CIE Tours' Elizabeth Crabill: Brexit and Beyond
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Crabill
Elizabeth Crabill was recently appointed CEO of CIE Tours following Brian Stack, who retired after leading the company for 26 years. A graduate of Smith College, Crabill earned an MBA at Harvard before joining the travel industry. She previously served as vice president of sales and marketing for Lindblad Expeditions and later as president of Travel Bound and vice president of sales for GTA Americas. CIE Tours is a specialist in tours to Ireland and Britain.
TravelPulse: What kind of effect are you seeing from Brexit?
Elizabeth Crabill: It’s still very early to tell. For all U.S. tour operators who sell anything into Britain, there is clearly some effect on both sides of the Atlantic. We have the effect on the ground, which is positive. The short-term drop in Sterling is very good for any of our travelers who are on the ground and on any spending they do there. So that is clearly a positive. But then on the sales and marketing side, the entire industry has seen that Europe is very challenging this year for a lot of reasons.
Brexit is just one of them, because it is uncertainty. The U.S. market, the travel market and markets in general don’t like uncertainty very much. We’ve been in a very fortunate spot because as a specialist to Ireland and Britain, we can take advantage of both sides of the benefits.
In the short term we haven’t seen any negative consequences as far as booking patterns. The phones are still ringing, we’ve still got bookings being made for this season. We’ve opened up 2017 already and those bookings are being made. I think that it will take longer to determine what the real Britain-U.S. impacts are. Right now we haven’t seen any immediate impact, but we will have to keep our eyes open.
Another interesting piece of that for CIE Tours is what’s happening in Ireland, because although we are a company that has grown on the reputation of being an Ireland specialist, we’ve really built a solid portfolio of products in Britain and in Scotland, and combinations with Ireland.
So what may affect CIE Tours is what happens on that border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If you look at decades of history, there has been a strong movement of progress for eliminating that border. The European Union was a big part of that, but also the negotiations that helped open up relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
With Northern Ireland having voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, if there is a referendum as to whether Northern Ireland should secede from the UK, or if there are new border measures, or if they do separate from the EU with the rest of the UK, it will be interesting to see if it leads to any reversal of progress toward eliminating that border and the mentality of two different countries.
Tourism on the island of Ireland benefited from the progress toward uniting those two. So that’s going to be a question. We’ll definitely be keeping our eyes on that, because one Ireland island is good for tourism. If hard borders are put back into place, if that does come to fruition, that starts to create an environment in which we are dealing with something we used to deal with 20 years ago. So we’ll be keeping our eye on that.
That is a ripple effect that CIE Tours is very much invested in, how do you maintain things as open as possible for the flow of tourism?
TP: Any way it goes, it looks like it will be a huge upheaval that will bring disadvantages and advantages for business.
EC: It will have effects in the short term, the mid term and the long term. We’re still very much in the short term. It’s only been a couple of weeks, so let’s see how it develops. We specialize in Ireland and Britain, but almost everyone has some kind of London product or something into the UK. So it’s a big, big deal and we will be having to stay very flexible to see what happens.
TP: With the dropping of the value of the pound, are you able to make any adjustments in pricing?
EC: We’re still in the 2016 season as far as operating tours and a lot of those rates were negotiated way ahead. We are constantly negotiating for the next season and that will always be part of conversation. But we also have to make sure that we are still insuring the quality and able to lock in all the space we need.
There may be some benefits, which we will be happy to pass along, but it will be very difficult to see what that effect will be immediately. And it will have more of an effect in 2017 or even 2018, because like most tour operators, we’ve already put our 2017 contracts in place. So while there is some opportunity to backtrack and look for any kind of value, it’s going to be 2018 before we see what the long-term impact is going to be on costs.
TP: What are the chances of seeing lower hotel prices?
EC: There are a couple of dynamics operating. Ireland’s tourism as a whole is already up 24 percent year over year. Ireland tourism has been booming across all segments, not just tour operators. Incoming leisure travel has been booming in double digits for the last several years. What we find in Ireland, especially around Dublin, which is the main port for everybody coming in, inventory has been in low supply for some time. So regardless of what happens with the pound or the euro versus the dollar, negotiation is going to be limited.
We’re happy as CIE Tours to be in the place we are because we are the biggest buyer of hotel space in Ireland. When you’re number one you have a good footing to, first, continue to secure what you need and second, to be first in the conversations when new opportunities come up. We’re also the number two buyer in Scotland and aiming to be number one.
So as much as the macro picture sounds like there are opportunities for lower prices, there may or may not be because demand is already so much higher than supply. And the hotels are going to keep that locked down as long as they can.
TP: What are you seeing with airline prices?
EC: Airline prices have not changed yet, but there is some speculation that there might be increases in fares. We really want to be on top of that because we don’t want the American demand to slow down.
There is some discussion that air fares may be going up because of the impact of Brexit. But I haven’t seen that immediately in the last couple of weeks. It hasn’t manifested itself yet. Air fares are already pretty high. We hope they don’t go too much higher. But even with those air fares we are still able to grow this year and keep people buying tours. Even if the air fares were a little higher than they have been in the past, it’s still within the realm of what people are willing to pay for.
TP: Is the speculation of higher air fare based on the probability of increased regulations between countries?
EC: Exactly. That and many other reasons. Where they travel to will dictate what negotiations they will have to do that may have previously been covered by EU regulations. If they have to do individual carrier agreements with different countries and borders and airports that could affect them. But again, we have to give it some time to see what happens.
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