How to Adapt and Thrive During Travel’s Rebound
Group Travel Leader
September 8, 2021
With large portions of the American public vaccinated against COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions eased in many places around the country, the travel landscape is markedly different than it was a year ago. But with this new scenario comes new challenges, as tourism and hospitality businesses grapple with labor shortages, a flood of pent-up demand and uncertainty about virus variants. The Group Travel Leader spoke with the heads of four tourism industry associations to get their perspectives on travel’s nascent rebound, the path through these current challenges and the outlook for a return to prosperity in the future.
- Carylann Assante, CEO, 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)
What are the biggest hurdles for our industry to clear in the recovery effort? What strategies might prove most effective in overcoming those challenges?
Pantuso: The immediate hurdle right now is the delta variant and how people are going to respond to that. We’re starting to see uncertainty come back into the market. We’re hearing that some cities or even states may do mask mandates again. All the things we thought we were climbing out of seem to be potentially coming back. That uncertainty is not good for travel, especially group travel.
That notwithstanding, one of the biggest challenges we are starting to see has been competition for space between individual travelers and group travelers. A lot of places around the country are busting at the seams with individual travelers. Rates are up at hotels and attractions. The cost of labor has gone up, and there are labor shortages. In some places, I’m hearing that they don’t have room for groups. So that poses completely different challenges that nobody thought we would have coming out of the pandemic.
The nationwide staffing shortage has been incredibly challenging for service industries. What must the travel and hospitality industries do to ensure adequate frontline staffing levels moving forward? Will it entail changes in business practices, pricing or customer experience?
Pantuso: It’s all of the above. Some people would say that the federal benefits have made it easy for some folks not to come to work. That may or may not be true. But there’s competition to get the best people or to get people, period. Companies are going to have to be creative: a combination of pay, scheduling and other benefits.
What are the key takeaways from the past 18 months? What do we need to learn about risk management, crisis preparation, public messaging and government relations?
Pantuso: On the government affairs side, the lesson learned was that if you want the federal government’s assistance, you need to be engaged in the process. It’s not just associations that go to the Hill and do the lobbying. Legislators really want to hear from the individuals in their districts who have employees and have to make payroll every week. We learned here that grassroots efforts are so critical.
We’re also going to have to instill confidence back into the traveling public. Early on in the pandemic, we developed industry protocols, and we put them out there for everyone to use, and we heard that a lot of people followed them. Doing that and being out in front and getting the customer’s confidence back was critical. That’s going to have to continue.
What growth opportunities should our industry be pursuing in 2022, 2023 and beyond?
Pantuso: There’s a lot of opportunity The way people live, work and travel has all changed in the last 18 months. In the group travel business, we’re going to have to recognize that. People are going to continue working from home but maybe not five days a week. There’s going to be a work-life balance like there never was before. So when you think about people taking time off and traveling, we’re going to have to figure out what works.
There was a trend toward smaller groups, and maybe those groups get even smaller. Maybe people want to go to places away from the crowds. We have to look at how people’s lifestyles have changed.