LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With many of the concerns about coronavirus focused on travel, tourism professionals are keeping a wary eye on the spread of COVID-19. In a survey conducted last week by the National Tour Association, more than 200 of its members reported on the impact of the coronavirus to their business.
Of the 104 responses from tour operators, more than half (55%) said they have received cancellations from customers. This percentage could increase, as many operators reported that clients were asking about cancellation and related policies. Of those who have received cancellations, the majority said the decision to cancel was fear-based rather than mandated by a local government or organization.
Smaller percentages said their company is postponing departures (21%) or adjusting itineraries (10%). Nearly one quarter of operators (23%) reported seeing no coronavirus effect on their business or their tour programs.
Most tour companies (78%) have not modified cancellation and refund policies, but more than half (58%) anticipate they will need to modify their policies if the outbreak of COVID-19 continues.
“The survey results are consistent with what we’ve heard from members within the NTA Owners Network and on Engage, our online community page,” said Catherine Prather, NTA president. “What’s encouraging during a troubling time is how members support each other by sharing their policies and strategies. They are focused on moving forward and coming through this, while also keeping the health and safety of their travelers as a top priority.”
Many of those shared strategies center on coping with a downturn in business. Asked how their companies will adjust plans to save money or recover lost revenue, nearly two-thirds of tour operators said they are (23%) or will consider (40%) reducing business travel through 2020, including trade shows, and three out of five companies will (30%) or will consider (30%) delaying the implementation of new business plans.
Only 12% of tour operators said they plan to reduce their staff. Other actions that were cited include cutting office costs and altering marketing plans — either increasing or decreasing.
Although 54% reported that it was too early to know if the coronavirus had adversely affected one or more of their company’s main revenue sources, Prather said it is concerning that nearly a third (30%) responded that a main product line had been disrupted.
“Our tour operators’ businesses are very diverse, and markets including China, Italy, student travel and cruising were referenced multiple times in the responses. Many of our tour companies are small businesses — the backbone of this industry and of the global economy. We will be advocating for policy measures that can help bring them through this crisis.”
Tour suppliers also are impacted by travelers’ concerns about the coronavirus. More than half of responding suppliers (57%) reported receiving cancellations, and of the suppliers who reported no cancellations to date, half say they anticipate getting cancellations.
Destination management organizations reported less of an impact on travel from COVID-19. Four out of five DMOs (82%) said they have not experienced a drop in visitation, and more than half of those respondents (54%) do not anticipate future cancellations related to the coronavirus.
Among both supplier and DMO respondents, more than 80% said their organizations have not imposed travel restrictions on employees, but more than a third (37%) anticipate such restrictions if the situation worsens.
In the same vein, only a few suppliers and DMOs have changed their tour product offerings or are targeting new markets to replace losses due to COVID-19, but 40 to 50 percent of respondents anticipate doing so if the spread of the disease — and travelers’ fears — continue to escalate.
“What I find encouraging is that across all categories of membership, a large majority of our respondents expressed confidence in having the resources and information they need to address travelers’ questions and concerns,” Prather said. “The one thing they’re saying they need more of is accurate, level-headed information. This would help ease uncertainty, which is creating fear and driving overreaction.”
NTA members attending the association’s tour operator retreat, Contact, next week can expect to gather a lot of information and to share many conversations about the coronavirus. The event takes place in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18–21, and welcomes some 120 tourism professionals, including operators as well as sponsoring suppliers and DMOs.
“In the days and weeks ahead, we will work with our members — and with other associations and government agencies — to provide the accurate, level-headed information our members want,” Prather said. “We will always be open and honest, even when the news isn’t encouraging.”
Prather, who has been with NTA for 26 years, is facing the coronavirus challenge with determination and optimism. “Our industry is resilient and has endured and recovered from terrorist attacks, other health epidemics, and financial downturns. We can get through this.”