Traveling Tribes: Jeff Roy, Collette

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Collette was an outlier in the packaged travel industry in 2020, having operated a number of domestic tour departures. In this interview, Jeff Roy, executive vice president at Collette, said the firm felt they could operate certain tours safely. “We started back up in July, our first departure was July 3 to South Dakota and we’ve brought about 40 departures back this year averaging 15-20 passengers per tour.”

“We started to really think strongly about how to restart operations in mid-May. We had a line to the former director of public health here in Rhode Island and went through a number of protocols and took suggestions from them on how we could do that safely. Once we went through that process we felt this was something we could do safely,” Roy said.

In order to do this, Collette put a number of protocols in place and concentrated their efforts on domestic tours that focused on outdoor experiences in order to mitigate risks. “We understand that people take different points of view and were sensitive to those guests that wanted to travel, as well as those who didn’t feel safe traveling,” Roy said. “It was really about providing options to people.”

Customer response has been positive. Roy pointed to post-travel customer feedback at 92%. “Three quarters of our guests thought precautionary measures had no impact on the enjoyment of their tour, 2/3 of our guests told us their next guided tour would be in 2021 and almost 9-10 indicated they’d be interested in continuing to travel under these restrictions. We feel that was it was a really big success.”

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Roy continued, “People have been compliant and resilient. They got out there, they had a really good time, we didn’t have any issues – and we did it in a way that we felt mitigated risk. In fact, we had customers come back from a trip in September and book a trip for October.”

One of the issues facing tour operators is having to navigate around tighter restrictions relating to group gathering sizes. “For the most part we didn’t operate a tour we couldn’t provide the experience we advertised to customers. Most of the restrictions weren’t around closures but group sizes. We made a commitment that we weren’t going to operate groups larger than 15-20 passengers, so, generally speaking, we didn’t have any major issues at that point,” Roy said. “If we got into a scenario where we couldn’t operate over 10 passengers we had to split a group in two.”

Collette did experience some challenges with interstate border travel restrictions, citing a situation on a Mackinac Island trip where passengers arriving from Tennessee were not allowed to stay in Chicago (where the tour started) without quarantining. Faced with having to cancel the trip, the passengers elected to stay two nights in Traverse City, Michigan and meet the group on the way up to Mackinac.

Roy said that Collette is set up well domestically for the future. “The product planning, contracting and pricing – we were releasing May ’21 to April ’22 product the first quarter of this year. We’ve got all the space, we’ve got all the itineraries done.” He stressed that the operations team will have to continue to do audits and that there will be a lot of logistical work that has to happen to make sure that what they promise will be there. “We’re very confident that we’ll be able to preserve the full experience, though there may be some substitutions here and there on the touring itself,” said Roy.

As to when a robust tour industry will return, Collette expects the first quarter will be quiet, but they are already getting new bookings into the second quarter. “Third and fourth quarter we’re expecting to be very busy,” Roy said. “There’s a lot of positive momentum.”

“The idea that someone’s going to have a digital health record, either a test record or vaccine record in order to travel next year we think that’s pretty likely. We’ll expect a pretty robust domestic travel business next year once we hit the summer. But we also expect Europe to come back online,” Roy concluded.

Looking forward to when international borders reopen and travel returns, Collette anticipates they will be able to fill demand and that there will be plenty of airline lift, but a lot less point-to-point service next year. Roy stressed that people will have to be comfortable with making connections for the near future. “We expect the new administration will be active in trying to reopen international travel,” Roy said.

Roy finished with some advice for group planners who haven’t booked trips for next year. “We’re not going to be shut down forever here. If you want to travel, you should look at booking it pretty soon or you may not be able get the space. You can’t concentrate a full year’s travel in a 3-4 month period when there’s high demand.”