By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
With travelers anxious to put the coronavirus pandemic in the rear view mirror, the travel industry is looking for a boom just about everywhere.
It’s not so much a “return to normal” as if the coronavirus pandemic has been eradicated from the world, but that there is a new normal, especially with the availability of vaccines and treatments diminishing the risk and consequences of exposure, compared to the reward of satisfying the human need for connection, stimulation, growth, exploration and rejuvention.
Interestingly, the travel industry experts and travel advisors who gathered for the New York Travel Show at the Javits Center in Manhattan after a two-year hiatus, while acknowledging and showing support for Ukraine with impassioned remarks by a representative of the consul general’s office here, no one suggested that the Russia-Ukraine War would discourage or redirect international travel, even to Europe. The main limitation to travel, they find, are anticipated higher prices and capacity restrictions.
“We do noble work,” Paul Muir, President of nyITS 2022, the travel show organizer, told the travel advisors gathered for the Trade Day that opened the three-day show. “Travel makes the world better – exposes people to new cultures, takes away biases. By definition, travel is inclusive and diverse.” In other words, travel is the preventive and the cure to conflict; travelers are ambassadors for peace and understanding.
Travel Advisors are the big winners coming out of this tumultuous time (no longer called “travel agents”). Their value was demonstrated keenly during the coronavirus pandemic, not only keeping track of rapidly changing conditions and regulations in order to advise people where and how to go, but in making changes, cancellations and getting refunds back for their clients. Travelers, particularly millennials, who considered themselves adept at DIY using online sources, discovered the benefits not only of expertise, but access to space and the value and benefits in saving time, not to mention reducing the anxiety, stress and confusion.
Tour Operators are poised for big gains also – especially the ones that showed they would and could take care of their clients through the pandemic. With the boom in demand, capacity still limited (as much because of labor shortages than restrictions and protocols), tour operators have the blocked rooms, advance-purchase tickets to attractions and all the elements that might not be available. COVID showed which tour operators were most helpful to clients and those are the ones you should patronize.
“With or without COVID, our accommodations are always in high demand,” said Betsy O’Rourke, Chief Marketing Officer for Xanterra Travel Collection, the largest concessionaire operating in the national parks. “We open inventory 13 months in advance, and it sells out in 60-90 minutes.” She advises travelers that because there is turnover and people change their plans, “look for cancellations, or better, book with a tour operator – 30 percent of our inventory is allocated to tours and package programs. It’s one-stop shopping.”
Prices Going Up: Prices were incredibly low during the pandemic and prices are rising in response to the unleashing in demand, expenses for fuel, food and labor higher, while capacity is still being limited – largely because of an ongoing labor shortage.
“Book travel now – lock in the prices now – they will go up,” advised travel writer Pauline Frommer. “Make sure you read fine print. Deal with companies that are flexible. One good thing out of the pandemic, is that unless you purchased an economy airline ticket, you can mostly get money back if you change.”
Indeed, it is worth it to pay the $75 or so extra for an airline ticket to have the ability to change or apply the fare to a future booking if you need to cancel. And travel insurance, which provides for trip cancellation as well as health emergencies, is a particularly good idea in these times. (I like to work with World Nomads, worldnomads.com. “Cancellations due to fear of travel are not covered. However, our plans may provide coverage if you become injured or ill prior to your trip or while on your trip. Learn more here: www.worldnomads.com/travel-insurance/coronavirus.)
Flexible bookings were the saving grace for the travel industry – in survival mode because of coronavirus lockdowns, lock-outs, quarantines. The travel suppliers that stepped up and offered to reapply downpayments to future travel, convinced clients not to pull out their money altogether and the likelihood is they would take the trip eventually, were in better position to stay afloat. Offering flexible cancellation, change and refund policies for new bookings gave travelers confidence to book as conditions improved and vaccinations became more widespread, and the curious thing about travelers is that once they book, they commit to travel. Without these policies, cash flow would have dried up altogether.
The industry – from hotels and lodgings to airlines and car rental, to tour companies, attractions and restaurants – also proved extremely resilient in adapting to the coronavirus, from introducing (and promoting) health and sanitation protocols, making investments in technology to improve the booking and guest experience, and many of these will be lasting improvements. Many also were clever in maintaining engagement, interest and top-of-mind presence with virtual tours, webinars, sending recipes, opening up merchandise stores related to their travel experiences, banking on the fact that armchair travelers would get back in the saddle – and probably won new clients in the bargain.
So far, many tour operators are alleviating any lingering skittishness over booking, recognizing that new variants or emergencies could flare up, by continuing to offer flexible change policies (the language is “book with confidence”). It remains to be seen, though, whether the very flexible change, cancellation and refund policies will remain in effect.
One of the practices put into place because of the need for social distancing and limiting capacity will likely be advance reservations and ticketing. Now, propelled by the tightrope of economics because of labor shortages and the real need of travel companies to minimize overhead and waste, in order to maximize profit and facilitated because of the technology put into place. It will be the industry’s version of what airlines have been doing for decades, now, with yield-management.
“Serendipity will be gone – all these attractions, themeparks requiring advance purchase – for staffing, food needs,” Frommer said. “That won’t go away. Travelers will need to plan ahead to do what you want to do.”
But this will also benefit visitors who, instead of waiting on a line for a popular exhibit for hours (the “Mona Lisa” at Le Louvre?), you will know what time you can enter with minimal wait.
And, the early adopters can still travel to the popular places before the numbers (crowds) fully return, observed Chad Martin, Director, Northeast Region for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
Many travelers experienced such novelties as camping, glamping, experiential and expeditionary style travel to open spaces, off-the-beaten track destinations decidedly uncrowded, and discovered the deep appeal of this style of travel.
The most enthusiastic travelers continue to be the more adventurous, active, outdoors oriented, resilient and adaptable.
The past two years, people have discovered nature, open spaces, the outdoors and that isn’t going to change. Except that they over-loved – even loved to death – most cherished places, especially national parks. Going forward, seek out lesser known or trafficked national parks (or visit in off/shoulder season and book in advance (some parks, like Arches National Park are requiring reserved tickets).
As a result, there is more interest in exploring state parks – consistent with the closer-to-home, driveable destination travel of the past two years, but now drawing long-distance visitors from well outside state borders who are discovering places like Watkins Glen and Letchworth state parks (in western New York) and Valley of Fire State Park (about an hour east of Las Vegas) in Nevada to be sufficiently exotic, exciting and visually spectacular.
The same is true for the over-visited international destinations, like Machu Picchu, where visitors are discovering alternative sites. Travelers are much more open and interested in visiting new places. So for Frommer, that’s Berlin, the international destination that is first on her list after coming out of COVID, because she has never been.
“There are 196 countries in the world,” says CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg, “There are only 7 that I wouldn’t go to. Throw away your bucket list.”
The new “hot places” are those that aren’t “hot” at all.
For Samantha Brown, host of Samantha Brown’s Places to Love, it’s Madison, Wisconsin. “To me, ‘hot places’ are those where travelers are not. Madison Wisconsin is not inundated. I don’t think of hot spots, I think of small towns, road trips.”
Indeed, travelers have re-discovered the appeal of domestic destinations – a return to the road trip (which because of gas prices may well be closer to home, “tank of gas” destinations) –which also had the effect of smoothing out seasonality. Popular destinations, such as Fort Myers and Greater Fort Lauderdale in Florida, have found there are no more “peak,” “shoulder” or “off”-seasons.
“In Alaska we have found how much traffic is now coming outside of June-July-August – the aurora season,” said David Kasser, VP of Tourism Development & Sales, Alaska Land & Sea Adventures. “This has been an upward trend for 3-5 years. You have to plan advance for Alaska; look beyond the three months of summer, especially if you have been to Alaska before.”
This is consistent with growing trend toward Responsible and Sustainable Travel – where travelers are mindful of the impact they have, both for good (providing economic underpinning that preserves nature, heritage and culture) and bad (overtourism tramples, exploits and destroys, climate change).
It’s also consistent with growing trends of “intentional,” “experiential” and “immersive” travel. Sure there are still many who simply want to relax on a beach to restore their well-being, but because travel entails investment of time, money, energy and even some amount of risk, choices are motivated by additional personal goals.
The desire to experience uncrowded places and spread the benefit of travel and tourism is encouraging travelers to expand horizons, further maximizing the benefit of using a travel advisor or tour operator.
This is seen in where the travel experts are planning their own travel: Frommer said “Berlin –because I’ve never been. For my first international trip after COVID, I want to go some place new . Also, Germany has best health care system and Berlin is less expensive than most European cities.”
Greenberg said he wanted to go next to Madagascar. “This island has the most birdlife in the world.”
Samantha Brown has her sights on Newfoundland, the place that “Come From Away” was about, for its culture and nature. “I love sparseness.”
Travelers are as resilient and adaptable as the travel industry in accommodating them and modifying programs – in Alaska, when big-ship cruising came to a halt, travelers discovered land-based tours, rail tours to Denali, and day-cruises to experience the glaciers.
And that is key: the choices for travel experiences are virtually unlimited to accommodate whatever travelers’ interests, motivations and limitations are. And travel advisors can be the key to making the best matches.
Photo: One of the lasting travel trends coming out of COVID, with a desire to be in open spaces and the outdoors is the over-popularity of national parks and a new appeal of state parks, like Watkins Glen, New York. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
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