Is it easier or harder to find groups than it was 10 years ago? Is it easier or harder to influence them?
Simon: It totally depends on who you talk to, because we’re hearing mixed perspectives on that. Tour operators are having to appeal to customers differently. It’s not just about the destination; it’s about the experience and “what I want to do.” Whether it’s adventure, ecotourism, culinary experiences or people traveling for religious purposes, it has to be unique to their needs. That’s more challenging for the tour operator and the destination because they have to be able to customize experiences for groups.
The traditional paradigm has shifted from “price, product, place and promotion” to this new social model. Travel packagers can provide those experiences in ways that consumers can’t do for themselves, but it’s a shift in how companies have to operate.
Pantuso: It’s definitely harder to find them. A preformed group can be just about anything or anybody. They don’t necessarily have a moniker over their doorway or a clubhouse that they meet at. There are tens of thousands of groups that meet online. Some are formed around special interests in things like wine or theater. Those are the new groups of the future, and each of those groups has a leader. Finding them is going to require a lot of creativity — looking into avenues that may not have made sense before or that you wouldn’t have thought of as a viable option. You have to offer them what they want when they want it and how they want it. I don’t think you can operate it in the traditional fashion, where you ask them to join your product. Now, they tell you exactly how they want the product delivered.
Assante: Ten years ago, you had marching bands of 100 or 150 kids traveling. The size of the groups was larger. Today, you may have 25 percent fewer students traveling. In the sports market, it’s the same way. Kids are having to choose which sport they want to play. And because general music programs are being cut out of schools, kids are having to choose between music and a sport. Our members have to work a lot harder to find schools to fill their programs. They may have to diversify their programs a bit, combining music with things like language and history.
SYTA is working on influencing teachers to work directly with tour operators. We want our members to have more business, but we really want to enable teachers to spend more time focusing on what they do and traveling with a partner who can keep costs down and not take up their time and resources.
Dale: In our annual members survey in 2011, 64 percent said that they have had an increase in passengers over the previous year, and half of those had growth in excess of 10 percent. When we see that kind of growth in passengers being carried, it seems that we’re still being successful in identifying [groups]. Our members are identifying them and motivating them to purchase group tours. I’m sure it’s challenging. But we’re still seeing growth.
What is the single social paradigm or stereotype your industry faces that you would like to overcome in the next decade?
Assante: We want to continue to validate what we do as a profession and a business. People think that it’s a second career for ex-teachers or band directors. We’d really like to validate the educational travel market as a real profession that provides benefits to society and communities. I’d really love for us to be more recognized in the industry. The student market is not just taking middle schoolers to Washington, but we’re really educating the next generation.
Simon: What I’d like to see change faster is the stereotype that group travel is perceived as herding cats on and off buses with no flexibility or free time. That perception still exists for people who haven’t traveled in groups — as you see baby boomers and younger adults looking at travel options, they think that group travel isn’t for them. The perception is changing, but I’d like to see it change a lot faster, because the product is changing. If you take a group tour today, you find that it’s liberating, because you don’t have to worry about anything while you’re traveling. And packaged travel doesn’t have to be just groups, either. It’s not the same structure of groups anymore. Now it’s smaller groups, families and different makeups of groups.
Dale: The single word “tour” has come to have some negative connotations in some consumers’ minds. I think that if there’s a great service that we can give our members, it’s to help bust that misperception, because tours today aren’t about being confined to a motorcoach or a strict itinerary. It’s about being on a whole host of different modes of transportation. You could be on a river cruise, on a luxury train or a hot-air balloon. It’s all about diversifying the experiences and building in flexibility so that customers can customize their experiences while still being part of a group tour. I want to make sure that we’re out there talking about how tours have evolved. It’s a great way to truly get to know the authentic, real side of a destination.
Pantuso: There’s a concept that traveling by bus is a second-class way of travel or is a travel option for people without means: “This is your grandfather’s bus.” All of those are things that we’d like to change, and we think that they are changing. The tremendous change of younger travelers going between cities by bus is having a huge impact in changing the perception. There are so many companies coming into that space that offer scheduled travel, and they’re bringing in a new demographic. All of the sudden, the 20- to 35-year-old is beginning to see that travel by bus is cool. That offers an opportunity to go back to those same customers and sell them on other types of group travel and motorcoach travel. You can sell them a wine tour through the countryside or a theater trip to New York because you know what their interests are.