NAJ just attended both the ABA and NTA 2015 trade shows—making two trips to two different destinations 676 miles apart on the I-55 corridor in the middle of the country—which took place less than a week apart. Although they don’t admit it, the leadership of NTA and its Travel Exchange and the American Bus Association (ABA) and its Marketplace are competing with one another tooth-and-nail for the attention and participation of the same operators and suppliers. Impressions and highlights from the two events follow.

  • The ABA Marketplace, held Jan. 10-13 in St. Louis, was declared a success by 80 percent of the sellers we met with; they appreciate the clear focus of the show and the fact that it is designed so that sellers can get in and out in two days, should they wish to do so. Domestic operators, in general, reported consistently stronger sales results for 2014, although the increases over 2013 seemed surprisingly low given the strong stock market and buoyant economy, and they believe that 2015 will be even stronger. Several told us that their business was flat—but that was fine with them because they didn’t want to work that hard to build it.
  • The student tour market has rebounded well after a post-2008 slump, as parents view learning by travel as an investment in their children’s future and are willing to explore creative fundraising ideas for student tours or actually finance the trips themselves. ABA seemed to have the edge for this market segment.
  • While there were several large tour operator companies at Marketplace, the show is primarily comprised of mom-and-pop buyers and motorcoach companies that have created tour divisions to increase utilization of their fleets when they are not engaged in charter business. They are very open to meeting with new destinations and suppliers but, realistically, their primarily challenge is in marketing their tours. According to most of the DMO’s and suppliers we spoke with, ABA operators rarely deliver more than one or two groups a year to a destination. But in an industry segment where the ROI is measured by the number of contacts generated and the quantity of appointments made, leads can be more important than the materialized groups itself when justifying one’s attendance. And no one goes hungry at ABA.
  • The Moveable Feastthe ABA Comfort Food Court trough is always open. Were the two shows simply evaluated on free-food-grazing for attendees, it would be no contest. We don’t know how or when it started, but, over the years, the ABA Marketplace has become a comfort (aka junk) food court where exhibitors tempt buyers with snacks found nowhere on the heart-healthy foods list of the American Heart Association. Maybe attendees were trying to sate hunger pangs before they walked into the first luncheon served at the St. Louis Convention Center, where clearly half the people at our table left after the first bite. Moving from booth to booth, there was: Minnesota grilling spam; Wisconsin slicing and dicing cheese; Connecticut with a potato chip sampling operation; Atlantic City hedging bets with two types of popcorn; and Texas distributing Coke and other soft drinks, while others offered pecan pie, chocolate bars, candy and, of course, the crowd favorite, ice cream scooped by Wyndham sales executives.


  • NTA—A Work In Progress with no Progress: “For the past five years, NTA has been a work-in-progress with no progress.” That’s how one supplier described the association’s state of affairs at its Travel Exchange–an unwieldy collection of events that combines the NTA Annual Convention, the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) Expo and the Faith Travel Association (FTA) Annual Conference—held Jan. 18-22 in New Orleans. The fact is the once dominant association has been trying to move forward since the CrossSphere rebranding debacle by experimenting with both international outbound and Chinese inbound receptive operators, new dates, and co-locating its show with UMA which created a muddled purpose and failed to gain acceptance with many suppliers and DMOs.

Held less than a week apart from ABA’s show, this year’s Travel Exchange brought out many fairly senior executives who wanted to be present to evaluate the show for participation in the future. Even longstanding NTA stalwarts reported that they were confused about the direction in which organization is headed.


  • NTA’s board recruited Pam Inman, former executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA), as the new president who, in earlier interviews stated that she was hired because of her experience in association change. (Before her tenure with AH&LA, she had served for nearly five years as president and CEO of the Tennessee Hotel & Lodging Association.) She‘s been aboard at NTA since last September. During the NTA business meeting following the show’s opening breakfast, Inman announced several initiatives that were greeted favorably by many attendees we spoke with.
  • The first, and most significant, was that the organization is moving the show back to a November or December date next year, essentially having two shows that fall in the calendar year 2016. This move will also terminate the co-location relationship with UMA after the third year as the November timing is not advantageous for them. Inman then announced that she would propose changes in the bylaws that would infuse the president with more authority. For the past few years, the newly elected NTA volunteer chairman, served as the face of the organization, representing NTA at various functions and speaking engagements while the president remained holed up in Lexington minding the store.
  • In 2015, this may change, especially since the new chairman for the first time is an Argentinian tour operator, Jorge Cazenave, general manager of Buenos Aires-based Cazenave Argentina for whom any trip to U.S. destinations outside of a gateway can be an all day ordeal. To Inman’s credit, she seemed to be accessible and omnipresent at Travel Exchange, while NTA’s previous president, Lisa Simon, seemed as if she were in the witness protection program ensconced in important meetings.
  • News that NTA would be more welcoming to travel agents caused many suppliers and DMOs to wince, as that is usually handled by another department and means crossing over into someone else’s silo. While the pool of traditional tour operators is dwindling, the market for new operators seem to be emerging from new sources with an existing infrastructure to reach consumers that fall outside the traditional tour and travel industry. The motorcoach owners—as evidenced at ABA this year—are becoming the new channel of distribution for smaller and mid-size destinations and suppliers with over-the-road product. In this world, the lowly travel agent may emerge as a primary future source of escorted tours as the customer base for senior center group leaders die off. And with the U.S. dollar gaining 20 percent against the Euro, interest in Europe this year will surely increase for the coming summer season and travel agents may find more interest in groups.
  • The main challenges for NTA’s Travel Exchange are twofold:

—How to grow the international outbound segment of the business grow in a way that doesn’t alienate its core domestic suppliers and DMOs who have provided the bulk of the association’s funding.

—How to differentiate itself from the ABA Marketplace.

One idea may be to “hide” the outbound portion of the show from the domestic suppliers by dedicating one day that focuses solely on outbound travel that domestic suppliers and DMO’s could avoid.

During a brief conversation in the press room at the show, Inman was asked about her vision for the future of the association. She stated she was only in the job six months, but she had experience turning around her previous association and is not afraid to institute changes. She also maintained that there was only a 20 percent overlap among buyers at the two show and that suppliers could be selling NTA operators differently than they do ABA operators. (We met two attractions who were doing just that.   Showing ABA operators “entry level” basic information from a motorcoach operator’s perspective—aparking, driver perks, etc.—while being more collaborative with NTA operators about actual experiential product development.)

  • At a press conference, however, Inman did lay out the NTA’s legislative priorities for 2015. She said the organization will be working toward initiatives that will contribute to or help with transportation infrastructure modernization, the Visa Waiver Program, the centennial of U.S. National Parks next year, travel to Cuba and the NTA’s China Inbound Program.
  • The Faith Travel Association—is it a Hail Mary Pass? This year there was speculation as to how NTA would integrate its new Faith Travel Association (FTA), an organization that was launched by the NTA at last year’s Travel Exchange and that now has 189 registered members, including 43 travel agents. This year, the FTA had its own area on the NTA trade show floor, with 18 exhibitors on the first day of the conference, dedicated to FTA seminars and programming. However, the organization had difficulty in attracting domestic worship leaders and church ministers who have the ability to pre-form groups from their base of churchgoers. Exhibitors told us that most of the buyers they met seemed interested in outbound Holy Land programs.
  • When NTA announced that its November 2016 show would end the co-location with the UMA show, the response of many suppliers was: “Amen.” The two shows didn’t really seem to fit together either practically or culturally. While UMA attendees were focused on buying hardware—equipment–NTA sellers were selling software in the form of tour itineraries and ideas.

(NAJ has created a Fist Bump Gallery from the ABA and NTA trade shows on the Facebook page. To see some of the people we met click here.


What’s Ahead for Tour and Travel in 2015?



That’s what we’ve dubbed it—“The Listening Tour”— and it’s at the heart of NAJ’s forward planning each year. Midway through 2014, let’s look at how 2015 is shaping up. Following conversations with 64 suppliers, DMOs, overseas tour operators, receptive tour operators and Brand USA in-country reps, we believe the greatest opportunities for growth among NAJ’s clients will come from the following four areas:

  • China
  • Brazil
  • MICE
  • Online Marketing.


Let’s briefly focus on each of these areas.


 China tourism

China represents the fastest tourism growth opportunity on earth. Despite new government regulations implemented last October that imposed new advertising restrictions on tours from China, the USA arrival growth from China in January 2014 was up 23 percent year-on-year.


What NAJ Is Doing:

1. Connecting with 70 top Chinese buyers in April 2015—without leaving the USA—at the Active America China Summit in Las Vegas.

2. Staging a meeting with 38 U.S.-based Chinese receptive operators in February at NAJ’s RTO Summit West in Marina del Rey, California.

3. Launching a new bi-lingual newsletter for Chinese operators and RTOs that will feature new offerings from NAJ clients.

4. Beta testing a new NAJ Education Marketing to China Workshop for 2015.

5. Developing turnkey-prototype China-ready workshops for DMOs that wish to educate their members.


What You Can Do:

1. Take part in the annual China Mission hosted by East-West Marketing, the company owned and operated by Daniel Shen, who has more than two decades of experience in working the Chinese market. This mission is open to anyone and has been proven highly effective for participants in the past. Contact: Daniel Shen (

2. Make it easier for Chinese buyers to learn about your product: Translate all or a portion of your website into Mandarin or position yourself inexpensively to FITs through Attract China. Contact: Evan Saunders (

3. Partner with Brand USA, which has executed a highly successful 100 percent digital marketing program in China, providing content information for their posts.  Contact: Amir Eylon (




Enterprising Brazilian operators are shopping for new destinations for their MICE and leisure programs that take them to destinations beyond Florida.


What NAJ Is Doing:

1. Focusing on Latin America as well as MICE at all three RTO Summits.

2. Retaining a Brazil expert to help develop in-depth content on ways to access the market efficiently.

3. Increasing coverage of the Brazilian trade in NAJ’s Inbound Report.

4. Developing a Brazilian RTO operator focus group in 2015


What You Can Do:

1. Learn to position your product or destination for the Brazilian market by attending NAJ’s RTO Summit + MICE Nov. 17-18, 2014 in Orlando. Why? The Summit this year will feature commentary on Brazil’s top tour operators/travel agents as well as the receptives that service them.

2. If you speak Portuguese and/or Spanish, attend La Cita, a Latin American trade show—it is now in its second year and will be held in Miami—produced by the creators of La Cumbre.

3. Tie-into Brand USA’s social media marketing campaign for exposure. It has over 250,000 Brazilian followers on Facebook and co-programs that are affordable for anyone.

4. Attend IPW with firm knowledge of how your product fits into what Brazilian operators are looking for.

5. Update your profile page on, which will be an important resource for Brazilian operators




An unabated growth opportunity as 30 percent the 31,000 RFQs coming into RTOs each year are somehow related to meetings, incentives and events.  Many U.S. trade shows and conventions are now becoming more flexible with their housing policies so that they can grow international attendance. RFQs for incentive groups of 20 to 250 visitors are now directed through receptive operators as the booking window requires a lead time window that is too short for traditional DMCs.


What NAJ Is Doing:

1. Providing 100 percent of content at NAJ’s RTO Summit + MICE in Orlando, making this the premiere new business development event for both buyers and sellers.

2. Adding new MICE agenda items and experts to NAJ’s RTO Summit East and West plus Active America China in 2015.

3. Emphasizing MICE development in the newest U.S. Visa Waiver Program markets (South Korea, Taiwan, Chile and Poland)

4. Creating a “MICE” White Paper on International inbound opportunities.


What You Can Do:

1. Register for the annual IMEX-America in Las Vegas to meet International MICE buyers without having to travel abroad

2. Attend NAJ’s RTO Summit + MICE in Orlando (Latin America-centric) and Los Angeles (Asia-centric) to learn more about the 67 percent increase in MICE product sold through the receptive operator channel.

3. Make sure you “have your MICE on” before you meet with buyers: for DMOs, this means creating one-of-a-kind itineraries; for hotels it’s all about meeting space; and attractions need to feature their group dining and function space.



socialmedia marketing

Traditionally, relationships between buyers and sellers have been initiated in person and cultivated through periodic trade shows and sales missions. However, new online business-to-business targeting tools introduced by LinkedIn and Facebook make it possible to interact with buyers through various organic and paid campaigns that are both unique and measurable.


What NAJ Is Doing:

Below you’ll find a table showing that lists the number of buyers from each of our buyer databases that can be reached through “boosted” posts on Facebook to nurture relationships.


We will be able to help our partners build new relationships with over 3000 buyers in using social media tools and tactics.

NAJ Database Segment NAJ buyer database #email addresses # Reachable through FB % Percent of buyers reachable through FB
ABA/NTA Domestic operators 1640 493 30.1%
International Operators 3488 1118 32.8%
Receptive operators 740 200 27.3%
“Active” registered buyers on tto* 3823 1318 34.5%
Total 9691 3129 33%
*Active=users 4x yr ( Buyer profile 52% international tour operators and agents, 48% domestics buyers)



1. We now offer both email marketing and social media campaigns that can segmented by buyer categories or on a geographical basis.

2. Continue to provide education about ways in which tour and travel sales staff can cultivate buyer relationships at RTO Summits and Active America China.


What You Can Do:

1. Build a personal profile on LinkedIn and Facebook.

2. Post Facebook content that combines “day-to-day things you like to do, updates of where you are, etc, with new events and things that are happening with you professionally.

3. Experiment by uploading your e-mail database to Facebook’s Custom Audiences so you can send posts to your clients. These have 3 times the open rate that e-mail blasts have.

4. Test with LinkedIn’s new “sales navigator,” which allows you to send posts to targeted users based on their job descriptions and endorsements.


It’s All About Trust

A Perspective.  By Jake Steinman, Founder and President, NAJ.

ImageThe tour and travel industry is based on relationships. And at the core of every relationship is a level of trust. Trust that someone will deliver what they promise, trust that if problems arise there’s someone to help make it right. Trust in the handshakes exchanged on the floor of the trade show. Trust is critical for buyers because their clients have placed trust in them.

Is Smaller  better?  This is one reason I believe that smaller boutique events providing more opportunity for meet-ups work best. NAJ’s RTO Summits, Discover New England, Go West Summit and La Cita, Rick Still’s new Latin America event, are growing. I know this will sound self-serving, and it is,  but in 2013, the three RTO Summits saw attendance significantly up — 22 percent in the number of buyers and 18 percent in sellers over the year previous. Buyers have come to understand that even in this technology-driven world they need, more than ever, to personally meet with hotels, destinations and attractions to weigh the seller’s commitment and understanding of the business. Suppliers, meanwhile, meet operators face-to-face to make that personal connection. The result is trust, and it makes all the difference.

Getting to know you: Major trade shows such as IPW, WTM, ITB and CITM are great venues for networking, a bit of fun and entertaining one’s best customers. It’s like a festival. But when it comes to discovering new products, there are just too many people, distractions, and events going on. A ballroom filled with thousands cannot provide an atmosphere for mutual exploration to build the foundation upon which trust will flourish, creating the framework upon which concrete business will follow. The “getting to know you” process can take three to four years before a single contract is signed. Choosing the right trade shows is like choosing the right place for a first date. Hint: you cannot talk at the movies.

RTO’s at Major Trade Shows Hard to Reach: Of course, at large trade shows, U.S. receptive operators are selling from their own booths, too. Seeking appointments with them are the international tour operators with inbound North American business. For a destination, attraction or hotel, this provides another layer of competition for time on the trade show floor. So, it’s important that receptive tour operators and their suppliers get together elsewhere in the U.S. during the course of the year.

Some Buyers Ignored at Trade Show: Incredibly, I often hear buyers attending these major shows voicing frustration that they’re paid so little attention by companies they’d really like to meet. Why? Because those sellers’ priorities are to reunite with, and service, existing clients; they don’t want to invest time in someone who may not deliver business.

Bonding opportunity: At boutique events, buyers and sellers find themselves in a more intimate environment where the time to build the trust necessary to consummate business can often be reduced by half. That’s why these shows have become such an important supplement to the major trade events.

Where’s The ROI? The RTO Summits take place in the three major gateway cities where the highest concentration of receptive operators are headquartered. Sometimes overlooked or misunderstood, this channel of international distribution is responsible for over 20 million room nights sold to FITs, MICE groups, leisure groups, escorted groups and fly-drive programs. In the larger RTO offices, each of these segments is staffed by folks who simply don’t have the time or budget to attend the major trade shows. That, of course, means building trust by taking a sales trip to visit every one of them in their offices. How much time and money would that require? We estimate that each office visit costs $243 in travel expenses, staff time away from the office and time to schedule appointments with the right influencers to start the trust building process. That works out to $4,375 to meet the same number of operators that attendees at the RTO Summits can meet in appointment sessions.

Expand your contacts and Build More Trust. By staging the RTO Summits in New York, Los Angeles and Orlando, NAJ makes it convenient for the buyers to be there in force. Multiple influencers from the same company attend so they can meet new sellers who can help them expand and develop product offerings. They want to personally meet the sellers to trust them to contract with them. We also limit the number of sellers so that each attendee has between 18-20 meetings in one day and we provide a “follow-up Concierge” to help facilitate business when there is a need for a neutral intermediary to move things along.

Let Us Be Your IPW follow up: The RTO Summit East is coming up May 14-15th and includes a full day RTO THINK TANK presentations and panels followed by a full day of appointments.  Click here to see the program.


nta2Will the Soap Opera Come to a Climax in 2015?  Next January, there will be only four full days between the American Bus Association (ABA) Marketplace—Jan. 10-13, 2015 in St. Louis—and the NTA Travel Exchange, which takes place Jan. 18-22, 2015 in New Orleans

Many delegates to last week’s 2014 edition of the NTA trade show told us that they would find it difficult to be out of the office long enough to attend both shows next January, so there is a strong chance that both of the events will suffer a decline in attendance by operators and travel suppliers.

The question is: Which show will suffer more? While NTA’s interim CEO Catherine Prather—she replaced Lisa Simon, who resigned as president and CEO, leaving the post at the end of December—was busy ensconced in meetings behind closed doors during the first three days of the show, ABA’s president and CEO, Peter Pantuso, and his staff were like Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” roaming free and taking meetings whenever possible. Everywhere you turned you saw them–pressing the flesh the first day of the show in the main area, then counting the number of seats at the luncheon on the first day (Pantuso said the total was 1,600 each for combined NTA and UMA shows) as well as the number of operators in the NTA directory that was distributed to see how it matched with its public pronouncements. Certainly, NTA conducts this type of intelligence at ABA’s Marketplace as well.

For NTA, the challenge has been to somehow balance the interests of its operator members—who, for the most part, are much more vocal and dependent on pure tour revenue than are ABA members, most of whom also own buses—with that of suppliers and DMOs who find it more difficult to convince NTA buyers who are more series-oriented to feature destinations that don’t already have built-in demand. Reflecting the interest of their customer base, NTA operators are continuing to add cruise components—rivers and oceans—to their programs (Norwegian Cruise Lines was a major sponsor of this year’s show) or expanding into major international destinations, though the presence of international tourism boards seemed to be fewer in number than previous years.

Prospects for a merger of the two shows appear dim. Several years ago, there had been discussions between ABA and NTA aimed at combining their two events. But those talks broke down, NTA charged, because ABA’s then-national chairman, Jim Jalbert, owner of a Portsmouth, N.H. bus company, publicly called for a single show during a luncheon at the January 2011 ABA Marketplace in Philadelphia. Then, after a series of almost bizarre episodes that had NTA going so far as to hire a private detective to look into ABA activities (Pantuso jokingly wondered aloud if the organization had checked his garbage), things calmed down and, according to reports, the two have reopened lines of communication.

Still, there seems to be serious doubt as to the possibility of a show merger due to lingering resentment among a core of loyal NTA operators. They did not like what they perceived as Pantuso’s aggressive  and opportunistic tactics nearly 10 years ago when he proactively took advantage of the CrossSphere re-branding debacle in Toronto (the association’s leadership announced the more global-sounding name to complement a broader mission at the its convention in November 2004 in Toronto—a move that was overwhelmingly rejected in a 2005 referendum of operator members)  to entice disenchanted NTA members to defect to ABA’s show just a few weeks later, which signaled the beginning of a shift in momentum to ABA’s Marketplace, which had been perceived until then as basically as a bus operator show.

Ever since the CrossSphere matter, NTA has been experimenting with different changes, innovations and new areas in order to regain its once dominant position in the domestic motorcoach ecosystem. Among those moves was a co-location of its convention with the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) Expo to create a re-named Travel Exchange and, this year, the formation of the Faith Travel Association.

What’s Selling—Events are the New Black: .  Operators we spoke with reported that their 2013 business was “solidly” up over 2012—mostly between 5-12%–but profitability was up even more for many who were able deal

While operators may not be able to control the appeal of the destinations that are most friendly to tour operators, they can tie-into or, better yet, invent their own events in partnerships with DMO’s that are attractive to seniors and baby boomer groups.

Free Spirit Vacations’ CEO, Sue Arko, has created a highly successful annual event, “Branson Fest out West” in Mesquite, Nev. The fifth annual edition of the “Fest,” held earlier this month, featured a Tribute to Elvis festival. She has also staged a similar event in Nashville. Her Mesquite “Branson Fest” sold all of its 500 spots through Facebook marketing. Arko’s products feature first- and second-tier destinations, as well as the smaller cities that are en route to those destinations for pit stops and, in some cases, overnight stays. She has no interest in others because they just don’t sell. Also, said Arko, NTA is also much stronger in the West.

Bob Cline, founder and president of U.S. Tours, has built a business around events that have struck a responsive chord with Baby Boomers. Cline, who established his company in 1996 and acquired Uniglobe Royal Travel in 1999 to serve as the U.S. Tours Air & Cruise Department, created quite an industry splash with his 2012 Virginia Beach USO Show-Bob Hope Tribute, which he billed as the “largest privately funded group travel event in America that year.” He then targeted another group, Vietnam-era veterans, with the launch last year of a series of events over three days in northeast Tennessee that he sold through the TAP (Travel Alliance Partners) network: “Welcome Home from Vietnam” was staged for Vietnam veterans from across America on April 15-17, 2013 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and included a “Welcome Home from Vietnam Parade.”

Cline pulled it off despite the disappointment of the cancellation of 39 out of forty buses that booked. More than 500 veterans showed up—they had heard of the event through his social media marketing and word-of-mouth—and he’s now planning to repeat it on Aug 21-24, 2014 in Pigeon Forge. He’s also launching “Seeking Asylum—a Mid-Summer Music Fest,” a July music festival that will be held in the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia (U.S. tours is headquartered in Parkersburg, W. Va.), the largest building in the state. And he’s also created a “Duck Commander” event—inspired by the Duck Dynasty television show on the A&E Network—in Louisiana that sold out almost immediately.

Tale of the Tape: ABA Marketplace vs NTA   Travel Exchange 2015

ABA Marketplace 2015: St. Louis

NTA Travel Exchange: New Orleans 2015



-Buyers more open to new DMO’s & suppliers-Clearly focused show on domestic-no int’l-More buyers to meet

-More cohesive show


-Operators are more series-oriented than one-off-Greater interest for those with Western product-New Orleans has more intrinsic appeal

-Buyers can ultimately deliver more business




-ABA operators are weak at tour marketing-Many tours are day trips or one-off programs-More committed to filling buses than tour slots

-St. Louis less appealing than New Orleans

-Ops mostly interested in high demand areas-Int’l component alienates some sellers-Operators tend to be cliquish…hard to break in

-Format can be confusing


General business outlook: Operators reported both to us and to suppliers we met with that that their 2013 business was “solidly” up over 2012—mostly between 5-12%–and profitability was up even many of their tours were running at higher load factors.  The early booking indicators for 2014 are even more bullish.

 Also Noted: Keith Griffall, CEO and co-owner of Salt Lake City-based Western Leisure, missed the NTA Travel Exchange, but we’re sure everyone will agree that he had a worthy excuse. He and six other family members were in Sochi to cheer on his son, Preston, who was competing in the luge doubles event in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, closer to home, Shawn Horman, senior vice president of Western Leisure, reported that, while the company’s international business from Japan has been steadily declining, its domestpic motorcoach business improved 10 percent in 2013, and that 2014 bookings have been even more robust.

ABA Marketplace 2014 Review: A Sense of Optimism, A Need For Planning


 A Sense of Optimism, A Need for Planning

At the American Bus Association (ABA) Marketplace in Nashville, the outlook for 2014 was exceedingly optimistic. NAJ heard reports from some of the motorcoach operators we met with that booking inquiries are up 45 percent over 2013.

In fact, 2013 was a strong year for many, as healthy stock market yields freed up discretionary funds for travel for everyone from senior leisure groups to the parents of students in the active educational tourism market. However, tempering the enthusiasm were several reports of departures designed for 50 managing booking levels as few as 18 passengers.

While many of the participating ABA operators own their own motorcoaches, we were intrigued by the innovative products coming from non-owner tour operators. We spoke at greater length with two operators from the Northeast about their new products.

Hailing from Merrimack, New Hampshire Tour operator Mel Tye founded Tye’s Top Tour & Travel in 1992. His demeanor can be construed, depending on one’s perspective, as either deeply passionate about innovation in tourism or shameless in his self-promotion. Either way, Mel is a quirky industry figure who is not afraid to admit that, while the tour and travel industry may seem like the toy department of life, he is in it to make money.

Mel told NAJ that he has introduced several new features this year for his group tour business which saw bookings increase by more than 20 percent. The key, he says, is his shift from a focus on the senior-senior market to the 45- to 65-year-old demographic through developing products packaged with several unique features. What kind of features? For example, including free time with pre-loaded debit cards that can be used for meals at recommended restaurants and attractions who pay a small commission.

But, what really makes Mel stand apart from other operators in his competitive set is success in having his customers book and pay online through his website. See

The dynamic duo from New Castle, Pennsylvania: Charlene Troggio and Christine La Civita, co-owners of Breakaway Tours located about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, have a knack for developing tours with topical angles resonating with Baby Boomers. Early demand was so strong for the upcoming Downton Abbey Comes to Winterthur, themed after the popular PBS-TV drama, that additional coach capacity was required. This July tour includes Longwood Gardens, the world-class woodland and meadow garden attraction in Kennett Square, Penn. which was endowed by Pierre du Pont around the turn of the century…but, there’s more. The tour is paired with a visit to Winterthur, Del., the du Pont family’s ancestral estate, where an exhibit of Downton Abbey costumes is on display. Sounds great! See tour details:

A few more insights came from the dozens of operators and suppliers we met with.

Event-based products are the new black. Melanee Owenby, VP of Burke Christian Tours, told NAJ that she was interested in itinerary ideas from DMOs to help her develop multi-day product around events that would serve as the “anchor” of the tour.

Day trips decline and Grandma’s tours slow down. Large operators, such as those in the Globus, Mayflower and Tauck category, with sufficient funds to invest in digital marketing are coming off an especially strong year. Many report sales increases north of 20 percent. Others reported that, while passenger counts and the number of available departures had decreased, actual dollar sales had increased. We take this as indication that selling fewer day trips but a greater number of more profitable longer programs is a key factor.

Mom and Pop operators continue to struggle as they compete for group leader business with the deeply discounted tour rates of Fort Myers, Florida-based Diamond Tours, feared as the sinister Wal-Mart of the industry. Small operators lack the energy to be nimble and adapt to changes in the marketplace. When during an appointment session, one supplier asked a tour operator what she needed to do get their business, she was told, “I don’t know, my 82-year-old grandmother makes all the decisions.”

Branson, Missouri may be as stale as some of its headline performers. Several operators indicated that the one-time stalwart destination has been much harder to sell in the last few years. The popular musicians and entertainers who a generation ago would segue into a comfortable second career by opening branded Branson dinner theatres now have other options. Today’s nostalgia-afflicted Baby Boomers pay hundreds of dollars to see their favorite acts on tour. Aging stars from decades gone by, some currently in their 70s or 80s can replace the exhausting schedule of  nightly performances at a Branson dinner theatre with part-time touring. While the domestic motorcoach senior market may not be as enthralled with Branson, NAJ has received reports from international inbound receptive operators that the destination is now finding appeal to some of their Irish and German group clients. With a nod to Las Vegas and Orlando, Branson needs to reinvent itself if it is to attract a new generation of tourists.

On the Show Floor:  Lisa Simon’s “retirement,” announced at the end of last month, as president and CEO of NTA, was a topic of conversation with speculation (or is it wishful thinking?) that it may open the door a little wider for a combined ABA/NTA Show. The same executive search firm engaged for executive director for Tourism Cares, which is NTA’s charitable organization based near Boston, has been retained by NTA to recruit a new CEO. That search led to Mike Rea, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he was a senior program officer. Rea succeeded Bruce Beckham, who retired after more than a dozen years with Tourism Cares.

 Putting Lipstick on a Pig: One sign that the motorcoach industry has emerged from the recession is that more DMOs and suppliers were willing to invest in exhibit booth space — about 30% more floor space than 2013, according to ABA President Peter Pantuso. A big splash was made by the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud Show in the Smoky Mountains of Pigeon Forge, Tenn.  Characters dressed as archetypes of toothless hill country folk complete with a pig on a rope strolled the Marketplace while an enormous screen looped video from their show; they did a masterful job of promoting hillbilly culture.

Warning! Grazing For Comfort Food at ABA Could Elevate Your Cholesterol: Walking around the exhibit floor, one could sample a wide variety of fat/sugar laden comfort food representing various destinations in one form or another.  At ABA one could savor Wisconsin cheddar and crackers; flavor-infused Spam and Pearsons Salted Nut Rolls from Minnesota; Atlantic City’s sweet-and-salty approach with M&Ms and other assorted candies, displayed alongside New York-sized soft pretzels that delegates could work on as they were waiting to be photographed with Miss America or having their palm read. Meanwhile, visitors could stop by the Circle Michigan booth to snack on candied popcorn; pop a mouth-watering chocolate “bourbon ball” at the Louisville booth; cap it off with a triple scoop of Rocky Road at the Wyndham Ice Cream Shop offering an array of flavors as long as a Baskin Robbins menu.

 In Summation: Overall, our feeling is that the show brimmed with optimism! However, a cautionary note. While prospects for future business from motorcoach operators showed short-term strengths, the reluctance of some operators to try new tour ideas, to adapt to digital technology, to manage succession planning by an aging group of tour company mom and pop owners, will mean more casualties in the medium- to long-term.

NAJ Show Ratings—ABA Marketplace

Metric Rating Comment
Overall Vibe 8 Everyone seemed happy
Buyer Turnout 7 Seemed like few new buyer companies
Education Sessions 8 Numerous, useful digital marketing sessions



NAJ SUMMIT + MICE: Why Attend?


These are questions that operators and attendees ask about  the NAJ Summit + MICE event that will be held December 12-13, 2013, at the Wyndham Bonnet Creek in Orlando.


Q: Why are you holding NAJ’s RTO Summit+MICE?
A: We want to help receptive operators sell more high margin MICE product—international inbound meetings, incentives, conventions and events—which is a segment of the industry that grew by 68 percent last year alone. Currently, RTOs concede much of that business to American Express and other corporate travel specialists because they don’t know how to sell or service it, and they lack product knowledge.  As the system operates now, RTOs react to RFPs from international clients, and end up getting into “bake-offs” in which they believe the lowest price wins the business. Price alone is not the key factor; the MICE segment is a business driven by creativity, service and product knowledge in which a unique confidence in execution is paramount.

Q: How will you accomplish this?
A: First, we are inviting all RTOs to participate in the December 12 seminar presentations where we will have panels and experts who understand how to sell and work with international MICE.  Second, we want to build an event that will help RTOs be more proactive than reactive in pursuing this business.  This means helping RTOs learn about new products by allowing each seller a three-minute presentation, as well as asking each destination to bring a calendar of its 2014-15 conventions, meetings and festivals that might appeal to international audiences. Third, it means having the panelists help resolve and understand the inherent conflicts that arise when RTOs use their inventory to sell around hotel blocks, which infuriates conventions because they fear attrition penalties.

Q: Do you have any examples?
A: Everyone fantasizes about MICE being about money’s-no-object incentive tours in which Lady Gaga performs two songs for a group of 100 Russian oligarchs coming to Palm Springs. But that’s too limiting. An example: Based on the products they learn about at RTO Summit, receptive operators can develop  low cost supplemental brochures—or an area of their website—that include lists of events that their clients can sell around. One of those events might be a meeting in Illinois at which new research about techniques to “dry” farm tomatoes are unveiled. This niche may result in several small groups signing up to attend and—since if they’re traveling all that way–they might want to wrap a week or two of leisure around the program, either as a group or FIT. RTOs are already selling in multiple countries; by increasing the number of products they offer they will stand out from competitors.

Q: Why is NAJ doing this event?
A: We are passionate about the Receptive Operator channel. For ten years we have been producing the NAJ Summits in California and New York, the portal site,, which includes the world’s only directory of RTOs  searchable by languages spoken in their office and the NAJ TRAX™ Room Night Production Reports, which has tracked and analyzed room night sales in 103 North American destinations since 2006.

Q: What Are the Benefits to RTOs?
•    Meet new suppliers and destinations that can help develop new products
•    Find out What’s New and share it with your colleagues
•    Forge new relationships that can help solve problems in the future
•    Learn how to sell more higher margin MICE travel
•    Increase RFQ conversions
•    Convenience–meet new people and form relationships without having to leave Florida

Q: Who Should Attend From My Office?
•    Ad Hoc and Escorted Groups staff
•    Product Managers
•    FIT Managers
•    Fly-Drive Specialists




 Wyndham Grand, Orlando

December 12-13, 2013:


Receptive operators will choose whom they wish

to meet as sellers audition for additional appointments.




December 12

PROVISIONAL PROGRAM:  (I=Invited, C=Confirmed)


9:00-9:20 am:  Why MICE  is Becoming Important part of the Future of Int’l Pow Wow:  Malcolm Smith, (C) VP, General Manager, IPW, US Travel (C)

9:20-10:30 am: How Can Receptive Sell More MICE Products?  Panel of Suppliers and Destinations discuss their ideas as to how RTOs can sell more MICE products to their international clients—Panelists: Christopher Ley, Director of MICE, San Francisco Travel (C);  Rebecca Peyton, Senior Manager of Sales, International and Incentive. Conference & Meeting Venues, Universal Studios (I);  Carla Dunn, Director of Global Transient Sales, Wyndham (I)

10:30-10:50 am: Break

10:50-11:10 am: Panel of Prominent Receptive operators discuss the most important elements of selling MICE through RTOs—Panelists:  Fritz Lehman, General Manager, Kuoni Destinations (I);  Steve Skidgel,  Director of Groups, Tourico Holidays; Gabi Padilla, Head of Groups,  Meeting Point InternationalLuiz Matta, President, ICG North America

11:10-11:30 am: Using LinkedIn to network and prospect for new clients..  Mya Surrency, (C) Partner, Smith and Surrency.

11:30-12:00noon: Outlook For the Industry: Jake Steinman, NAJ Group President, in conversation with  Uri Argov, President and CEO, Tourico Holidays


THE LUNCH:   Sponsored by the Orlando CVB (logo)



The “audition” format allows RTOs to see “what’s new” from all of our suppliers and schedule additional appointments with those they have the most interest in. 


How will it work? Buyers and Sellers will each pre-select 10 companies prior to the show that will form the foundation of their appointment schedule. Sellers who have MICE product will “AUDITION” for additional appointments by making a 3-minute presentation (10 slides which advance every 20 seconds)to buyers about their MICE capabilities and products. Buyers will then select five additional suppliers from auditions and a hand-fill-in session for sellers will take place for any open appointments on the morning of December 13th. Note: This is open to the first 40 suppliers who have MICE product.  Currently there are just 13 spots left.


Each Seller will be required to bring the following:

  •  A calendar of MICE-oriented events, conventions, festivals in their destinations around which RTO’s can wrap leisure components.
  • Three new ideas/features/or products that operators may not be aware of so they can get updated in one place.


THE PARTY:  Opening Reception sponsored by Wyndham

December 13, 2013

THE BREAKFAST: Sponsored by  Visit St. Pete/Clearwater and Tampa CVB

THE MORNING MARKETPLACE-SESSION ONE:  17 ten-minute appointment sessions

THE LUNCHEON: Sponsored by Choose Chicago- Hosts of IPW 2014

THE AFTERNOON MARKETPLACE: 17 ten-minute appointment sessions


For more information, contact Jake Steinman (415) 339-0578.