After Sheila Katz’s husband died of a degenerative nervous system disease in April, she knew she had to go. But her husband had been her travel partner and without him she was hesitant to travel alone. The ever-changing travel rules of the pandemic were also intimidating. So Ms. Katz, 45, did something she’d never done before: she went on a group tour.
“I didn’t want to be all alone, but also be able to do my own thing when I wanted to,” she said. So in July, she joined a group of 17 fully vaccinated travelers heading to Belize with… EF Go Ahead Tours, made friends while snorkeling, visited Mayan ruins, and took chocolate and tortilla making classes.
Solo travelers like Ms. Katz participate in tours at unprecedented rates, tour operators say, with some companies reporting single bookings 300 percent higher than those of couples, families or groups of friends. The majority of these solo travelers have never taken a group tour. After years of planning their own trips and traveling alone or with a partner, the pandemic – with its months of isolation and its Byzantine travel rules for testing, masks and vaccination – has prompted them to change their way of life.
Ms. Katz, a sociology professor at the University of Houston, had just gone through the tenure review process, while also going through her grief. She was exhausted and had no interest in dissecting border rules or stressing over possible exposure to the coronavirus. Before her trip to Belize, everyone in the group had to be vaccinated, which took a proverbial burden off her shoulders.
“If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I probably would have spent seven days lying on a Caribbean beach,” she said.
‘Even individual travelers sometimes want to travel with people’
The National Tour Association, a professional tour operator organization, said the group travel industry as a whole has yet to recover from the pandemic’s blow to its business. “Half of our tour operators don’t expect their business to outperform 2019 statistics until 2023,” said Bob Rouse, NTA vice president of communications.
But even before the pandemic, group travel gained a foothold among two key demographics: women and millennials. Travel companies specifically targeting women are up 230 percent in the past six years, as a slew of new travel start-ups including AvantStay and TRIPS through the Culture Trip, have grown through marketing to those born after 1980.
Women’s interest in group travel is perhaps most striking. Katalina Mayorga, the director of El Camino Travel, which offers small-group travel for women, says revenue for the fourth quarter of 2021 is 200 percent higher than the same period in 2019, and 65 percent of those who book are doing so as solo travelers. Contik‘s customers skewed 60 percent female. Allison Scola, founder of Experience Sicily, says solo women on her tours now make up 66 percent of the guests, while at Industravels, now 80 percent of customers who book places for individual travelers are women. Ninety percent of Indus’ customers book for the first time this year.
“Even solo travelers sometimes want to travel with people, especially people they have something in common with,” said Amanda Black, the 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 she stopped at the start of the pandemic, saying the number of bookings has been steadily rising.
After months of isolation, it seems that many women miss socializing.
“I live alone, so it’s been a lot of time alone,” says Jes Maxfield, 34, a Boston customer service manager 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 sisterhood had developed. “It was really nice to meet so many like-minded women and share a beautiful place with them,” she said.
The idea of safety in numbers also plays a role. “Walking through the woods alone isn’t exactly the safest thing to do,” says Emily Cardona, 36, a New Yorker who has spent the past 18 months with out there, a New York City travel company. The trips were a refuge, she said, from the stress of her two jobs as a senior care manager and mental health therapist.
The millennial connection
“It’s almost as if the difficulties of travel during the pandemic helped millennials get over the idea that group travel isn’t cool,” said Tara Cappel, the founder and CEO of FTLO Travel, where 2022 bookings are up 225 percent from 2019. FTLO caters to 20- and 30-somethings, and new customers — many of those joining solo — now make up 82 percent of those bookings; 75 percent of travelers booking for 2022 are women.
In many cases, the shift to millennial-focused marketing is redefining the idea of what it means to travel on an organized trip in the first place.
“It was very intimate, and we looked like some friends on a trip,” said Autumn Lewis, a Los Angeles attorney who took her first-ever group tour, a trip to Greece run by tripsha, in July. “It’s not like having an experience where you just follow the guy with the umbrella.”
The solo travel trend of the pandemic is not limited to tour groups. Solo air bookings have generally increased, with orbitz report that single round-trip tickets are up 200 percent over the past Labor Day weekend from last year. In recent years, it’s been difficult to analyze whether those tickets were travelers-only or flying for business only, but since business travel is still slow, 2021 is an exception, said Mel Dohmen, senior brand manager for Orbitz.
And while there’s no definitive way to track how many of those individual travelers are joining groups at their destinations, tour operators are reporting big growth in their overseas destinations.
Bee Devour Tours, which organizes culinary walking tours across Europe, 22 percent of bookings this summer were for just one person, more than double what it was in the same period in 2019.
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which offers small-group travel for travelers 50 and older, has seen a 7 percent increase in the percentage of solo bookings since the start of the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of their individual travelers are women.
The new allure 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 chief executive of the United States Tour Operators Association.
Like travel agents, which are also enjoying a resurgence in popularity, much of that value comes when a traveler can delegate the pandemic mental load: Which vaccine card is valid? What day should I do my PCR test?
But after months of isolation, the group tour’s biggest draw is perhaps the most obvious: It comes with a built-in community.
“Women who have booked tours with us have certainly done so because they want someone who can navigate the Covid restrictions. But there are a number of other motivations,” said Meg Jerrard, co-founder of Solo Female Travelers, which organizes small-group tours for women. Safety is a big concern, she said, and “the stigma of being alone is another major motivator.”
Mrs. Katz, the widow in Texas, had expected that for some of the meals on her tour, people would go out and do their own thing. She was wrong.
“Our guides had to do their best because we all wanted to have all our meals together,” she said. “I think we were all so thankful we weren’t sitting in our living rooms staring at the wall.”
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