Following 20 months of mostly virtual connections, the National Tour Association conducted its signature event, Travel Exchange, in person in Cleveland, Ohio, with nearly 600 travel professionals attending the mid-November event. We asked NTA President Catherine Prather to reflect on Travel Exchange ’21.
Q. What did it mean to NTA to host an in-person event again?
A. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at times, yet extraordinarily gratifying. Our members had a genuine need to reconnect with each other, and Travel Exchange gave them that chance. We had worked hard during the pandemic to keep our community together through virtual forums, roundtables, webinars and happy hours, which gave members an enormous boost of inspiration and information. Still, it was fantastic to be together again in person.
Q. Tell us about Travel Exchange 2021.
A. Many of our members have told me how productive their time in Cleveland was, and one tour operator said it was the best TREX he had experienced. Several times, I heard members say that “the people who are here just really want to be here.” That might sound like a routine assessment, but the fact that people kept saying it told me that our show was anything but routine.
Q. How important was it to host an in-person show in 2021?
A. Travel people are wired for collaboration, and their excitement to be together again was so apparent. Many tour companies had already resumed tours — and many destinations had already seen visitation at pre-pandemic levels — so our members were ready to return to planning, buying, selling and networking in person.
Q. What are some key takeaways from Travel Exchange?
A. Number one, we learned that that buyers are actively relying on their supplier and DMO partners as business ramps back up. Packaged travel is poised to move forward in a big way in 2022 and 2023, and as tour operators build new itineraries and tweak existing ones, they want to stay connected with their partners. Also in Cleveland, we held a gala celebrating NTA’s 70th anniversary, and it was a touching and powerful reminder that this organization has long been — and remains — an essential part of so many professionals’ careers.
Q. What is the outlook for packaged travel in 2022 and beyond?
A. We surveyed our members right before Travel Exchange, and more than half of responding tour operators said it’ll be 2023 before they outperform 2019 metrics — with nearly a quarter saying they won’t surpass pre-pandemic numbers until 2024 or later. Sellers are more optimistic, perhaps because one-fourth of them reported surpassing 2019 numbers this year.
Q. What details can you share about 2022?
A. In 2022, NTA will make good on our promises to the cities that were unable to host our events in 2020. We’ll be in Anchorage, Alaska, March 23–26 for Contact, our buyer retreat. And Nov. 13–16, we’ll be in Reno, Nevada, for Travel Exchange ’22. Our members now have a deeper appreciation for in-person events, and there’s already a lot of chatter about getting together again.
Q. What’s NTA’s key message in 2022?
A. Over the past 20 months, our members concentrated on pivoting and recovering. For 2022, we all have a determined focus on strategic rebuilding: not only for each company and organization, but also for our association. NTA is like a community center for the packaged travel industry: Members gather together to conduct business, share insights and enjoy a special camaraderie.
Main photo: Travel Exchange ’21, Cleveland, Ohio/Credit: Normand Huberdeau