While Not Robust, There Is Forward Momentum for Travel, Virtuoso Says

“The return (of travel) may not have been as robust as we all hoped—enter restrictions and variants—but when you consider where we were a year ago, there is absolutely progress and forward momentum,” said Misty Belles, Virtuoso vice president, global public relations at a press event during Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas.

While noting that, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the sector suffered a $4.5 trillion loss in 2020, along with 62 million jobs lost, as a network, Virtuoso remained stable. In fact, since January 2021, it has brought on 26 new agencies and its supplier portfolio has grown by 10 percent.

The gap is also closing, compared to 2019—“the high-water mark for travel,” according to Belles. January 2021 was down 82.2 percent versus January 2019, but each month that gap has closed, with June down by 45.6 percent.

“The big question right now is what impact does the Delta variant have on travel,” Belles said. So far, it doesn’t appear to be having a tremendous impact: Virtuoso looked at its July numbers compared to June, but found they were less than 2 percent off, “so while there is a slight impact, it really is minimal,” added Belles.

Travel Advisor Business

Refund rates are returning to normal (5 to 6 percent of an advisor’s business). In Q2 2020, 48 percent of an advisor’s business was processing refunds. In Q2 2021, it’s now 8 percent, with that number having decreased each quarter since the COVID pandemic.

Sales by travel category (cruise, hotel, tour) are also up across the board versus 2020, but “hotels are really the big winner here,” with hotel sales up 122 percent. Cruises are up 20 percent and tours 34 percent. “It’s cruise that has the great story going forward into 2022,” said Belles, noting that sales are 79 percent of where they were in 2019 going into 2020. In an Instagram poll conducted by Virtuoso, it found that 58 percent of respondents expressed concerns over the service levels, especially at luxury hotels. “Staffing continues to be a challenge across all service sectors,” Belles said.

When will agencies, advisors and partners feel confident about their business? Fifty-one percent said, “I’m already comfortable/confident” (26 percent) or “in the next six months” (25 percent). This total number was at 33 percent in Q1 of this year (with only 7 percent having said they were already comfortable). An additional 40 percent said, “longer than six months,” while 9 percent said they cannot predict when.

Additional good news: Bookings are way up. Forty-seven percent of Virtuoso members said bookings have increased, while another 30 percent said their recent bookings have increased significantly. Just 8 percent said bookings have begun to decrease. Further, a majority (68 percent) of current business is new bookings with full revenue, up from 38 percent in Q1. Fourteen percent is changes to existing bookings, 8 percent is new bookings with travel credits and four percent is cancellations.

The Traveler Mindset

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy // Photo by JaCZhou/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

According to Virtuoso, travelers are already changing their mindset from pandemic-era travel. “Secluded destinations” is giving way to “city breaks,” “wellness retreats” has become “adventure escapes,” and “exploring your own backyard” is again “exploring Europe.” Belles also noted that “space travel as a dream” is now “space travel as a reality,” as both Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin made successful manned suborbital space flights this summer.

When it comes to summer vacations this year, 59 percent of Virtuoso travelers booked a trip this year. Sixty-nine percent said they were staying close to home and 55 percent felt more comfortable when a country required proof of vaccination. “We looked at top international destinations for the summer and Europe was the big winner, of course,” Belles said. According to a Virtuoso Instagram poll, 73 percent of respondents said they would visit once the European Union reopened its borders. Among the top 10 destinations were Italy, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. Also appearing on the list were Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and Canada.

Sixty-one percent of respondents to another Virtuoso Instagram poll said they were taking a road trip this summer. Top U.S. destinations included California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Florida and Colorado.

Cruising confidence continues to grow. In a series of polls from September 2020, January 2021 and June 2021, the number of people who said they would cruise has risen from 26 percent to 41 percent to 46 percent, respectively.

When will people travel again? One-fifth (18 percent) of Virtuoso travelers said, “within the next month;” just over one-quarter (27 percent) said they will travel in the next one to three months; and two-fifths (39 percent) said they would travel in six to 12 months. Another 10 percent said, “more than 12 months,” while 6 percent said, “other.”

As for holiday travel, 15 percent of Virtuoso travelers said they were looking to go on vacation but were waiting to book till closer in; 26 percent said they were comfortable planning now, even if it meant making changes later. Only 5 percent who would typically travel during the holidays are “sitting this one out”—which is down from the 16 percent who said this last year. Of holiday travelers, two-thirds (67 percent) are willing to take an international flight, while another 27 percent would take a domestic flight. Six percent said they would drive. Popular holiday destinations included ocean and river cruises, as well as cities outside of the U.S.—all of which are, understandably, up from last year. U.S. beaches are also up versus 2020.

“The conscious comeback,” as coined by Virtuoso Vice Chair and Sustainability Strategist Jessica Hall Upchurch, continues post-COVID. According to Virtuoso, 82 percent of travelers say the pandemic has made them want to travel more responsibly in the future. Seventy-eight percent say it’s important to choose travel companies than have a strong sustainability policy, while another 70 percent agree that traveling sustainably enhances their vacation.

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