behr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent’s (A&K) new U.S. destination management division, also reports an increase in clients who fly by private plane.
“We have clients who are more affluent and are flying in their own private planes or by a chartered jet that we can arrange,” Behr said. “Probably 25% of bookings are with private planes. Normally, it is more like 5% to 10%.”
Like other tour operators, A&K acknowledges the allure of the Western U.S. through a variety of new programs. The company has added six new Tailor Made itineraries in the West and in Alaska, as well as two new Great American Road Trips that include private guides.
“We do other parts of the U.S., but the focus has been on national parks and other natural areas in the American West, California and Alaska,” Behr said. “We are also in a good position because we have always done private tours.”
Behr says that travel advisors looking to sell more domestic U.S. tour products should emphasize the unique opportunities that today’s reality presents.
This is the summer when people can make last-minute decisions to go, because in Alaska and many properties in the Lower 48 there is availability that we have not seen during most summers.
“This is the summer when people can make last-minute decisions to go, because in Alaska and many properties in the Lower 48 there is availability that we have not seen during most summers,” he said. “Next summer is likely to be very busy, assuming COVID-19 is conquered with a vaccine.”
Changes and ChallengesSales may be growing for many tours, but there are still challenges in the marketplace.
“The situation has literally been changing daily,” Austin said. “We are all media-driven, so if the media is talking about a new vaccine, interest and energy is up. If they are talking about new hot spots and flash points, morale and energy are down. That all trickles through the industry and our company.”
Indeed, even as tour operators report growing demand for their programs, they — and the travel advisors who sell their products — must grapple with uncommon challenges.
Brambilla, for example, notes the risks associated with the increased popularity of lesser-known destinations and properties.
“We are managing a paradox,” he said. “Off-the-grid properties are in high demand, but their own staffing resources are low, further challenging the availability. Located in rural areas, they traditionally rely on foreign interns with work and travel visas for the summer season. Due to the ban in effect, they had to find staff in their local communities. They [used] last-minute training programs for people with limited or no hospitality experience. Once one of these communities gets affected by the virus, closing part or all of the inventory can be the inevitable consequence.”
For DaSilva, staying up to date on travel restrictions is one of the most time-consuming aspects of doing business today.
“The biggest challenge the entire industry is facing is the ambiguity of when and where people will be able to travel,” she said. “The industry has to position itself to swiftly adapt to the changes in world and consumer sentiment and create solutions that will help travelers navigate the world with ease — and do so responsibly.”
Last-minute bookings and licensing issues can also be a strain for smaller operators, according to Jared Fisher, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Escape Adventures.
“It is rough on operators because some of them have canceled the trips or may not have renewed their use permit with the parks or federal or state agencies they operate within,” he said. “We took the risk, and we processed all of our federal and state permits, because a bike tour operator cannot just say ‘We are going to do a tour of the Grand Canyon’ and do it without a permit. If I were a travel agent, the key thing I’d want to know is if I have an outfitter that is able to run tours, that is up to date with permitting and is able to execute that trip.”
Advisors, meanwhile, may need to spend more time educating clients who had never considered domestic tours in the past. Most upscale travelers, for example, are not as likely to consider this type of product, according to McLean Robbins, founder of Lily Pond Luxury, an independent affiliate of Travel Edge, a Virtuoso agency in Vienna, Va.
Clients of all ages are accustomed to asking for — and are generally aware of — touring internationally, but my client base is less aware that this exists in the U.S.
“I’m seeing domestic tours as a push rather than a pull, for the most part,” she said. “Clients of all ages are accustomed to asking for — and are generally aware of — touring internationally, but my client base is less aware that this exists in the U.S. My clients are generally ultra-luxe, and they are even skeptical about guided tours overseas, unless they think it is really going to add to the experience.”
Robbins says that it is not always easy to find truly upscale domestic tour products that are good enough to convince apprehensive clients to book.
“In order to book a domestic tour versus putting something together with a hotel concierge, I would need to see real value, plus pass-over of Virtuoso-style amenities,” she said. “Clients want special, private events they could not otherwise book as a reason to secure a guided tour.”
Globus’s Born says that travel advisors are key players when it comes to increasing the market for domestic tours. “It will only happen if agents use their power of suggestion to introduce this product to their clients,” he said. “Advisors can reach out and engage their clients and tell them they do not have to cross oceans for an adventure.”
Looking ForwardToday’s challenges will yield positive long-term results, according to Collette’s Roy.
“This is forcing everybody to innovate, whether on the sales and marketing side or on the tour operation side,” he said.
In the end, according to DaSilva, the success of domestic tours depends on their ability to assure the best possible travel experience.
“The No. 1 question we are getting from travelers is, ‘Will it still be fun to travel with all of these restrictions?’” she said. “The future of travel will certainly look different, so it is important to be transparent about that when speaking with clients. However, these concerns demonstrate that domestic guided vacations are poised to make a strong comeback. The new normal of travel will still be exciting, transformative and enriching. We handle all of the hassle that comes with navigating restrictions and properly vetting safe experiences, so that travelers can simply enjoy the journey.”
What are travelers looking for today in a domestic tour? These are some of the most sought-after elements, according to multiple tour operator executives.
- Open-air and outdoor spaces, including national parks- Small groups and individual trips- Last-minute availability - Driving trips and close-by destinations that do not require air travel- Smaller, off-the-beaten-path destination- More intimate accommodations: RVs, casitas, villas, boutique-size hotels, homestays- Flexible cancellation policies - Travel by private plane