The U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) held its annual conference last week at the Omni Resort at ChampionsGate in Orlando, wrapping up a good year for its members.
It was a year when 69% of the association’s members saw an increase in business. Eighty-two percent of members are anticipating growth in 2020, while 45% expect a “boom year” with growth of 7-10% or more. And this is in an election year, though such growth predictions by tour operators are always accompanied by the caveat, “as long as nothing happens politically…”
Though it constantly attracts new members, the organization doesn’t want to grow to an unwieldy size. The association limits membership in an effort to restrain the growth that seems to come on as a natural force. But in 2019 the organization did welcome one new active tour operator member, Club Adventures, and 131 new associate suppliers members from 58 countries. Attendees to the conference represented 150 countries.
“The Power to Make a Difference”
This year’s conference was launched under the theme of “The Power to Make a Difference.” At the opening session, USTOA President and CEO Terry Dale provided some background on the choice of that theme.
“It was about a week after we had our conference last year that I decided I want to use the theme ‘The Power to Make a Difference,’ because how many industries do you know that have that global impact, that can grow economies, create jobs, improve education and expand our customers’ awareness of different cultures around the world?
“So we have the power to make a difference. And that is what we celebrate this week. And I think we should be mindful and respectful in making sure that what we do helps expand our customers’ experience.”
He added, “With great power comes great responsibility. Ultimately we have to be responsible for our customers but also for future generations and our actions that we take as USTOA members.”
Dana Santucci, vice president of EF Educational Tours and the chairman of the association for the last two years, expanded on the theme.
“To me we’re in a critical moment in time where things around the globe feel unsettled, the news is often scary, there are large-scale protest movements happening in different countries for different reasons,” she said. “Technology connects us more than ever but in many ways we feel more isolated, and our planet is suffering from climate change. The list goes on.”
As she had thought about the conference theme, Santucci said, she came to the realization that often very small things can actually make significant differences in the world. For her one of those key moments was when her family hosted an exchange student from Mexico when Dana was a child.
“Gisela from Mexico came to our home at the end of summer,” said Santucci. “She was 15 years old and had never left home before. She spent the first two months in her room crying because she was so homesick. Then we had this crazy blizzard in Boston. She opened the door and saw the snow, then ran up to her room and stayed inside praying all day.”
Eventually Gisela got over her homesickness and felt safe and cared for by her American family and by Christmas she was able to experience the joy of the season. She later returned to the US, to attend graduate school, married an American and now runs a school for low-income immigrant children.
For Dana it was her first intimate exposure to another culture. “It exemplifies to me how one small decision of taking in a young girl from Mexico created a ripple effect on my family and so many families around the world. For Gisela it led to a career that will affect the lives of many young immigrant children. For Dana it led to it led to a career dedicated to cultural exchange and educational travel.
“My point is that the power to make a difference is within reach for all of us,” said Santucci. “Sometimes that one small moment that can make an incredible difference. It inspires me so much to think what the members of this association are doing to make the world a better place. Wonderful things truly happen when we bring people together.
“Tourism creates friendships, sparks mutual understanding, encourages commerce and helps us to find ways to celebrate our differences. More than 9 million people travel every year with USTOA members. Think of all the ripples we are creating around the world.”
The USTOA uses its annual conference to provide a platform to connect with members and report on the progress and accomplishments of the year, as well as to provide a forum for business meetings among tour operator members and associate supplier members.
The news for 2019 was good: in USTOA’s annual trend and forecast survey of members, 67% reported a growth in the number of passengers they carried in 2019 and 52% exceeded that growth by 10%.
Amid the optimism, when asked what potential problems concerned them, the tour operators put the election year at the top of the list, fears of recession second and global financial insecurity third.
Tour operators surveyed named Egypt, Croatia and Colombia as the top emerging destination. Egypt, a perennial favorite subject to periodic crashes, is re-emerging after a prolonged down time following the Arab Spring of 2011.
Operators voted Italy the overall favorite for 2020, followed by France, with Spain, Greece and the U.K tied for third; Ireland and Japan tied for fourth, and Germany and South Africa tied for fifth.
California was voted the most popular domestic destination, followed by New York, with Florida and Nevada tied for third place, Arizona in fourth and Alaska and Hawaii tied for fifth.
The survey also asked tour operators what destinations they would list as urgent places to go before they change too much because of climate change, overcrowding or other circumstances that could impact the experience over time. On that list Antarctica came out on top, or on bottom, depending on how you look at it, followed by Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef and Venice.
Tour operators named arts and culture as the top driver of sales in 2019, with nature and wildlife at a close second. The three top trends named in the survey were local immersion, small ships or small groups and uncharted destinations.
Sixty percent of the operators reported that the primary demographic of their customer bases are baby boomers, aged 51 and older. Twenty percent reported that their top demographic was the 35-50 age group.
New leadership structure
The organization announced its new roster of leaders for the next two years, topped by Charlie Ball, executive vice president of Holland America, who succeeds Dana Santucci vice president of EF Educational Tours as chairman.
The new vice chair is Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions. The new treasurer is Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours International, and Madhvi Buch, senior vice president of The Travel Corporation USA, is the new secretary.
Other members of the board include:
- Bob Drumm, president, Alexander + Roberts
- Carol Dimopoulos, president, Perillo’s Learning Journeys*
- Dan Mahar, CEO, Tauck
- Emma Cottis, general manager – corporate affairs, Goway*
- Jeff Roy, executive vice president, Collette*
- John Hanratty, chief marketing officer, Avanti Destinations
- Kirk Demeter, president and owner, Down Under Answers
- Nish Patel, president, Mayflower Cruises & Tours
- Ray Hourani, director of travel air operators, Club Adventures by AAA Exclusive Vacations*
- Scott Nisbet, president & CEO, Globus Family of Brands
USTOA’s next major event will be its Digital Marketing Academy on Jan. 22, 2020, at the Stewart Hotel in midtown Manhattan.