Travel Agent Outlook 2016: The Biggest Stories For The Year Ahead
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A “new” destination, a not-so-new but ever-growing business model, and the proliferation of special travel niches are among the major stories we’ll be watching on the travel agent front next year.
There’s been one dramatic development after another involving travel to Cuba.
First there was a loosening of restrictions on the U.S. government sanctioned people-to-people educational and cultural tours —the only way Americans could travel to the island nation. Then in 2014, the stunning announcement came that the U.S. had normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba.
And earlier this month, the State Department reached an agreement with Cuba to resume commercial air travel between the two countries.
These developments, paving the way for unrestricted tourism from the U.S., are of immense interest to consumers, airlines, tour operators, hotels and resort companies and, of course, travel agents.
Agents stand to reap significant rewards selling Cuba. This “new” destination represents tremendous pent-up demand from Americans. Its powerful allure is based in no small measure on the fact that it’s been off-limits for so long.
ASTA estimates that at least two million Americans could visit Cuba by 2017 if Congress votes to fully lift travel restrictions by the end of 2015.
I know agents are closely watching for further developments. I hope more good news is in store for travel to Cuba and I hope agents will jump into a newly-opened travel market there. Actually, I’m certain they will.
Changes in How Agents Work
The rise of home-based agents and independent contractors will continue at a strong pace fueled by technology that enables agents to work from anywhere—and at any time.
That development is an attractive one for new entrants into the agency business. Both savvy second-career agents and young professionals will be attracted by the flexible and entrepreneurial nature of the home-based/independent business model.
Existing host agencies will seek innovative new support services, training programs and tech applications to serve these agents.
And we’ll be watching how suppliers address the booming home-based movement. Among other things they’ll need to tweak their reservations systems to track sales to the individual agent level so they can more efficiently target—and reward—their top sellers.
There’s no waning of interest in consumers’ demand for more niche-focused travel, especially in the FIT segment.
Agents will stay focused on perfecting their specialties and developing new ones. Family and multi-generational travel, adventure travel, destination weddings and honeymoons, celebration travel, and river cruising have become almost standard niches for agents.
But agents are also drilling down to sell, for instance, not just culinary travel but travel focused on wine or cheese, Asian or South American cuisines. Emerging destinations like Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are also prime opportunities for agent niches.
Two relatively new niches are primed for growth in 2016: wellness travel and sustainable/social impact travel. Spa travel has morphed recently into the broader wellness travel category for clients into fitness, healthy cuisine and de-stressing.
The sustainable travel trend involves traveling responsibly: conserving natural resources, supporting local cultures and making a positive impact on the destinations we visit. Its cousin is the new social impact travel trend or voluntourism in which “traveling with a purpose” means immersing oneself in another culture and working with local populations in various ways to make a positive impact.
Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom cruise brand is the first highly-visible example of the trend. In its debut in 2016, it’s expected to take 35,000 passengers to the Dominican Republic to help teach English, work on a reforestation or water purification programs or help a womens’ cooperative harvest cocoa and make chocolate.
We’ll be on the lookout next year for more such travel products.
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