Appetite for group travel is there, particularly for 2021, but operators have warned that they must be patient and wait for the “right time” to resume operations.

Escorted touring specialists, and members of the Association of Touring and Adventure Suppliers, told a Travel Weekly webcast that demand is there but there was a “nervousness” ahead of the sector’s return.

They agreed that is was important to take all necessary precautions to ensure customers feel safe while on tours as restrictions begin to ease.

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Cosmos has cancelled all tours up to October, and chief executive Giles Hake said the situation was “too volatile” to start making plans to reinstate trips sooner.

He said winter was “the earliest” that holidaymakers would join tours “in volumes” but said “we’re not seeing any reticence” for 2021 bookings.

“By the time people travel next summer, there could be a vaccine,” he said. “So it becomes a different issue.

Hawke said that, in the meantime, Cosmos was looking at reducing numbers on tours but using the same size vehicle, as well as offering flexibility for rebooking if customers don’t feel safe. He admitted that could make trips “a little bit more expensive”, explaining: “All the fixed costs are still largely the same”.

He said there was still “some nervousness” in Cosmos’ demographic of “adventurous people who want someone to look after them” and pointed out that tours include guests from multiple markets, which means they would have to factor in differing travel restrictions from America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK. “We’re going to play it cautious and make sure we’re in a really good position when we are ready,” he said. “Every business has got to do what’s right for them.”

Hawke said Cosmos was looking “really good” for North America and Canada in 2021, with European bookings “flat”. He said Cosmos was seeing demand UK and Ireland tours, having recently produced a new range, but said ‘long-haul exotic’ was “a little bit behind”.

Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold chief executive Ulla Hefel Böhler was “absolutely not prepared to compromise” on standard of its hotel partners – saying the operators would not work with those that did not meet its minimum standards.

In terms of restarting, she said: “We’re evaluating at the moment and waiting until we know exactly where those air corridors are going to be because, as we all know, in the last three months, everything is changing literally every minute of every hour of every day.”

She echoed Hawke’s point that “if UK travellers can go somewhere, it doesn’t mean international travellers can go there as well.”

Bohler said most customers “want to stick with what they’ve booked” so have been pushing trips back to 2021 or 2022 on the same tours to the same destinations.

She said there were some “green shoots” for new bookings and said Europe and domestic trips will play “a much bigger role” in sales to the UK market going forward, as would no-fly holidays to destinations like France and the Netherlands accessible via rail.

G Adventures has reduced maximum group sizes from 16 to 12, and that deep cleaning and hand sanitising was implemented as part of its latest travel with confidence campaign – as well as reducing the cost of booking a separate room on group tours.

Managing director Brian Young said the company’s scope of product in Europe as well as further afield meant is could bring back different destinations “at the right time”.

He said the introductions of travel corridors “gives people confidence to travel” and will trigger “a major uplift” in people wanting to book.

He predicted the 18-30 travel market to be among the “first out of the blocks” to travel – with a focus on adventure, adding that different Atas members would resume programmes at different times based on their product and customer base – and said details of operators’ resumptions would be available for agents via Atas. “You will find differences,” he added.

Young said longer durations were a recent trend. “People are probably going to travel less in the next 12 months, but when they do they’re going to make it meaningful. So they’re going to stay longer in a destination, get properly into it to spend more time quality time in a destination, rather than lots of in and out like city breaks

He also said “bucket list” activities like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or Everest Basecamp had done well in searches because lockdown had encouraged people to look for “achievement based experiences”.

Young added that people shifted bookings to 2021 when they “realised we’re in this for a lot longer than we thought we were going to be” but that recently bookings for September onwards in 2020 had begun to come in.

“That’s great news because it showed us that, irrespective of the current environment, we still have a lot of people that want to see the world, which is great.”

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