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Group Travel Reimagined: Tackling Ongoing Changes in Travel in a Post-COVID World

Kate Cardoso | June 8, 2021

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash

Updated: June 8, 2021

There’s been a lot of chatter lately in our industry about how group travel is dead. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and generally shifting tastes, the tide has turned in the direction of individual travel opportunities – at least, that’s what some of our colleagues in the industry are saying.

As someone who has worked for many years in group incentive travel, this is completely baffling to me. Group travel isn’t dead – it’s more alive than ever, and everything we’re doing at HMI is focused on reimagining what the group travel experience should be post-COVID. And to explain why, I’d like to take you through the details of a recent group incentive travel program I helped organize.

Why Group Travel is Here to Stay

It’s true that the pandemic forced a pause on group travel, but let’s not jump to conclusions here. First, all travel was largely paused, not just group travel. As the world slowly opens back up this year, we at HMI are starting to return to our regularly scheduled programming of group trips.

Second, and more importantly, if there’s one thing we’ve all been missing out on for the past year, it’s human interaction. It’s reconnecting with loved ones. Anyone who’s finally had a chance to interact with friends, family, or just anybody after months of isolation can tell you how refreshing it is to finally be back in the world again. Given that reality, why wouldn’t the face-to-face interaction inherent to group travel be desirable?

But maybe you’re worrying about the risk involved in big group activities right now, and you’re thinking that maybe individual travel (or not travelling at all) is a better idea for the foreseeable future.

And that’s a completely understandable concern – after so many months of this difficult situation, it’s hard to imagine the point where we’ll be back to “normal,” whatever that means for you. But here’s the thing – you deserve good things. We all do. It’s been a long year.

So, instead of nixing group travel altogether, some creativity is needed to make sure every attendee is safe and comfortable. To help settle your mind a bit on this issue, here’s a rundown of my experience preparing and implementing my recent group trip to Aruba.

Before the Trip

This was our first big international group trip that we’ve run post-COVID (we’ve been getting into regional travel a lot recently), so it’s a bit of an understatement to say I was nervous about it. With a group size of around three hundred attendees, safety and peace of mind were paramount, even with much of the world beginning to open back up.

For every trip, I conduct a site inspection with or without client contacts about a year before the trip is set to take place. We head to the location, look at hotels and the surrounding area, and maybe try out some activity options to figure out what’s going to work best for the client’s attendees. (I really enjoy these site inspection trips – it’s sometimes the only chance I have to see/experience the destination because being onsite for a program usually means I’m in a hotel meeting room all day, every day.)

But with safety a continued concern, we knew the inspection from a year ago wasn’t going to be enough, so a couple weeks before the trip kicked off I headed back to Aruba to make sure every contingency was accounted for. Along with my hotel contact, Ivonne, and my destination management company contact, Darysse, I looked for any and all potential issues that could arise with this large a group – to give you a couple of examples:

  • We realized that the hotel’s regular breakfast restaurant would have trouble accommodating all of our attendees given its limited capacities during COVID, so we worked out a private space for breakfast
  • We organized a private onsite COVID testing option for the group to make testing easier and quicker (a negative COVID test was required for returning to the U.S.)
  • We identified a better location for our group dinners that required special permission from the hotel but that ended up working out wonderfully
  • We pre-booked restaurant reservations off-property for the dinner at leisure nights because capacity and availability were limited

One of the lessons I’ve learned after years of working in this business is that site visits and planning meetings are always important, but especially now, with partners in hospitality coming back into business. It’s vitally necessary to understand the reality of what’s happening on the ground, and the preplanning stage is the best opportunity to identify potential issues and resolve them prior to the attendees’ arrival.

Welcome to Aruba

The trip itself was four nights, five days at a luxury resort. Attendees were treated to group welcome and farewell dinners but were otherwise largely on their own to explore the area, dine at the restaurants they chose, and socialize with the other attendees. It was the perfect, relaxed trip to get everyone – both the organizers and the attendees – back into the swing of things.

That’s not to say we weren’t working the whole time. As the main trip coordinator, it’s my job to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as possible for our attendees. That means facilitating arrivals and departures, working with ground transportation to get attendees to and from the hotel, greeting them when they arrive, making sure their rooms are ready, coordinating luggage, ensuring that the group functions go as planned, and being available throughout the days of the trip to answer any questions or concerns.

We brought three Travel Directors on the trip, my longtime colleagues, who staffed a hospitality desk, in addition to many other things, that was accessible as a resource to help attendees resolve issues. That means any issue whatsoever: a problem with their room, help getting a dinner reservation, facilitating an activity, anything.

Also at the desk with us was a rep from a local destination management company (DMC), an expert in the area who could provide help with transportation, activities, entertainment, local history, and any tips about things to see and do. We often don’t know everything about an area we’re going to, so we rely on the expertise of local people to help our attendees get the most out of their trip.

(By the way, now might be a good time to consider/reconsider outsourcing your group incentive travel and meeting planning to make sure that you have a team of corporate event planning and regional experts who know how to help you be successful with your group travel in a post-COVID world. But make sure you know what you’re looking for in an event planning partner!)

Safety First

Even with all of our careful preparations, I was still worried something would go wrong. Issues very frequently come up on group trips for so many different reasons – weather and flight delays/cancellations being the most frequent and disruptive issues – but in the time of COVID it’s especially important to prepare. In addition to our attendees’ safety being a top priority, we also needed every one of them to have a negative COVID test before they were allowed to board both the flight into Aruba and the flight back to the U.S.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that coordinating multiple COVID tests across a group of three hundred attendees is a logistical headache. It meant we had to be vigilant about communicating requirements for travel via email and our mobile app. I was sure that out of hundreds of attendees, we’d have at least one positive case, and we made sure to work out our protocol for quarantining and rearranging travel to ensure that even in that event things would go (relatively) smoothly.

So, I was overjoyed to learn, at the end, that our safety measures had paid off: not one of our attendees tested positive prior to returning to the U.S. Still, I don’t at all regret preparing for contingencies: that’s just part of the job. As we’ve seen a lot over the past year, things that can go wrong, will go wrong, and it’s important to be ready for that.

But Don’t Take It from Me…

Here are just a few of the enthusiastic testimonials from attendees in our post-trip survey:

“All phases of the trip from pre-flight to final flight home were smooth and stress free.”

“Well planned, great coordination with all of the pandemic issues that were overcome.”

“Very buttoned up & detailed which is great for us as we are so dang busy. It’s [nice] to have the organized package.”

“Always fun to arrive & see old friends that we don’t get to see for basically a year & then see how relaxed everybody is at the farewell dinner. The food & drink were very good as always.”

Additionally, our client spoke fondly of the trip in an interview, which you can watch here.

Curious to Learn More?

I’ll be writing more about the group travel experience as travel ramps up through this year and into next year. I’ll try to provide helpful and actionable insights each time, so come back frequently for more stories and tips for running programs in a post-COVID world.

Want to discuss more about what we’re doing to bring travel back? Take a look at our Group Travel Reimagined page.

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