Could 2012 turn out to be a boom year for tours? The answer is a booming “Yes!” if you ask members of the US TourTours in Asia Operators Association (USTOA). A whopping 75% of tour company members who participated in an annual survey expressed confidence in the better days ahead and nearly half (43%) of those surveyed indicated enough confidence to increase staff by 10-15%.

The survey results, released during USTOA’s Annual Conference & Marketplace, held this year in Florida, even caught the association brass by surprise.

“The findings are somewhat staggering,” said USTOA 2011 Chairman John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours. “The fact that our members actually increased staff in 2011, some in the double digits and plan to do so again in 2012 is simply remarkable in the context of the current economic climate and speaks to the strength of the value of packaged tours to travelers.”

USTOA 2012 Chairman John Hanratty noted that 64% of members surveyed saw an increase in passengers 2011 over 2010, and nearly half of those saw growth of 10% or higher in passengers. Average daily rates also increased in 2011 over 2010, according to 81.5% of members. “And, even more encouraging,” continued Hanratty, who is also senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Travel Impressions, Ltd., “Nine out of 10 members surveyed anticipate ADR increasing in 2012.”

All About “E”

“Experiential travel” – or the “E Factor,” as USTOA President Terry Dale calls it – was rated important/extremely important by 85% of survey respondents to their overall growth and sales. Baby Boomers 46 to 65 years of age comprised the largest age group of travelers seeking “E Factor” vacations. Boomers are also the largest market segment for tour operator members responding to the survey, representing nearly 60% of their customers.

The region of the world with the most “E Factor” options for travelers is Europe, according to 37% of members, followed by South America (20%) Within Europe, Italy was tabbed as the destination offering the most experiential travel options. As for why, members cited food, wine and culinary tours, historical and educational opportunities, art and culture in general. France followed closely behind, for similar reasons.

The thirst for learning experiences is driving member tour operators to increase “E Factor” itineraries next year. More than half (53%) of the survey respondents plan to offer new experiential programs in 2012, with culinary tours topping the list at 26%; culture tours at 22%, and nature, adventure, photography and golf also cited.

When asked to name the top “off-the-beaten-path” or emerging destination that will gain popularity in 2012, Vietnam was cited most frequently, followed by India, Ecuador and China.

More than half (53%) of the members surveyed anticipate increasing itineraries in 2012 to destinations recovering from events this past year that negatively impacted tourism. Egypt was named most frequently as the country operators plan to increase tours to, followed closely by Greece, Japan and New Zealand. In fact, nearly one third of respondents (28.6%) have already seen an increase in bookings to those destinations for 2012.

Seen and Heard

Most USTOA members surveyed (86%) report utilizing Social Media, naming Facebook as the top channel, by 90% of respondents. Blogs, Twitter feeds and YouTube came in close second at 40%. Members unanimously (97%) said they use Social Media for consumer engagement. The next most frequently given reasons were tied at second: marketing/special offers and to drive traffic to company websites. Customer service ranked third, at 36%, with reservations/bookings a distant fourth at 4.5%.