Canada’s Guided Tour Ops Discuss Group Size Post-COVID

Anna Kroupina, Open Jaw

Stephanie Bishop, Wolf Paunic, Jeff Roy, Bruce Poon Tip

The escorted tour sector, like all travel services, has been unhinged by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as provincial authorities in Canada begin to release plans that gradually reopen their economies and relax limits on social gatherings, tour operators are beginning to ponder how to meet regulations and appease hygiene-hyperaware leisure travellers.

Besides working with governments and vendors to ensure a sanitary travel experience for their guests, several tour operators Open Jaw spoke with say group sizes will also be altered to ensure social distancing measures and help assuage any health and safety concerns.  

Globus family of brands is in regular discussions regarding steps to make customers feel comfortable once leisure travel is permitted, says Managing Director Stephanie Bishop.

"We're building for our tomorrow and what that will look like. We're looking at what the Canadian consumer would want us to deliver in terms of experience, including safety, security and peace of mind. Some consumers will want smaller groups, which we absolutely can accommodate," Bishop said. 

"We will certainly look to see whether we need to change our group sizes, and investigate whether there is even a definition of what a 'small group' is."

But she cautions that she doesn't believe smaller groups are an all-encompassing solution to the guided vacation model.

"For many travellers, their first concern is not going to be the size of the group, it's going to be the health and safety for them as travellers on that journey, which is different than just having a smaller group," she says.

While operating tours with small group sizes is not part of Globus' current business model, Bishop says certain travel styles already feature smaller groups, such as its Exotics line, which covers Asia and South America, as well as Private Touring and Monograms, tailored vacation packages for independent travellers. 

"There might be a thought out there that a small group is better, but I don't know if that is a fact. Private Touring might take on more of a position within our portfolio, and smaller groups of friends and family and multigenerational travel might be more popular moving forward, particularly closer in and next year. But we had already seen that trend, regardless of the COVID situation," she says. 

Trafalgar Travel says it has already started a "bridge program" for 2020 that will cater to the immediate post-COVID-consumer for the immediate future after travel opens up. 

Part of those temporary measures include limiting capacity on group itineraries to 24 to 26 customers on a full-size coach "to ensure that the seating pattern provides the optimal social distance," Trafalgar's President Wolf Paunic told Open Jaw. 

"We will not be carrying our 35 to 40 or 40-plus passengers on the coach. We will be carrying no more than, say, 26 to provide for social distancing on the transportation mode," he says.

"Health and well-being policies will determine the group size to a large extent, so we will be adapting our experience delivery to that. We will have to maintain social distance, we will have to be super careful that the suppliers of services and accommodation are absolutely top-notch, that transportation is clean and sanitized, that people have access to face masks and sanitizer," Paunic said.

Collette Tours, too, is making active changes to its group size for the near future. 

Jeff Roy, Executive Vice President of Revenue Management and Pricing, told Open Jaw that Collette will be expanding its small-group Explorations model, which average 19 passengers for departures, to its signature programs.

"That travel style is ideal for this environment. Within the next two weeks, you'll see departure dates on the website that will be capped at an average of 22 to 24 passengers, rather than the normal 35," Roy said.

"We're fortunate that we already had a lot of small group products, which were seeing a huge increase in demand for this year, prior to COVID-19. Even looking out at 2021, it's often in high double digits from a growth standpoint."

For G Adventures, small groups averaging 12 to 14 people are already part of its DNA.

It's way too soon to see any trends at this time, but G founder Bruce Poon Tip told Open Jaw the company may stand to benefit if people want more intimate travel experiences. 

"For example if you want to travel with less people, we use much smaller scale hotels," said Poon Tip.

But it's not just a game of numbers. Even as a small group tour operator, G Adventures says it's having critical discussions about health and hygiene with vendors.

"We deal with very small-scale businesses and hotels and partners. They don't always have the resources to make changes quickly, so for us it starts with those customers and what they can do and how we can assist them," says Poon Tip. 

"We're waiting to see what actually falls out of this. We can't really make decisions because we haven't seen the bottom of this. We're still falling. Until we know where we land with this, it's hard to make decisions, but those conversations are certainly starting to be had."

Anna Kroupina

Anna Kroupina Journalist

Anna is OJ's newest member and she joins the team as a writer/reporter. She co-writes the daily news and covers events. Although she's new to the industry, pursuing a career path in travel/tourism has been a goal since her first family road trip to the Florida Keys sparked a desire to discover the world and this exhilarating, fast-paced industry.

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