Tours and activities take over ITB Berlin NOW day 1

The tours, activities and experiences industry saw much of the first day of ITB Berlin NOW devoted to them

In a coup for the tours, activities and experiences industry, ITB Berlin NOW devoted much of its first day to the sector. The TTA Forum was held on the second stage and examined multi-day tours, the acceleration of technology, how to recover with a local market and self-guided tours.

However, day 1 started off a bit of damp squib. Many users found themselves unable to log in to the conference platform as it seemed to creak under the strain of demand. This meant I missed the opening of the Forum and a discussion on operators’ post-Covid distribution. It brought back fond memories of trying to squeeze through the crowds at the front doors of Messe Berlin.

The explosion of multi-day tours

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Multi-day tours will see increases in growth, automation and personalisation— dusanpetkovic1 / Adobe Stock

So down I sat with my homemade coffee for The Rise of Multi-Day Tours. This began with Manuel Hilty of Nezasa, who immediately pointed to the fact that the experience is more important to travellers than material possessions. 

He predicts multi-day tours will see more growth, automation and personalisation. Growth will be due to that fact that people will take fewer, longer trips that are more sustainable and meaningful. Technology and personalisation go hand-in-hand. Seamless, flexible, modular personalisation will only be made possible through technology, as will increased efficiency.

Nezasa was joined by Travis Pittman of TourRadar and Brian Young of G Adventures for a panel on the sector. They’re seeing searches for active tours and bucket list trips spike because people want to carry on the connection with nature they’ve discovered in lockdown. Increases in flexibility have shown an increase in conversions and information from the US, Canada and Australia shows that people will travel domestically and shift to private tours when they can move again.

How to switch to local

Candide Gardening focused on supporting local families through the pandemic — manuta / Adobe Stock

It was attractions turn in the limelight next with Nanna Ebert of Kongernes Samling, Dominique Exmann of Candide Gardening and Jaume Vidal of Tiqets. They held a discussion on how to pivot to local, and how to market to people who know you. This included supporting local families and giving children cut price tickets, switching from large international content to telling local stories, and turning drab history museums into social events.

After a segment on human rights in travel — which, for all the good work being carried on issues of racism and LGBTQ+ in travel, ignored people with disabilities — and one on how indigenous people across the world can benefit from tourism, Arival were up.

Arival take over

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Technology allowed the tour industry to move to online bookings, ticketing and advanced bookings— FS-Stock / Adobe Stock

Douglas Quinby took to the ITB Berlin NOW screen to explain that tours, activities and experiences were the third largest sector of tourism in 2019 having brought in $254 billion globally. However, it was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with the results from last year’s Arival survey showing a 76 per cent contraction. This was uneven, as city, indoor and large group experiences ground to a halt and outdoor and adventure did well. 

Information from the US and Canada showed that 37 per cent of current tourism was local, 53 per domestic and 10 per cent international.

And what was the response to the pandemic? Almost all operators brought in new health and safety measures, and reduced capacity. Around half pivoted to local tourism. And there was an acceleration in technology adoption. This enabled a rise in online bookings, and the introduction of timed ticketing and advanced bookings. It also saw a shift in travellers booking through OTAs to booking direct, possibly because of the move to local travel.

Quinby expects the recovery from the pandemic to be almost complete in 2022, predicting the industry will take 81 per cent of 2019’s income that year. The first people to travel will be those from the upper income bracket, 89 per cent of which have seen their financial situation improve or stay the same through the pandemic.

Booking windows are wild

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Gray Line Worldwide and Merlin have benefited from the recovery in Asia — SeanPavonePhoto / Adobe Stock

He then led a panel on the Outlook for Tours, Activities & Attractions with David King of Viator, Dominique Sidley of Merlin and Brad Weber of Gray Line Worldwide. As global operations, both Merlin and Gray Line have benefited from being able to run operations in Asia, the Pacific and North America. 

Booking windows are wild. They’re either super short or incredibly long. Weber claimed that Gray Line had just received a hop-on hop-off booking 365 days in advance. Flexibility needs to be big to restore trust, even if cancellations are a terrifying thing right now. There should be as little friction as possible for the traveller.

What must governments do to encourage people back to tours and attractions? Reduce or remove the two-metre rule when there are strict health and safety measures in place. This reduces the number of people that can visit an attraction and makes it unviable, and drastically cuts the number of people who can sit on a bus.

Self-guided won’t replace tour guides

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Self-guided tour apps are targeting the 50 per cent of travellers who don’t book tours— NDABCREATIVITY / Adobe Stock

Before the panel, Quinby had discussed how only two per cent of operators had seen success with virtual tours, but that self-guided tours seemed to be in a much better position. ITB Berlin appeared to agree by giving two self-guided startups an opportunity to pitch to the audience before inviting them to a discussion with Questo’s Alex Govoreanu. Both SmartGuide and Citynomadi would enable operators to create their own self-guided tours in different ways and earn some incremental revenue.

Govoreanu started with the fact that 50 per cent of travellers don’t book tours, but prefer to explore by themselves. Jan Doležal of SmartGuide said that in Asia currently, only 10 per cent of people want to go on guided tours and 60 per cent would like to be self-guided. Merja Taipaleenmäki of Citynomadi thinks that the only group travel to happen this year will be for families and groups of friends, but group tours will recover.

Local travel has been a boon for self-guided apps, with users less likely to hop on a tour of somewhere they already know. The typical user is in their 30s–50s, is familiar with technology and grew up with guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides.

Neither Taipaleenmäki nor Doležal expect self-guided to replace tour guides — the power of storytelling is too strong. However, large group audio tours may find themselves squeezed. Providing the content, and ensuring the tone of it is correct for users, may be the hardest challenge for an operator interested in providing self-guided tours.

Everyone’s betting on pent-up demand

Finally, airline CEOs are bullish on the recovery from the pandemic, and every vertical is betting on an explosion of pent-up demand. Leisure will lead the recovery (and conferences may quickly follow if the technology keeps failing). Traveller safety, increased personalisation and better understanding of travellers will be led by technology. It’s no longer an option to not be connected. 

And everyone — even the airlines — is talking about sustainability at ITB Berlin NOW, and how we ensure that the harmful effects of tourism on communities and the planet are kept at bay when we recover.

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