Group Travel Confronts an Unprecedented Crisis in COVID-19
Group Travel Leader
September 1, 2020
After several years of surging sales, the group travel industry started 2020 collectively expecting a banner year. But by mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic had halted travel worldwide, putting intense pressure on every organization and company in the tourism community. That pressure continues as unpredictable infection spikes keep travelers grounded. The Group Travel Leader spoke with the heads of four tourism industry associations to get their perspectives on these unprecedented challenges and how the industry is working together to overcome them.
Carylann Assante, Executive director, Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA)
Terry Dale, President and CEO, United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)
Catherine Prather, President, NTA
Peter Pantuso, President and CEO, American Bus Association (ABA)
The travel industry has been particularly hard hit by pandemic closures and quarantines. How has your association responded, and what are your priorities for the end of this year and the beginning of 2021?
Pantuso: Since March, it’s been nonstop government affairs at our end. It’s been seven days a week. We know the industry across the board — motorcoach, tour, travel and suppliers — are all struggling right now. So we’re communicating with Congress and the administration on a daily basis. We have almost 40 people working trying to get more funding for the industry.
On May 13, we had a bus rally with 800 companies from all 50 states represented. That helped generate a lot of media, national and local. We were able to get a lot of messages into hometown newspapers, which members of Congress read. We need everybody behind us. We need them to keep communicating to Congress and to the media.
We also put together a toolkit to help all of our members come back. What do they need to do to help assure the customer that they’re going to be traveling safely? It’s all up on our website.
There has been a lot of speculation about pent-up demand for travel. Have you seen any indication of that? Do trends in bookings, refunds and credits give you any insight into how travelers might respond when they get the go-ahead?
Pantuso: I don’t think there is any pent-up demand in 2020. Travel isn’t going to go away — we’re going to see demand. But everybody is waiting for that silver bullet — a vaccine — before they’re out and moving again. When that happens, you’ll see tremendous demand again.
People get out and see people and visit places. That’s what we do as humans. Once everybody has the green light, I’m sure we’re going to see a huge demand.
What should the group travel industry’s messaging say right now? What should we be telling our customers, our employees and the public at large?
Pantuso: Part of the message is that it is safe to travel. With the precautions being taken by motorcoach companies, restaurants, museums and everywhere else, the opportunities are certainly there, and it can be done safely.
The roadblock to this is that the states are limiting where people can come from. You might want to go to New York, but if you’re from Virginia, you have to self-quarantine for 14 days when you arrive.
Is there a silver lining in any of this? Are there innovations, creative ideas or new practices that will benefit the travel industry or improve the travel experience long term?
Pantuso: I’m seeing operators who are being really creative. They’re not only providing transportation but providing cleaning services to other bus companies. I saw a hotelier in the Midwest who is very well known. He was headed to another hotel in a different area to try to help them with their business plan.
How can we be the best at what we do and make the customer experience even better? How do I make sure that when things open up, they’re at the front of the line for everybody?