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Overcoming the worst ... together

NTA members add on-the-ground realities to survey results
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postedFebruary 14, 2022

Remember when we were all afraid of the year 2000 and the Y2K bug? Those were the days.

After a harrowing 2020, travel professionals took the following year to pick up the pieces; it was a time filled with difficult decisions just to stay afloat, including rethinking business strategies, closing in-person offices, and restructuring staffing. After the challenges of 2020 and 2021, members believe the industry will be able to catch its breath and move forward this year

While NTA’s 2021 Year-end Business Survey results had an overall positive vibe, here’s an important insight: Half of responding tour operators expect to close out 2022 behind their income levels for 2019, with 23% of sellers expecting to finish behind. Many operators (71%) plan to alter their business models to accommodate uncertainties. And sellers cited a list of contributing factors that will change their day-to-day operations.

Courier reached out to NTA members and asked them specifically about changes as well as silver linings. Here’s what they had to say:

What changes are you making within your own business model? What are you keeping the same?

Kaitlyn Dunneback, Witte Travel & Tours: We are keeping our business model the same. Our business model was working perfectly up until 2020, so we are staying the course and plan to be back at pre-COVID levels by 2023.

Philip Sheldon, Hanns Ebensten Travel: We have added a special newsletter for every tour, spelling out COVID-19 protocols for each country we visit—and for returning home. This includes arranging for pre-return tests meeting the current U.S. requirements (now one day instead of three). Clients then pay the local provider directly. 

We are preparing to close our physical office and have all staff work remotely. They can then decide where they want to live. One staff member lives in Spain, so he can answer calls when U.S.-based staff members are sleeping.  

With an ongoing risk of variants, we will keep our staffing at about 50% of pre-COVID levels. 

Jerry Varner, Making Memories Tours:  We are not making any major changes to our business model. 

We are being much more thorough in our itineraries concerning breaks, lunch, and dinner options while on tour, due to the staffing shortages. 

Most buyers (76%) listed COVID and health concerns as a major factor for business, with a significant number also listing the challenge in finding suppliers that serve the group market (52%), and increased prices (51%). 37% cited changes in consumer behavior and interests. How have you been navigating the changes brought on by these factors within your own business? Are there any other factors making a notable impact on your business?

Kaitlyn Dunneback: Fear of COVID has impacted our business more than COVID itself. Once the fear subsides, we are expecting a lot of pent-up demand and to be very busy in the second half of 2022.

Philip Sheldon: We offer tours to many remote areas around the world. We may need to cancel some tours since flights are already sold out many months in advance. These include a trip to Easter Island in June, and to Ushuaia, Argentina, for an Antarctica cruise this month. We would normally expect airlines to add flights, but this may be impossible with shortages of both staff and aircraft. 

The typical booking window is far shorter than in 2019. Especially for destinations such as Israel, Australia, and Japan that have been closed to all visitors, clients want to defer deposits until the country re-opens. They are holding on to their money instead of risking another cancellation and having to ask for a refund or credit. 

Jerry Varner: We do have concerns over COVID for (this) year, but at this point, we have chosen to "wait and see" and respond to the situation as it evolves, as opposed to assuming the worst. People are ready to get back to traveling in the Midwest, and we are eager to serve them.

What are some things that have kept you going during these troubling times?

Kaitlyn Dunneback: The strong bond between us and our suppliers has kept us going. We are all in the same boat and have all worked tirelessly together to cancel and postpone numerous tours. Now that groups are traveling again, our bond is even stronger. We are all excited for the comeback.

Philip Sheldon:  My partner and I raise rabbits. After a long day of explaining to people why we can’t offer their tour, it’s nice to return home. My rabbits are always excited to see me (or at least the food I bring them). 

I have also valued my professional friendships, especially the NTA Owners Network. During this challenging time, we have taken turns being mentors to each other. My company has benefited from loans, grants, and tax credits that I would not have been aware of without information from NTA and from my peers. 

Jerry Varner:  My faith and my "farmer optimism.” When farming and ranching, you always have to believe next year will be better, and three times out of 10, it usually is.

What are your silver linings?

Kaitlyn Dunneback: We have 62 tours on the books for this year, and we anticipate almost all of them traveling.

Philip Sheldon:  After COVID shut everything down, we evaluated every expense and made cuts that will never return. This will make our company healthier in the long term. 

Jerry Varner: There truly is a pent-up demand for traveling in our part of the world. Bookings are far and above anything we have done in the past.

What will be your main focus throughout 2022 and moving into 2023?

Kaitlyn Dunneback: Our main focus will be to continue doing what we do best, and that is giving our clients the best possible tour within the confines of the budget. We’ll focus on why we do what we do, and on our passion for helping clients travel.

Philip Sheldon: Working with clients to apply numerous credits to 2022 and 2023 trips, then working with our worldwide suppliers to make sure those trips happen! 

Jerry Varner:  Providing tours that people will want to go on and implementing them as close to perfection as we can.



Most sellers (71%) cited labor shortages as the biggest contributor to changes in 2022, with a near-equal number also listing COVID concerns (52%) and consumer interests (48%). Price increases were cited by 34%. How have you been navigating the changes brought on by these factors within your own business? Are there any other factors that have had a notable impact in your community?

Lindsey McKee, VISIT Milwaukee: VISIT Milwaukee has over 700 partner businesses that we work with in the Greater Milwaukee area, and we have enhanced our communications with them to remain aware of their businesses’ needs as well as their communities’ needs. Hospitality Vaccination Days in 2021 was our initiative encouraging our industry to get the COVID-19 vaccines at our local convention center. We’ve partnered with local organizations on everything from blood drives to providing fun and quirky masking signage for businesses. We’ve even started a small social media campaign encouraging patrons to be patient and kind as our hospitality community experiences labor shortages and varying hours due to the pandemic. Our approach has really been to identify community needs and either facilitate or support efforts to provide for those needs.

Debbie Picard, Montana’s Glacier Country: Western Montana’s Glacier Country has been affected by the workforce shortage, most notably in our restaurants and lodging properties. We too have shifted to a destination stewardship focus to help manage the surge of visitation that puts pressure on our natural resources and infrastructure, amplified by workforce issues. Our Recreate Responsibly campaign helps visitors that might be new to the outdoors navigate safely and responsibly.

Over half of responding sellers expect to finish 2022 either ahead of or on par with 2019 revenue. What do you think has led the way in getting revenue streams back on track? What has helped get business moving in a more positive direction?

Lindsey McKee: Milwaukee remained resilient despite unthinkable odds, and that resilience has put our city on a path to not just survive, but thrive. During the pandemic, we saw distilleries start manufacturing hand sanitizer to support shortages in health care settings. A restaurant offered tutoring to those struggling with virtual learning, and the restaurant even provided meals for those students. As a nod to our beer history, VISIT Milwaukee promoted activities like this as part of our #GoodThingsBrewing campaign. While sharing important COVID-19 safety information, we also shared some of the good things still happening in our community, even during a pandemic. Knowing that the City of Festivals missed its fun annual gatherings, VISIT Milwaukee organized Giving Fest. Our partners hosted virtual events when we could not meet in person, and we promoted them on our website and social media channels. Now, as things are re-opening, visitors and locals alike remember our resilience and continue to support those same businesses that supported us, entertained us, fed us, and kept us going.

Debbie Picard: We finished 2021 ahead of 2019 and expect 2022 to be another banner year for Western Montana’s Glacier Country. People are still seeking wide-open spaces and outdoor recreational opportunities, which is our forte here in Montana and the American West. We have new recreational offerings, restaurants, and lodging opening this year with an emphasis on unique and experiential.

What will you change in the way you do business, and what will you keep the same?

Lindsey McKee: Milwaukee offers world-class hospitality, warm welcomes, and a unique destination experience. Those are things that will never change. What will change is our approach to providing that stellar service. Health and cleanliness standards have changed for the better, and I believe this will continue. We received the GBAC accreditation for facilities, and there will be a new one coming soon specifically for events. Virtual events and maybe even virtual visits will likely continue to be part of the event- and tour-planning processes, especially for international clients or those with individual team members collaborating remotely. When group tours arrive in Milwaukee, our CVB will continue providing services to ensure visitors are comfortable. If masking is requested on the tour, we can help ensure the businesses they visit are aware of this preference. When scheduling transportation, we will work with groups to provide larger bus sizes to accommodate more social distancing. The uniquely Milwaukee service and experiences will always remain the same, and VISIT Milwaukee will help groups figure out the rest.

What are some things that have kept you going during these troubling times?

Lindsey McKee: Our hospitality industry thrives when our community as a whole thrives, and we’ve seen a lot of giving back and paying forward. Not being able to gather during the pandemic has people very excited to gather again now that we have learned how to safely do so. That desire to be together in person and traveling makes us optimistic for the future.

What are your silver linings?

Debbie Picard: We’ve touted the spectacular landscapes, attractions, and outdoor activities of Montana to tour operators for years. Over the last two years, the inquiries from tour operators that have never been to Montana have increased, and watching successful tours come through the area last year for the first time was definitely a silver lining.

Top photo: ©VectorMine/Adobe Stock