If the past few years of the travel landscape could be summed up in one word, we would likely agree on “unpredictable.” But for today’s tour operators, destinations, and travel leaders to succeed, they must understand current trends and traveler tendencies, and speculate what the future of group travel will hold in 2023 and beyond.

To help, we spoke with three leaders of national group travel associations to better understand what challenges and opportunities tour operators across their networks face today. They also shared what current trends may influence the group tour landscape this year.

5 Predictions

1. Tour bookings will continue to climb

Despite a tidal wave of challenges over the past several years, travel demand has bounced back from pandemic lows. The details are in the data: Results from a late summer member survey by the National Tour Association (NTA) found that tour operators’ packaged-travel clients are returning in droves. The same is true for customized travel bookings, which the association says its members are seeing grow at a remarkable rate. Two-thirds of tour operators reported bookings are meeting or exceeding expectations, with 33% claiming business as stronger than expected. International travel business sentiment was nearly identical, with 30% of operators reporting bookings that were stronger than expected.

Growth in bus tour bookings also grew immensely in 2021, according to the American Bus Association (ABA), and the organization anticipates continued demand for even more tours, particularly across youth and school groups, in the future.

“Our team at the American Bus Association kept hearing about this incredible demand for travel in 2022—and from everything we’ve seen, there really was,” says Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the ABA. “Today, people are saying they’re just about at full capacity, whether it’s a bus tour, hotel, or restaurant. Everybody’s doing well right now. It’s a great thing to see.”

2. Tourism workforce shortages will rage on

It’s no secret that tour operators and destinations continue to face many staffing and service challenges due to the impact of COVID-19. To protect their clients’ experience and meet the ever-changing needs of travelers, tourism industry leaders urge tour operators to take a proactive approach to understand potential staff-, service-, and experience-related issues at their planned destinations and attractions.

“Staffing shortages among tour partners and destinations, including at hotels, restaurants, attractions, and entertainment venues, will continue to impact tour operators and their clients’ experiences,” says Catherine Prather, president of the NTA. “From fewer servers and lower-quality service to eliminated services like baggage claim and valet parking, tour operators must keep in mind the ever-evolving landscape of the service industry in the wake of COVID-19 disruption.”

Prather says proactive communication is key. She recommends tour operators call destinations well in advance to check they can adequately and efficiently accommodate their groups—and then pivot to adjust as needed based on both real and perceived challenges. In addition to destination and attraction staff, the bus industry is also reeling from the side effects of the post-COVID-19 workforce shortage. Driver shortages are a huge issue for an industry that’s experiencing a flood of bookings.

“I think one of the biggest trends that we saw in 2022, and even more so one of the biggest challenges, is certainly the driver shortage on the motorcoach side of the house,” Pantuso says. “If you don’t have a bus driver, the bus isn’t going anywhere.”

He describes the problem as a “pandemic of its own kind.” He also says it’s a trending challenge the entire industry must be aware of and account for.

“Operators on the tour side of the house have to be aware that this was a tough year, and it’s going to be even harder next year,”

Pantuso adds. “We’re going to see a lot more demand coming back for group travel in 2023, especially for student travel and certainly for adult travel as well.”

3. Flexible itineraries will become a standard

One major lesson from COVID-19 for both individual travelers and tour operators was learning to be flexible in the wake of unforeseen challenges. As such, tour operators today are increasingly adding more flexibility and free time into their itineraries so that they can accommodate travelers’ differing needs.

“Our tour operators are hearing a call for flexibility, choice, and individual experiences within group itineraries,” Prather says. “Examples of this could look like tour operators booking fewer group meals in restaurants, and instead, allowing clients to choose their own dining experiences. This could also look like providing unstructured time in the itinerary so their travelers can choose how to spend this free time.”

Many tour operators across the NTA network are developing itineraries with many alternatives versus a strict, single-track schedule. Itineraries across the board are more innovative and flexible than ever before—and are often broad and detailed rather than specific.

“A lot of this transition is to allow for changes that will undoubtedly arise before the tour even operates,” Prather adds. “It’s really just a symptom of everything that’s happening right now in terms of labor shortages and supply chain issues.”

4. Operators will book smaller tours

In addition to flexibility, many tour associations like the NTA and the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) are seeing more of their members booking smaller, more customized tours with more choices and individualized experiences built into the itinerary.

“Prior to COVID-19, we already saw the trend toward smaller groups—and we expect [that] to be the stronghold for our membership moving forward in 2023 and beyond,” says Terry Dale, president of the USTOA. “That doesn’t mean a traditional escorted or guided experience of a motorcoach with 48 or so seats will go by the wayside. But we are seeing that people are looking at smaller group trips that can be more individualized and catered.”

Prather says the NTA has anecdotally seen an increase in customized tour planning. Traditionally, scheduled tours have made up the bulk of tour operators’ business, where preplanned itineraries and catalog bookings were more commonplace.

“I really do think that COVID-influenced factors have played a part in this shift, including smaller groups, itineraries with alternatives, and individual experiences within a group itinerary,” Prather says. “Are tour operators still producing brochures and presenting scheduled departures to customers? Absolutely. But the continued shift in group traveler preferences for smaller, custom travel experiences will only continue to grow.”

5. Travelers will want more meaningful trips

Where, how, and even more importantly, why, groups travel is also changing. Groups and individuals are becoming more mindful of their impact on, and their experiences with, the local communities in which they travel.

“We’ve all seen examples over the last five to six years of over tourism, where communities are reacting in a negative way toward our industry because we have too many people and not enough resources to support the volume of travelers,” Dale says. “I think this will cause us to rethink and reimagine the kind of travel experiences we can create and offer to our customers.”

The USTOA strongly believes tour operators will (and must) play a key role in providing more authentic and meaningful travel experiences for individuals who want to travel with more purpose and intention.

“I think we will see a growing effort toward meaningful and purposeful travel and the ability for us in the tour operators space, and as an industry, to help get our economic impact to neighborhoods and communities who can most benefit [from] it,” Dale says. “So, whether that’s visiting a women’s cooperative making textiles, ceramics, and weavings in Jordan where the participants are largely the breadwinners for their families or supporting local community efforts and initiatives that help the greater good, I think we will see meaningful and purposeful travel continue to grow and expand in the near future.”

Tourism Cares, the NTA-founded nonprofit organization focused on positive social, environmental, and economic impact through group travel, is one specific effort helping tour operators plan local, community-centered experiences and stops in their itineraries. The nonprofit’s Meaningful Map of North America serves as a resource for tour operators to identify local businesses, nonprofits, and social enterprises across the United States.

Operators can leverage the Meaningful Map to build custom itineraries encompassing more authentic and hands-on cultural experiences. It also helps drive local economies by encouraging purchases of products and services from eco-conscious, sustainable, and local businesses. NTA, USTOA, and many others in the industry also believe that incorporating more purpose-driven experiences in itineraries creates a competitive advantage by providing not only a unique experience but also a more positive one for travelers and local communities alike.

“Awareness is the first step in building a more authentic travel experience,” Prather says. “It requires working directly with destinations and DMOs—telling them exactly what you’re looking for and discovering those authentic experiences from the experts who know their destination best.”

Article by Erica Zazo