The events of this spring have turned the world upside down. Within two weeks in March, virtually the entire globe shut down travel.
Under the best of circumstances, tour operators already run on slim margins, so the mass cancellations have led to unprecedented challenges. Without a pandemic playbook, each company must decide for itself how to respond.
U.S. Tours, Aventura World and Collette are three Select Traveler travel companies working to stay relevant during the pandemic as well as develop a reopening plan once restrictions are lifted. We asked them to talk to us about their postpandemic plans. Here’s what they had to say.
U.S. Tours doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to shutdowns and travel stoppages. The wholesale travel company based in Vienna, West Virginia, serves traditional tour operators and Select Traveler group leaders. Its tour operator clients have been hit hardest from the pandemic, so U.S. Tours has halted marketing efforts to these customers and has focused instead on helping them cancel programs.
As the situation continues to develop, the company will help them work on recovery plans.
U.S. Tours’ Select Traveler members offer more of a service to their customers than most businesses, so most of these customers were not as negatively affected.
“These groups are actually buying new products for fall, winter and the rest of 2021,” said Bob Cline, founder of U.S. Tours. “We are continuing our marketing with e-blasts, phone calls and even a few sales calls.”
The company has also transformed its special events scheduled in October in Virginia Beach and on New Year’s Eve in Myrtle Beach into recovery parties to celebrate the end of travel restrictions.
Cline believes there are reasons to remain hopeful, including the low cost of fuel and the fact that many of the company’s travelers are already retired and thus not as affected by the economics of social distancing.
“This will be a benchmark moment in history,” said Cline. “We will define things as pre-Corona and post-Corona. In post-Corona world, I think travelers are going to come flocking to buses, eager to go and spend.”
Aventura World, a wholesale travel company based in Moonachie, New Jersey, wants to focus on giving hope rather than taking reservations. Founded in 1972, the company takes the long view of the pandemic, confident that it, too, will pass.
“We’ve experienced many downturns, two Gulf wars, the Balkan conflicts and all kinds of world events,” said Ian Scott, president of Aventura World. “We have created new programs to take care of our travelers.”
The company partners with the Association of the Chambers of Commerce Executives to provide chamber programs with tours. It also plans trips for alumni associations, church groups and other affinity travel programs. Aventura World markets its tours to the 55-plus crowd, with typical itineraries going to exotic locales for authentic, immersive experiences.
To respond to the pandemic, the company is taking a step back from marketing for the present to aspirational travel.
“It’s about expressing the dream of travel,” said Scott. “We talk about our tour programs to keep hope alive. We’re still here to take reservations, but we are more education-focused. It’s about making our clients comfortable.”
The company is using its Cultural Discovery Series to educate guests on fascinating facts about various countries. These digital campaigns are often timely, with facts about how Egypt’s pharaohs stayed healthy over the centuries with honey and anise seeds.
Posts on social media contain a new address — #aventuraworld4u — to reflect this digital campaign.
“People want to come together but don’t want to put their money down yet,” said Scott. “They want a plan. We want to facilitate their dreams. We have the ability to reserve our programs without any financial risks.”
The company has loosened its cancellation policies to assuage fears. Guests can now cancel with no questions asked 90 to 120 days before a trip, depending on the destination. Before the pandemic, there would have been cancellation fees for dates that close to international tours.
“We have to look at life a little differently now,” said Scott. “We are aiming to build a community of hope for our group leaders and our vendors. We want members to allow their travelers to believe that we are going to get back to normal. All of our products are there, and we can do that.”
While the world is on lockdown, Collette, one of the oldest tour operators in the world, is emphasizing relationships. Based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Collette specializes in group travel to all seven continents.
“It’s a tough time because we can’t be out there traveling,” said Jeff Roy, executive vice president of Collette. “We normally have a lot of face-to-face conversations with group leaders. Our CEO has been on the phone with a number of group accounts. This isn’t a time to sell. It is a time to work on our relationships.”
With social media, emails and phone calls, the company is spreading a message of aspirational travel to unite its customers so they will be ready to hit the road when the world opens back up.
“We have 70 sales representatives, so we are having a lot of conversations with people every day,” said Roy. “We are also on social media platforms. Our president posted videos to keep people up to date on travel restrictions.”
Collette has posted a steady stream of inspirational social media posts relating to the pandemic, including a video that encouraged viewers to relive travel memories that last forever. Beyond just imagining travel, the company continues to book trips in 2021 with Europe and North America now dominating in popularity.
Though COVID-19 has led to some cancellations in the immediate future, most groups booked in August and onward still plan to go. Roy believes this is partially due to Collette’s worry-free cancellation policy, under which travelers can cancel up to 24 hours before a trip for any reason.
“We’ve been doing that for 30 years,” said Roy. “People think it is crazy because it is expensive for us. In an environment like this when you have a pandemic, people are really happy they can cancel at any time. That is a huge differentiation for us in the market.”