When National Tour Association members gathered recently in Anchorage, Alaska, for Contact, the association’s annual tour operator retreat, they laid it all out — their gratitude to be traveling again, but also the post-pandemic frustrations that are driving them crazy.

It starts with higher costs.

“Hotels are quoting prices that are out of this world,” said Michelle Pino, co-owner of Northeast Unlimited Tours. “Transient business has increased so much in New England, hotels are telling us they don’t need group business. And if they will take us, they’re charging so much more.”

NTA events allow time for tour operators, including Michelle Pino (Northeast Unlimited Tours; pictured centered, in blue), to discuss challenges and do business with each other.
Credit: Normand Huberdeau

Fortunately for NTA operators, there were DMOs and suppliers who attended Contact as sponsors, and throughout the three-day event, buyers and sellers shared ideas and floated solutions during structured sessions as well as at meals and networking events.

And hotels aren’t the only type of cost hikes, said Brittany Dykla of Michigan-based Brilliant Edventures. “Gas prices are driving me crazy. We have received some truly ridiculous fuel surcharges,” she said.

Fuel surcharges can be dropped if prices drop, but until then, operators are passing along the higher fees for fuel — as well as for hotels — to clients.

“If these costs keep going up, people will just stop traveling,” Pino said.

There’s another key tour component that’s a source of frustration for operators. “Restaurants are our biggest challenge,” Pino said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t have the staff, so we can’t take your group.’ That might change in two months, but we’ll be operating tours by then.”

The clock is ticking for other tour operators planning itineraries, as they struggle to nail down suppliers.  

At Contact ’22 in Anchorage, Lisa Catron (Memphis Tourism) encouraged tour operators to start the planning process with a call to their DMO partners.
Credit: Normand Huberdeau

“I’m constantly chasing our suppliers,” Dykla said. “We have to call them, call back and remind them that we called, and sometimes beg for them to take our groups or give us a contract or the information we need.”

Tour operators who specialize in student groups have these same challenges … plus more.

“Everything you do, you have to redo … and then do it again,” says Julie Kozikowski, president of Connecticut-based Destinations Unlimited. “Protocols change and we keep informing teachers, only to have to update them again and again.”

And because parents add another layer of client interaction, an unsettled protocol environment makes doing business more difficult.  “Vaccine mandates led some parents to cancel, and although the mandate changed, the parents didn’t come back,” Kozikowski said.

Nayaz Noor of Australia-based 39 Degrees South updated NTA colleagues on his current challenges and opportunities.
Credit: Normand Huberdeau

While there are no easy solutions to today’s price surges, worker shortages and COVID uncertainties, NTA members acknowledge that their best path to recovery relies on working together at events like Contact and Travel Exchange, NTA’s signature event, slated for Nov. 13–16 in Reno, Nevada.

“The best part about NTA’s in-person events is the chance to meet in person and build both personal and business relationships with other tour operators and suppliers,” Kozikowski said. “I’m looking forward to meeting more people and networking in Reno at Travel Exchange.”

While there are no easy solutions to the challenges operators face, Michelle Pino articulated what many of her colleagues have also concluded.

“We’re in a new tourism world,” she said, “and we’re going to have to work together to figure out challenges we never thought we’d see.”

Article by Bob Rouse, NTA’s VP for Communication. For more information about the association, visit NTAonline.com.

Main image: Jay Smith (Sports Travel and Tours) spoke to NTA members during BizNet, a facilitated business discussion. Credit: Normand Huberdeau