USTOA survey: 59% of 2022 reservations are rebookings

SAN DIEGO — While 59% of tour operators’ 2022 volume is rebookings from earlier reservations, 41% have come in since Covid entered the picture, according to a U.S. Tour Operators Association survey that 86% of members answered.

The USTOA revealed the survey findings at its annual conference this week.

Perhaps surprisingly, three out of four bookings are to international destinations.

Almost all respondents (93%) anticipate growth in sales in 2022, with 65% of those anticipating growth of 7% or more. Fifty-three percent expect a full recovery in their business by end of 2023, and 20% by the end of 2022.

Perhaps the biggest shift in the survey was the number of tour operators who expect business booked by travel agents to increase or remain the same — 89% this year, a 24-point jump from the 72% who said that in last year’s survey. 

Much like in the past, 87% of members plan to use travel advisors to generate sales, and 76% said travel advisors will play a very important role in their business in 2022.

Another interesting shift came in the “most popular travel products” category. The top three were traditional small-group tours, FIT and private tours, and those were followed by classic group tours of 25-plus passengers, which surpassed river cruises.

Asked to rank the biggest threats to traveler confidence on the horizon, tour operators cited “pandemic/health crisis” as number one (even before omicron hit the scene), followed by political instability, the strength of the dollar, terrorism and natural disasters. 

For their own businesses, the biggest challenge is confusion about border closings, followed by customer confidence, coordination of protocols across borders and suppliers, threats of quarantine and the news media cycle.

Top international destinations have shifted slightly from the traditional “Three I’s.” This year the top three are Italy, France and Greece tied for second and then Ireland, with Iceland out of the top 3 for now. Domestically, top destinations are national parks, Alaska and Hawaii.

Looking beyond 2022, the top three trends to watch over the next decade are sustainable travel, artificial intelligence and advanced travel technology, and small groups/small ships.

While sustainability was mentioned many times at the conference, many said it is not yet a big focus of most customers. But it is to the industry, and to many investors in public companies. Said outgoing USTOA chair Charlie Ball of the Holland America Group, “Our membership at USTOA has done a good job rising to the occasion.”

Incoming chair Scott Wiseman noted that “there’s a little bit of splurge” in customer spending for 2022, though value seems to still need to be there — and prices also are rising,” squeezing suppliers a bit. Still, “people are not afraid to splurge.”

As far as advice for travel advisors, perhaps the best came from Madhvi Buch of The Travel Corporation USA. “Teach your clients to fish,” she said. “Let them be more responsible for learning where they are going and what the requirements are. It’s in your mutual interest to condition the customer as early as possible to do the research and learn as much as they can.”

The USTOA survey was completed on Nov. 10. Tour operators responding represent the following travel services: escorted/guided tours 73%; FIT packages 60%; custom packages 56%; student travel 13%; and cruises 40%. 

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