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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Traveling Alone, in Groups

After Sheila Katz’s husband died of a degenerative nervous system disorder in April, she realized she needed to run. But her husband was her travel partner, and without him she did not dare to travel alone. The constantly changing travel rules due to the pandemic were also daunting. So 45-year-old Ms. Katz did something she had never done before: she joined a group tour.

“I wanted to be not entirely alone, but also to be able to go about my business whenever I wanted,” she said. So in July, she joined a group of 17 fully vaccinated travelers heading to Belize on EF Go Ahead Tours, befriending a mask while snorkeling, visiting Mayan ruins, and taking lessons in chocolate and tortilla making.

Solo travelers like Ms Katz are joining excursions at an unprecedented rate, tour organizers say, with some companies reporting one-off bookings 300% higher than from couples, families or groups of friends. Most of these single travelers have never taken a group trip before. After years of planning their own travel and travel alone or with a partner, the pandemic – with its months of isolation and Byzantine travel rules for testing, masks and vaccinations – pushed them to change their path.

Ms. Katz, professor of sociology at the University of Houston, has just gone through a process of redefining powers while overcoming her grief. She was exhausted and not interested in analyzing border rules or worrying about potential coronavirus infection. During her trip to Belize, everyone in the group had to get vaccinated, which took the proverbial weight off her shoulders.

“If it weren’t for a pandemic, I would probably just go to the Caribbean beach for seven days,” she said.

The National Tourism Association, the professional organization of tour operators, said the group travel industry as a whole has not yet recovered from the blow of the pandemic to its businesses. “Half of our tour operators do not expect their company to surpass 2019 by 2023,” said Bob Rose, NTA’s vice president of communications.

But even before the pandemic, group travel was entrenched among two key demographics: women and millennials. Over the past six years, the number of travel companies targeting women has grown by 230 percent, while the influx of new travel startups, including AvantStay and TRIPS by Culture Trip, has grown through marketing to those born after 1980.

Women’s interest in group travel is perhaps the most visible. Catalina Mayorga, chief executive of El Camino Travel, which offers small-group tours for women, says fourth-quarter 2021 sales are 200 percent higher than the same period in 2019, with 65 percent of those bookings doing it alone. travelers. There are 60% more women among Contiki’s clients. Allison Scola, founder of Experience Sicily, says that single women on her tours now make up 66 percent of guests, while at Indus Travels 80 percent of clients booking solo tours are now women. Ninety percent of Indus customers are booking their tickets for the first time this year.

“Even solo travelers sometimes want to travel with people, especially people with whom they have something in common,” said Amanda Black, founder of the Solo Female Traveler Network, where women can book individual tickets for group travel around the world. Ms Black, 35, resumed her tours in May after stopping at the start of the pandemic and said bookings are steadily increasing.

It seems that after months of isolation, many women miss companionship.

“I live alone, so I spent a lot of time alone,” said Jess Maxfield, 34, an account manager in Boston who booked a trip to Greece with FTLO Travel in August. There were eight women and one man in the group, and the man broke his leg on the second day and was forced to fly home. Towards the end of the trip, a sisterhood arose. “It was really nice to meet so many like-minded women and share a beautiful place with them,” she said.

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The idea of ​​safety in numbers also plays a role. “Walking in the woods on your own is not the safest thing to do,” said Emily Cardona, 36, a New Yorker who has done outdoor group trips for the past 18 months with the New York-based Outer There travel company. … Traveling was a refuge from the stress of her job as a senior care manager and psychotherapist, she said.

“It’s like traveling difficulties during a pandemic helped millennials understand that group tours are not cool,” said Tara Kappel, founder and CEO of FTLO Travel, whose bookings for 2022 surpassed 225%. 2019. FTLO serves people between the ages of 20 and 30, and new customers – many of whom join individually – now account for 82 percent of those orders; 75 percent of travelers booking tickets for 2022 are women.

In many cases, the shift to marketing to millennials is the first to change the concept of what it means to travel on a guided tour.

“It was really intimate and we looked like friends who were traveling,” said Autumn Lewis, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who made her first-ever group tour, TripSha’s trip to Greece in July. “It’s not like you’ve had the experience of just following the guy with the umbrella.”

The trend towards solo travel in a pandemic is not limited to tourist groups. Overall, the number of individual airline bookings has grown, with Orbitz reporting round-trip tickets up 200% over last year’s Labor Day weekend. In years past, it has been difficult to determine if these tickets are for solo travelers or those traveling alone on business, but with business travel still sluggish, 2021 is an exception, said Mel Domain, a senior brand. -Manager Orbitz.

While there is no clear way to track how many of these solo travelers are joining groups at their destinations, tour operators are reporting significant increases in travel abroad.

On Devour Tours, which runs culinary walking tours across Europe, 22 percent of bookings this summer were for one person, more than double the same period in 2019.

Overseas Adventure Tours (OATs), which offer small group tours for travelers aged 50 and over, have increased individual bookings by 7 percent since the start of the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of their solo travelers are women.

“If there is anything that the pandemic has shown us, it is that the value of tour operators has increased tenfold,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of the US Tour Operators Association.

Like travel agents that are on the rise again, much of that value arises when a traveler can delegate a pandemic psychological burden: which vaccine card is valid? What day do I need to take the PCR test?

But after months of isolation, the group tour’s greatest strength may become most apparent: it has a built-in community.

“The women who booked tours with us definitely did it because they needed someone who can get around the Covid restrictions. But there are other motives, ”said Meg Gerrard, co-founder of Solo Female Travelers, which organizes small group tours for women. According to her, safety is the main issue, and “the stigma of loneliness is another key motivator.”

Miss Katz, a widow from Texas, expected people to leave and go about their business during her tour. She was wrong.

“Our guides had to go out of their way to try their best because we all wanted to dine together,” she said. “I think we were all so grateful that we didn’t sit in our living rooms and stare at the wall.”

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