After Sheila Katz’s husband died from a degenerative nervous system disease in April, she knew she had to run away. But her husband had been her traveling companion, and without him she was reluctant to travel alone. The pandemic’s ever-changing travel rules were also intimidating. So Ms. Katz, 45, did something she had never done before: she joined a group tour.
âI wanted not to be totally alone, but also to be able to do my own thing when I wanted to,â she said. So, in July, she joined a group of 17 fully vaccinated travelers heading to Belize with EF Go Ahead Tours, making friends as she snorkeled, visited Mayan ruins, and took crafting lessons. of chocolate and tortillas.
Solo travelers like Ms. Katz are joining tours at unprecedented rates, tour operators say, with some companies reporting individual bookings up 300% from couples, families or groups of friends . The majority of these solo travelers have never taken a group trip before. After years of planning their own trips and traveling solo or with a partner, the pandemic – with its months of isolation and Byzantine travel rules for tests, masks and vaccinations – has prompted them to change their ways .
Ms. Katz, a sociology professor at the University of Houston, had just gone through the tenure review process while coping with her grief. She was exhausted and had no interest in analyzing border regulations or insisting on potential exposure to the coronavirus. For his trip to Belize, all the members of the group had to be vaccinated, which took away a proverbial weight.
âIf it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I probably would have gone to lie on a Caribbean beach for seven days,â she said.
“Even solo travelers sometimes want to travel with people”
The National Tour Association, a professional organization for tour operators, said the group travel industry as a whole has yet to recover from the pandemic hit. âHalf of our tour operators don’t expect their business to surpass 2019 metrics until 2023,â said Bob Rouse, NTA vice president of communications.
But even before the pandemic, group travel was gaining a foothold among two key demographic groups: women and millennials. Travel agencies that cater specifically to women have grown 230% over the past six years, while a flurry of new start-ups, including AvantStay and TRIPS by the Culture Trip, has grown by making marketing to people born after 1980.
Perhaps most noticeable is women’s interest in group travel. Katalina Mayorga, Managing Director of El Camino Travel, which offers small-group tours for women, says fourth quarter 2021 sales are 200% higher than same period in 2019, and 65% of bookings do. alone. travelers. 60% of Contiki’s customers are women. Allison Scola, founder of Experience Sicily, says single women on its tours now make up 66% of guests, while at Indus Travels 80% of customers booking seats on tours for solo travelers are now women. Ninety percent of Indus customers this year are booking for the first time.
âEven solo travelers sometimes want to travel with people, especially people with whom they have something in common,â said Amanda Black, founder of The Solo Female Traveler Network, where women can book individual tickets for women. group trips around the world. Ms Black, 35, resumed her tours in May after closing at the start of the pandemic, and said bookings were steadily increasing.
After months of isolation, it seems, many women fail to socialize.
âI live alone, so I spent a lot of time alone,â said Jes Maxfield, 34, a customer service manager in Boston who booked a trip to Greece with FTLO Travel in August. The group consisted of eight women and one man, and the man broke his foot on the second day and had to fly home. By the end of the trip, a brotherhood had emerged. âIt was really nice to meet so many like and like-minded women and share a beautiful place with them,â she said.
The idea of ââsecurity in numbers also plays a role. âHiking the woods on my own isn’t exactly the safest thing to do,â said Emily Cardona, 36, a New Yorker who has taken outdoor group trips over the years. Last 18 months with Outer There, a New York-based travel agency. . Travel was a refuge, she said, from the stress of her two jobs as a senior care manager and mental health therapist.
The millennial connection
âIt’s almost as if the difficulties of traveling during the pandemic have helped millennials overcome the idea that group tours are not cool,â said Tara Cappel, Founder and CEO of FTLO Travel, where Reservations for 2022 are up 225% compared to 2019. FTLO is aimed at 20 and 30 year olds, and new customers – many of whom join solo – now represent 82% of these bookings; 75% of travelers booking for 2022 are women.
In many cases, the shift to millennial-focused marketing is redefining the idea of ââwhat it means to travel on a tour package in the first place.
“It was really intimate, and we were kind of like traveling friends,” said Autumn Lewis, a Los Angeles lawyer who took her very first group tour, a trip to Greece hosted by Tripsha, in July. . “It’s not like you have an experience where you just follow the guy with the umbrella.”
The pandemic’s solo travel trend isn’t limited to tour groups. Solo plane bookings are on the rise overall, with Orbitz reporting one-way round-trip tickets are up 200% from last year last Labor Day weekend. In years past, it was difficult to determine whether these tickets indicated single leisure travelers or single business travelers, but with business travel still slowing down, 2021 is an exception, said Mel Dohmen, Senior Brand Director for Orbitz.
And while there’s no definitive way to track how many of these solo travelers are joining groups at their destinations, tour operators are reporting significant growth in their overseas destinations.
At Devour Tours, which runs culinary tours across Europe, 22% of bookings this summer were for one person, which is more than double what it was during the same period in 2019.
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which offers small-group tours for travelers 50 and over, has seen a 7% increase in the percentage of solo bookings since the start of the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of their solo travelers are women.
The new attraction of organized travel
“If there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s that the value of tour operators has increased tenfold,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association.
Like travel agents, which are also experiencing a resurgence in popularity, much of this value comes from the fact that a traveler can delegate the pandemic mental burden: Which vaccination card is valid? What day should I take my PCR test?
But after months of isolation, the strongest attraction of the group tour is perhaps the most obvious: It comes with an integrated community.
âWomen who have booked tours with us are certainly doing so because they want someone who can navigate the Covid restrictions. But there are a number of other motivations, âsaid Meg Jerrard, co-founder of Solo Female Travelers, which runs small group tours for women. Safety is a major concern, she said, and “the stigma of being alone is another key motivator.”
Ms. Katz, the widow from Texas, had expected that for some meals on her tour, people would go and do their own thing. She was wrong.
âOur tour guides had to go out of their way because we all wanted to have all of our meals together,â she said. “I think we were all so thankful that we weren’t in our living rooms staring at the wall.”
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