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Travel agents hopeful of tourist rebound

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Foot-and-mouth disease struck Ireland and the UK exactly a year ago this week, dealing a significant blow to the travel and tourism industry.

By the third quarter of the year, the industry was staring an economic slowdown in the face. Then came what many thought was a veritable death blow: the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

But 12 months after foot-and-mouth’s start, though business is far from normal, tour operators report that 2002 warrants the use of the well-worn but appropriate phrase “cautious optimism.”

” ‘Good’ is not a word I’d use right now, [but] I’d say it’s OK,” said John Murray, president of ETM Travel Group, based in Westport, Conn. Two things, Murray said, were of primary concern to travel operators such as EMT: “People are booking later, and paying closer to their departure date. If a deposit is due Friday, they will pay on Friday, and not before, like they used to, so the dollar amount coming in is well down,” he said.

The second concern, Murray said, was that there are much fewer seats across the Atlantic, as carriers have slashed the number of flights, such as Aer Lingus stopping its service out of Baltimore and Newark.

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“I’d say overall, our business is no more than 15 percent down,” he continued. “Foot-and-mouth did not affect our [escorted tours] business much at all, but Sept. 11 was very bad. For six weeks or more after, we were only refunding people.”

At Scepter Travel, Chris Accomando said that thanks to some aggressive marketing and pricing, he felt that business was up 20 percent on the same time last year, and again, the pattern was confirmed — “the booking window has closed in a bit. But things could be a lot worse.”

At Isle Inn Tours in Alexandria, Va., marketing manager Fiona Lyden said that bookings were at “85, 90 percent of this time last year. Since January 2002, people are willing to travel again, and space is pretty much sold out for March.”

A similar picture was described by Mayflower Tours president John Stachnik, in Illinois. He recalled that on Sept. 11, he was addressing a seminar of 200 travel operators in Belfast about how to market tours during an unsteady year, when the news of the terror attacks came through.

“All sales after Sept. 11 decreased remarkably,” he said. “But the recovery we have seen strongest is in motorcoach tours,” though he added that backpackers have been the first to start booking again.

“We are seeing a recovery, but it is still down on last year,” he said. “Before Sept. 11, people wouldn’t cancel, but we weren’t getting any fresh bookings.”

The only European destination that was buoyant has been the Netherlands, where the ‘Floriade,’ a spectacular floral festival, held once every 10 years, was still attracting high numbers of holidaymakers, he said.

“This is a tread-water year,” he concluded.

Value Holidays’ Tom Barnum, speaking from Wisconsin, said that this year would see a “soft” summer, but that bookings for the more keenly priced spring and fall were holding up well. Because people were booking closer to departure, often as little as three or four weeks, it was proving impossible to predict business as far away as July or August.

Kristina Oliva, marketing and design manager of BCT scenic walking tours in Carlsbad, Calif., said that sales were “down, but it’s not a disastrous year.”

Perhaps one of the most significant indicators of the state of the business is CIE Tours: 85 percent of CIE’s business is from tours to Ireland. Sales manager Jimmy Kelly gave the following verdict: “It’s a bit trite to say, but we are cautiously optimistic. The go-as-you-please, general leisure market has come back fairly strongly thanks to a couple of things: good advertising and great pricing have helped a lot.”

Like John Murray of ETM Travel Group, he said that the “close-in booking activity” was a notable phenomenon — customers not booking their vacations until very close to departure time. This means that tour operators cannot predict how the year will be in terms of business, until much later.

“Most operators would know by the middle of February or by St Patrick’s Day, they could predict what the summer would be like, but this year we can’t do that,” he said. “What has been weaker than we’d like is the booking on escorted tours.”

Kelly said that foot and mouth turned out to have a relatively minor impact on business. “Sept. 11 was much worse,” he said.

One tour operator who declined to be named said that “seats are a major, major problem. The loss of the Aer Lingus Baltimore and Newark services was serious. Continental has picked up much of that business, but the pricing is not as keen as Aer Lingus was.”

An Aer Lingus representative said that the airline had no option but to cut the routes, amounting to 50 percent of its eastern seaboard service, because the airline had had to initiate a major “restoration survival plan after Sept. 11th.”

“We are also finding people booking only 30, 40 days in advance, so reopening those services will have to wait until business becomes firmer,” she said.

Brian Stack, president of CIE Tours, agreed with the analysis offered up by other operators, but he concluded, “People need no reminding: if you’re going to go anywhere on this planet, Ireland is the place to go.”

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