By Brian Jewell
Although stagnant employment growth, fears of a double-dip recession and Occupy Wall Street protests have dominated the news, the worries of 2011 have not dampened the adventurous spirits of America’s travelers. Tour operators and destinations around the country have reported strong traffic and, in some cases, rapid growth taking place despite the current state of the economy.
That growth could translate into continued strong performance in 2012 as tourism operators and promoters hone products that appeal to the changing tastes of travelers and economic realities.
Tour operators say that they took more passengers on tours in 2011 than in 2010. “Business has been good — we’re up even more than we expected,” said Heidi Durflinger, director of group sales for Go Ahead Tours, a worldwide tour company based in Cambridge, Mass. “Europe is definitely back. Italy and Ireland continue to be two of the most popular destinations.
“We’ve also noticed for this year and next year that Asia, Australia and New Zealand are up, along with South America.”
Although exotic destinations often come with higher price points, Durflinger said that the customers booking these vacations have often dreamed of visiting these faraway places for years and are willing to spend what’s necessary to experience these “once-in-a-lifetime” trips.
Queenslander Tours, a Highlands Ranch, Colo., company that specializes in tours for smaller groups, reports significant growth for the past several years.
“We’ve been growing dynamically over the past two to three years,” said owner Mark Story. “It’s a result of our focus on a smaller-group approach to travel. We blew 2010 out of the water this year.”
Queenslander saw strong demand for Europe in 2011 and foresees growth in the South Pacific and Oceania destinations in 2012.
Domestic destinations have proven popular for CTN Travelers, a Midland, N.C., operator that specializes in tours for bank groups.
“Our business was better this year than it was in 2010,” said president Rick Pharr. “We see good opportunities for 2012 and beyond. It seems that there is definitely interest from the travelers.
“For us, it’s mostly domestic. There’s probably a bit of pent-up demand from travelers. They’ve stayed on the sidelines for a year or so and realized that it’s not going to be any less expensive to travel in the future. Prices aren’t going to get cheaper.”
Finding their niche
Much of the success that tour operators are reporting for this year came from developing niches, specialties and partnerships that resounded with the tastes of today’s travelers. Pharr said that his company’s marketing and partnership initiatives have bolstered his position among bank groups.
“Bookings for 2012 are better than they were last year,” he said. “Some of the market is starting to realize who we are. Our relationships as a member of TAP [Travel Alliance Partners] helps us and gives us some credibility in the marketplace.
“We’ve also made some decisions to be more specific in our marketing. We’re going to have a bigger presence at Bank Travel and some other trade shows and try to continually keep the message out there.”
Go Ahead Tours has responded to changing customer interest by scheduling some shorter tours, covering some European destinations in 10 days or less. Special events and experiences are set to propel growth in 2012.
“I think people are going to continue to look for the unique experiences,” Durflinger said. “We’ve seen an interest in multigenerational trips and some of our special departures that are themed around certain festivals, like Oktoberfest or the Christmas market.
“In 2012, we’re offering the European Chocolate Festival and Floriade, so we’re seeing some interest in having more specialized and unique experiences when you travel.”
Queenslander Tours sells retail tours through travel agents as well as booking customized group tours directly. Its retail tours fill up at 16 travelers, and group tours can expand up to 30.
Story said that the emphasis on small groups and individual experiences has helped his company carve out a niche that has strong growth potential for the future.
“I’m expecting that we’re going to continue to see this growth trend,” he said. “The last three years has just multiplied the volume of our business. I feel like we’re going to see more of the same because there’s going to be more emphasis on a quality experience.
“There is a trend toward a really hands-on, in-depth immersion, and we’ve really been trying to respond to that.”
Destinations sell their strengths
Tourism business has held steady or has grown in many popular American destinations, giving convention and visitors bureaus reason to be optimistic about 2012.
In Rapid City, S.D., bad spring weather and media coverage of South Dakota flooding dampened tourism for the first half of the year. Tourism rebounded for the fall, propelled by special events and a strong group presence.
“Our research showed us down through August by about 5 percent,” said Michelle Thomson, tourism director at the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “But we know that September was really strong, and we’re hoping that that pulls us up to our 2010 numbers. Last year was a great year for us, so we really can’t complain.”
Thomson said motorcoach groups visited Rapid City and the Black Hills in record numbers in September and October, drawn by special events and temperate fall weather. Several hotels and travel suppliers in the area told Thomson that strong group tourism this fall has saved their bottom lines for the year.
For next year, Thomson expects to see strong group demand based on the area’s reputation as an all-American destination.
“We’re hearing that 2012 looks pretty good so far,” she said. “We hope that since we’re affordable and have a central location, we’ll stay strong with our group business. We’re kind of an Americana destination, so it seems like when things get a little bit difficult, people think about our area.”
Central location, a menu of popular attractions and a strong value proposition helped Atlanta post strong tourism numbers for 2011. The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau saw a 9 percent growth in 2010 and reported a continued increase for this year.
CEO William Pate credits ease of access and a strong marketing plan with the area’s continued popularity among group travelers.
“Atlanta is a great city for tour and coach operators,” he said. “It’s very easy to get to, and we do a lot of business throughout the Southeast. Atlanta is a very low cost destination, and we’ve spent a lot of time raising our profile.
“We hosted Travel South back in February and the National Association of Motorcoach Operators in August.”
The bureau is predicting continued growth next year as new attractions come online and Delta Air Lines adds considerable inbound air traffic with a new international terminal.
New features at the Georgia Aquarium and Stone Mountain Park, as well as museums slated to open in 2012 and 2013, should buoy group interest for the near future.
“They’re looking for value opportunities,” Pate said. “They want to be able to come and see a lot of things while they’re in your city. We’ve got cultural, sports venues and Centennial Park.
“It adds to the value proposition, and people want multiple experiences in their visits.”