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NTA Year-end Survey: Business success and challenges

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postedDecember 5, 2023
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In a November survey, NTA asked members about their business: how 2023 has shaped up, how it compares to pre-pandemic 2019, how 2024 is looking. We asked also about the challenges they’re facing, their staffing levels, and their action on sustainability.

“This survey reflects what members told us at Travel Exchange in Louisiana last month,” says NTA President Catherine Prather, CTP. “Business is mostly on the upswing while challenges persist. The last few years have shown that the NTA community stands strong in good times and bad.”

Here are the summary findings of the survey, sent to NTA buyers and sellers and conducted between Nov. 1 and 22.

Business and bookings

  • More than half of NTA tour operators report that, compared to overall sales in 2019, their company will finish 2023 either better (27%) or much better (25%). 25% of respondents predict the same level this year as in 2019, and 23% say saleswill end up lower this year.

    Tour operator sales graph
    Tour operator sales: 2023 vs. 2019
  • Asked to compare profit margins in 2023 to those in pre-pandemic 2019, 39% of buyers say they are comparable, 33% say profit margins are higher this year, and 28% say they are lower this year than in 2019.
  • Most DMOs say that, compared to 2019, visitation in 2023 is better (55%) or much better (23%). 19% said it will be the same.
  • Results were mixed among suppliers, with 32% reporting much better business (in terms of visitors), 30% saying business is better, 20% reporting it’s the same, and 18% say this year has been worse.
  • Asked to compare 2024 to this year, based on bookings, operators say 2024 is looking better (45%) or much better (11%), 32% say it’s the same, while 12% say 2024 is looking worse than 2023.
  • Operators have mixed views on maintaining the momentum of their post-pandemic surge. Four in 10 say bookings are continuing to increase, 36% say the surge is leveling off, and 11% believe it is starting to decline. 13% say their business did not experience a post-pandemic surge.
  • Most DMOs (58%) also see the surge as leveling off, yet nearly two-thirds (63%) of suppliers expect their post-pandemic surge to keep increasing in 2024.
  • More than half of the responding buyers say that their domestic programs performed either better (47%) or much better (17%) in 2023, compared to 2022, with 26% reporting no change.
  • Of the NTA buyers who conduct international travel, 53% expect to finish 2023 ahead of 2022 levels, 25% say it’s much better this year, and 18% say it’s the same.
Staffing levels percentage graph
Staffing levels: Percentage now  compared to 2019

Staffing

  • In terms of their organization’s staffing levels, 43% of operators report they have 100% or more of the employees they had in 2019.
  • The majority of DMOs (61%) report full staffing levels.
  • Among suppliers, only 28% report they have as many employees as they did in 2019.

“Our survey shows us that staffing challenges at suppliers will continue,” Prather says. “The majority of suppliers believe the post-pandemic surge will continue, yet nearly a third report they are still not staffed to 2019 levels.”

On

 

Challenges

  • Among the challenges operators face when building tours and itineraries with tour suppliers, hotels are cited as the top challenge by a narrow margin over motorcoaches, followed closely by airlines.
  • Ranking a separate set of challenges, operators overwhelmingly cite higher rates as their biggest concern, with suppliers’ staffing shortages and unfavorable terms also noted as problematic.
  • DMOs agree that higher rates, followed by staffing shortages are the biggest challenge they face in helping tour operators include their destination in itineraries, and suppliers cite the same impediments to buyers’ business.
  • NTA also asked supplier members to rank five factors as their biggest challenges to helping tour operators include them in operators’ itineraries. Two factors are at the top. Rates and staffing shortages clearly surpass three other factors: having revenue managers who don’t value group travel, reduced services offered, and higher employee wages.

Costs

  • We asked buyers to rate whether they see supplier costs continuing to increase in 2024 or believe they have returned to pre-pandemic levels. The category of suppliers considered by most operators to have rising costs next year is motorcoaches, followed closely by hotels. Other categories that operators see as still rising are air travel, restaurants, and attractions and experiences. Prices for 2024 cruises are mostly viewed as comparable to those in 2023.

Sustainability plans

  • More than half of buyer respondents (53%) say they are developing a sustainability plan. Only 16% currently have such a
    Sustainability plan
    Sustainability plan
    plan, and 31% do not anticipate developing one.
  • Asked if their clients are willing to pay more for a tour that incorporates responsible travel practices, fewer than half (41%) believe their clients wish to do so.
  • More than half (57%) of responding operators ranked “Having an itinerary that supports local communities and small businesses” as most important to them, surpassing other factors that include using companies that reduce single-use plastics or carbon offsets, using public transportation, and using suppliers that publicize their sustainability plan.
  • Four in 10 DMOs say they have sustainability plan, and 42% say they are developing one. Fewer than a fifth (18%) do not anticipate creating a plan.
  • Most say their plan includes a focus on supporting local businesses and spreading visitation to shoulder seasons.
  • Similar to buyers, DMOs rank supporting local communities and small businesses as the practice most important to their visitors.
  • Suppliers are even more progressive, with 52% already having a sustainability plan and 33% developing one. Only 15% have no plans for developing one.

NTA partners

  • We asked operators what percentage of partners and vendors in their supply chain are NTA members, and estimates range from a low of 7% to a high of “nearly 100%.”
  • Asked if they prioritize NTA members when building itineraries, nearly all operators say yes. 51 percent of operators say they do so as much as they can, with 28% responding “sometimes” and 12% saying “always.”
  • Rates were cited by two-thirds of responding operators (69%) as the factor that would lead them to choose a nonmember over a member, followed by terms (49%), slow response (31%), and no response (20%). (Respondents could choose more than one factor.)

Asked about a list of education topics that most interest them, more than half of responding tour operators (52%) said they want to learn more about technology, followed by succession planning, and accessibility.

“Those buyers should welcome the news that at Contact ’24, our annual tour operator retreat, they can opt for a specialized education track that focuses on artificial intelligence,” Prather says. “Other attendees can pursue more traditional education offerings, and everyone will join together for plenary sessions and keynotes.”

The event is May 20–23, 2024, in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Click here for more information.