Last updated: 11:46 AM ET, Thu October 27 2016

Growing Pains: NTA's Emergence on the International Stage

Tour Operator National Tour Association (NTA) David Cogswell October 26, 2016

Growing Pains: NTA's Emergence on the International Stage

In late September I attended the Third Annual Sichuan Travel Expo in Leshan, China, with a contingent of American tour operators led by Haybina Hao, vice president of international development for the National Tour Association. The trip gave me a chance to take a look at the current state of explosive growth of the China-U.S travel market, which NTA is right on top of. International travel is the direction the association is heading, far from its origins.

The association was founded in the early 1950s as the National Tour Brokers Association, a trade association for tour operators. Through most of its history, the association was focused on domestic travel within the U.S.

Most of NTA’s several hundred tour operator members historically were domestic tour operators, offering tours within the U.S. to customers who live within the U.S. But in recent years more and more tour operators have offered tours to international destinations.

Since the turn of the 21st century, NTA has been trying to redefine and reposition itself as a global travel association, but it has had growing pains. Many of the association’s members still fit the profile that originally defined the organization: domestic motorcoach tour operators. Some of them could see no reason why the funds and attentions of its trade association should be diverted to international travel.

Changing the focus from domestic to international was one thing. That is a natural progression for many tour operators, just a matter of expanding their field of operations across international borders.

But changing from outbound to inbound travel was harder for some of the domestic tour operators to swallow. Inbound travel is a completely different business from outbound travel, with different beneficiaries. Some of the traditional motorcoach operators felt that their association was leaving them behind. Some dropped out. But what NTA lost on the domestic side, it has been gaining back on the international side.

The changes of NTA have always been driven by member feedback, based on annual surveys. The membership includes not only tour operators but suppliers and destination marketing organizations. Though there were some members who resisted the changes, there were many others who felt it was imperative for the organization to change, to move forward and redefine itself for the new world of globalization.

To CrossSphere and Back

The association felt had to change with the times or face obsolescence.

Back in 2002, the NTA leadership formed a strategic development council to chart the future development of the organization. The council concluded that the association needed to rebrand itself and reposition itself as “the place for all buyers and sellers of packaged travel.”

The association was seeking diversification and growth as an organization. To achieve that, its leadership felt it had to broaden its mission. Some felt the organization had outgrown its name. Two of the words in the brand no longer applied. It was no longer only a national organization, it had more international members all the time.

And it was not just an association of tour operators. Along with several hundred tour operator members, it had thousands of allied supplier members and hundreds more destination marketing organizations that worked in partnership with its tour operators. The company leadership, consisting of a governing board of about 50 members, decided to take bold steps and to rename, rebrand and redefine the organization.

At its 2004 annual convention in Toronto, NTA revealed the results of its efforts to the membership with a big splash. They renamed the association CrossSphere and redefined it as the global association for packaged travel, and it focused on travel both in and out of the U.S. Unfortunately for them, the radical changes went over like a lead balloon.

Much of the membership was not ready to swallow it. The name change was too big a jump. It didn’t mean anything to them. Probably the biggest irritant was that they did not feel they had been consulted or given a chance to participate in the decision making.

Many of the association’s members rebelled. Although a vast majority of the leadership council agreed with the decision to change the name and even with the name itself, they agreed that the rank-and-file membership deserved to have a say. So at the association’s Spring Meet that next March, 2005, in Sacramento, Calif., they decided to put the issue up for a vote at the next annual convention. And the name was voted down by a large majority.

Back to the National Tour Association

Though the name had reverted to its previous form, the association could not reverse its evolution, and it continued to grow into its new global role, notwithstanding the name. The association continued to build its international membership.

The big break in international development came for NTA in 2007 when it was appointed by the U.S. Department of Commerce to vet tour operators that would be handling Chinese visitors at the request of the government of China. NTA was appointed to ensure that Chinese citizens traveling in the U.S. would be in the hands of reliable tour operators.

It put the association right at the leading edge of the development of the most potentially explosive travel market in today’s world. There is no other country where the rate of growth and the potential of its travel market are anything near what we are seeing in China now.

As the country’s middle class has grown its members have increasingly gained the wherewithal to travel, first domestically, and now increasingly internationally.

China is the world’s most populous country with a population of 1.4 billion people, more of them who are becoming affluent enough to travel internationally every year. The  government is liberalizing its restrictions on travel and the result is a travel demographic that is growing like no other ever has.

Do the Math

Here are a few numbers that illustrate the scale of the China inbound travel market.

In 2000 the United States produced three times as much as China. In 2014, according to the World Bank, China’s GDP exceeded that of the U.S. at $17.6 trillion in 2014 compared to $17.4 for the U.S.

In 2006, the National Trade and Tourism Office estimated that there were 320,000 Chinese visitors to the U.S. By 2013 the number had more than quadrupled to 1.8 million, representing 21.1 billion in spending.

In terms of what we can expect in the future, consider that 1.8 million is about one tenth of 1 percent of the Chinese population. If the number of Chinese visiting the U.S. grew to 1 percent of the Chinese population, it would be a tenfold increase.     

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that there will be 3.1 million Chinese visitors to the U.S. by 2019, a 172 percent increase over 2013. That would make China number three after Mexico and Canada in the number of inbound tourists to the U.S.

It is a huge phenomenon however you look at it, in terms of travel business and trade balances as well as in terms of cultural exchange, which in the end will turn out to be the most significant part of this, and the most unpredictable.

And NTA is at the leading edge of the development. NTA’s membership has evolved with the change. Of its total tour operator membership of about 700 tour operators, 368 now sell international travel, and 210 of them are now part of NTA’s China inbound program. They pay an extra fee to take part and to receive the benefits the organization can bring them in their efforts to handle inbound Chinese travelers.  

China may be the largest international market, but it is only one of many international markets NTA is working with. NTA's membership now includes companies or tourism agencies from 45 countries. The association has run product development destination explorations for tour operators to many destinations. 

The association continues to evolve toward a more international footprint. The face of the organization has changed along with everything else in an industry and a world in which change is fast, constant and often tumultuous. If the next 10 years changes as much as the last, we’ll be looking at a very diverse international organization that will reflect the increasingly diverse population practically everywhere in the world.