June 2, 2023


Just Do Travel

How Tour Operators Are Adapting as Travel Restarts

Group of hikers in their 60s

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If you think it’s tough running a tour company in a pandemic, guess what? You’re right. As governments issued travel bans in March 2020, tour operators scrambled to whisk their clients home. Some companies shifted from international to domestic tours; others, such as Exodus Travels and not-for-profit Road Scholar, hosted virtual programs. Every company canceled tours, which was painful for clients and tour operators alike.

“We plan these tours years in advance,” says Matt Thompson, brand manager for Country Walkers, a Vermont company offering both guided and self-guided walking trips. “It’s really depressing to see them canceled.”

One year later, companies are rebounding. In a survey by the United States Tour Operators Association, 63 percent of respondents reported an increase in new bookings for 2021. Some of that surging interest is in last-minute trips. In normal years, for instance, travelers book domestic tours with Austin Adventures four to eight months in advance. In 2021, the Montana-based company’s U.S. trips will likely sell out by June (though it’s adding new departures). Many tour operators are seeing similar demand, and as more Americans receive their vaccinations, some travelers want to leave home now.

“Clients are booking domestic trips very last minute, such as calling today for a trip within a week,” says Massimo Prioreschi, president and CEO of the California-based adventure-travel company MT Sobek.

After more than a year of social distancing, though, the word “group” might make more cautious travelers cringe. To reduce such trepidation, companies are emphasizing safety and smaller groups.

Here are some ways group travel is adapting in the pandemic era.

Infection-prevention measures

Companies are emphasizing staff training and COVID protocols based on guidelines from governments, health organizations and medical professionals. Safety measures address everything from air circulation and social distancing in vans to the sterilization of high-touch areas. And you can forget about buffet-style meals.

No details are too small, no item too sterile. Backroads, which has run more than 200 of its trips since the pandemic began, assigns equipment such as hiking poles to individuals at the start of a trip to minimize gear sharing (it also sterilizes equipment daily). Austin Adventures is working to provide more cabin-style lodging to emphasize social distancing. Nearly every tour operator is checking guests’ and guides’ temperatures each day and requiring a COVID test within hours or days of traveling. Guests typically must fill out a health declaration form or officially acknowledge that they understand and accept the company’s guidelines.

No companies appear to be requiring vaccinations. That could change, though clients may not need encouragement. A Road Scholar survey found that 98 percent of its travelers have received or intend to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Most tour operators are also prepared if a guest becomes sick. Road Scholar’s programs include a plan that offers 24-hour assistance in the event of an emergency and medical coverage for anyone who becomes ill overseas. If a traveler on an EF Go Ahead tour is diagnosed with COVID-19 or required to quarantine while on tour, the Massachusetts-based company will provide or arrange support — including lodging, meals and translation services — at no additional expense.

Smaller groups

Tour clients often prefer the intimacy of small groups, and COVID has only increased that desire. In response, some tour operators are limiting capacity to allow for social distancing.

Road Scholar recently introduced “Micro Group” learning adventures, which limit attendance to 12 travelers. The average group size on an MT Sobek tour is eight people. Another pandemic trend: Clients want to book tours as small groups of family members or friends, and companies are responding by launching more private-group options.

“There is definitely interest in exclusive or custom tours, with people looking to travel within their ‘COVID bubble,’ “ says Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, which accepts up to 12 adults on regular trips and up to 18 on family trips, though it will accommodate two to 20 guests for custom or exclusive journeys.