TOPICS > Economy

On the Road?

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: This week, the busy summer travel season entered full swing. But in the 12 months since last Memorial Day, the industry has been shaken by a soft economy, and stirred by the September 11 attacks; jittery travelers stayed home.

Now, business and leisure travelers are slowly returning to hotels, resorts, and beaches from California to Cape Cod. Is it the return of the old- fashioned summer vacation? Here to talk about that we have Sandra Hughes, Vice President of Travel for AAA.; Mark Orwoll, Managing Editor of Travel and Leisure Magazine; and Kathy Sudeikis, Executive Vice President of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Sandra Hughes, are people traveling again?

SANDRA HUGHES: Yes, people are traveling again, especially for leisure, for vacations. I think it’s just something Americans feel is their right to do and there’s… it seems apparently there’s some pent-up demand and we’re seeing people get back on the road and back a airplanes again.

GWEN IFILL: AAA took a survey about this just before Memorial Day. Did it show any difference in how people are traveling and where they’re traveling to?

SANDRA HUGHES: Yes. While auto travel has always been the primary way people go on vacations it’s going to be even more so this summer. We’re seeing a slightly more people traveling by car than have ever done before.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Orwoll, are they also traveling by train? Do people seem to be staying away from airports?

MARK ORWOLL: Well indeed there are a lot of people traveling by train; in the northeast corridor travel is up by 1 to 2 percent in the past six months. But the place where travelers are going to notice the biggest difference since the events of September 11, of course, is going to be at the nation’s airports where the lines are long, the tempers are sometimes short, and patience is the word of the day.

GWEN IFILL: You’re saying inconvenience may be a bigger deterrent to travel than cost even.

MARK ORWOLL: Well, indeed it is, although cost is certainly a factor. Let’s face it. The economic situation that this country has been in for the last six to eight months or longer has had a great impact on people’s plans. Their leisure travel sometimes takes a back seat to the realities of their own family’s economy.

GWEN IFILL: Kathy Sudeikis, do people travel far now if they’re traveling again or are they sticking pretty much close to home?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: I think they’re going great distances if their family and friends are great distances. That’s one of the first places that they’re heading is somewhere where they can reconnect with all old friends and with family members in every part of the United States — or going together on a cruise ship. And the cruise ships have come to the United States in the ports all up and down the East Coast and the West Coasts of the United States and aren’t just staying in Florida. You can find a cruise now that you can drive to real easily if you were anywhere except the Midwest of course from Boston, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charlestown, Port Canaveral, and on the other side, Tampa, Galveston, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and Seattle.

GWEN IFILL: What about all those cheap airfare deals we saw last winter to Europe?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: Well, the Europe airfares are not that low for the summer months but we anticipate that they will be low again come September. You can start looking for those fairly shortly in the future. But summer, they’re hoping to have some substantial business to the summer. If they don’t, I think you’ll see those airfares driving more customers in the door of travel agencies to talk about Europe for the summer.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Orwoll, you talked about whether it’s the economy or inconvenience. Has the economy been the driving force here? We all tracked what happened with the economy last year. Are people simply staying home because they fear attack? I mean, how much does September 11 play a role, I guess, in how much…

MARK ORWOLL: I don’t want to get the misimpression that people are staying home. In fact, more people are going to be traveling this summer, I think it’s 1 percent to 2 percent more this summer than last summer. A greater percentage of them will be traveling by car rather than plane, of course.

I do think that there’s a combination of the concerns over security, safety, inconvenience, and the realities of the economy and whether you can afford it. While people will tell you that airfares are really down compared to last year, the fact is that there are a lot of sales on individual routes that have brought down the average. But if you want to travel to a specific destination on a specific day, the chances are pretty good that your airfare is going to be higher this year than it was last year. That has a real impact on people’s plans, of course.

GWEN IFILL: Sandra Hughes, if everybody is driving where they’re going and they’re trying to stay closer to home and with family, what impact do gas prices have on people’s decision making?

SANDRA HUGHES: Well, gas prices this year are actually a lot less than they were this time last year. We think that probably gas prices may continue to rise until the Fourth of July weekend and then stabilize and come down. I think right now the national average is somewhere around $1.40 a gallon. It could get to $1.50 a gallon by the Fourth of July. But I don’t think that’s going to have an impact on people’s desire to take a trip by car because it didn’t last summer and I don’t think it will this summer either.

GWEN IFILL: Kathy Sudeikis, are you seeing the same thing?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: Yes, but we’re seeing in the travel agency community people coming in and booking vacations where they are flying certainly in the Midwest. And it hasn’t been a walk-away situation at all. We are seeing people both interested in driving, in taking the family, and also that’s the biggest change we’ve seen is no one is leaving anyone behind. They’re taking the entire family.

GWEN IFILL: But do you get phone calls from people who are trying to book trips after they hear about another alert or another warning, say, the Statue of Liberty, canceling their trip saying they’re too nervous and want to stay home now?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: I have to say that this week I’ve been extraordinarily busy just these last two days. And at the end of last week as the alerts were going out, I can’t imagine how quickly people are trying to leave town. I have the editor of a paper leaving on Friday for a trip in the Bahamas. I have people going to Mexico on June 8, going to Germany on June 23. And they’re just dropping everything and doing it at the very last minute when they see a window of opportunity for them to get away. And they’re just not doing what they did in the past years, planning ahead.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s not a collective national crouch, people staying home because of this?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: I don’t think so. And I’m afraid we’re going to have these same kind of warnings as every holiday comes up upon us about our national monuments and things like that. And I wouldn’t want to be cavalier and suggest that they aren’t dangerous, but it’s a very serious situation to stop traveling and to stop the economy. And so people want to do, I think… Sandra Hughes said that people feel like they need to travel and get away and de-stress and connect with families has never been more important than it was brought home to all of us after September 11, and connect with old friends. I mean, there are wonderful trips where girls are going away together and having a long weekend places; the fellows are going golfing. Nothing is really stopping, I’m pleased to say.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Orwoll, which destinations benefit the most when the rebound… if the rebound is coming now and which destinations are the slowest to get back up to speed?

MARK ORWOLL: Well, the slowest destinations are generally ones that have been popular in the past: New York City, Boston, Las Vegas. You can get some great deals in those specific destinations because they have been hurt by the economic downturn somewhat more than other cities. But places like Florida, California, New York State in general, those are top destinations. People want to go there. That’s always been the case, and that’s not changing this summer.

GWEN IFILL: Sandra Hughes, are you hearing the same thing in the study that AAA did?

SANDRA HUGHES: Yes. Orlando continues to be AAA members’ primary destination that they want to take a trip for the summer. However, the other thing that we’re seeing is more people are traveling to national parks and to historic destinations than ever before. So perhaps there is a little more patriotism and desire to stay, to see things that perhaps they haven’t seen in our own country than ever before.

GWEN IFILL: You say you’re seeing travel patriotism?

SANDRA HUGHES: Yes, I think so.

GWEN IFILL: That’s very interesting. Now how about deals? Are there any deals out there, Mark Orwoll, for people who want to make last-minute bookings or try to get out of town?

MARK ORWOLL: There are indeed deals. But it’s going to require you to do a lot more shopping around than you might have had to do in years past. You should go online. You should call up your favorite travel agent. You should talk to your friends. You should sign up for the e-mail newsletters that the airlines and tour operators will send you. You do your homework and you’re bound to come across some good deals.

I should say that you want to be flexible, however. If you can travel one or two days different, if you can travel from a different airport, the chances are that you’ll be able to get the best deal available.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Kathy Sudeikis, let’s talk about that. Does this cost money, then, for… does this cost money, cost travel agents money if indeed people are getting online and beginning to look for themselves and trying to find the best deal?

KATHY SUDEIKIS: Not really. Travel agents have definitely embraced the Internet, Gwen. It’s a mutual win-win situation for all of us. Our customers come to us with a little bit of knowledge about a destination, and they feel really good to have a third party, a travel agent, validate what they’ve found. There are a lot of times that you don’t want to be buying a destination or a hotel in a capital city or in a Caribbean island, for example, just on price. And you don’t want to be choosing a cruise exclusively on price, either, because there are certain demographics about each particular cruise line. And a travel agency and one of your travel agents can really validate that for you and make sure that you’re on the right track and get the vacation you expect.

At ASTA, we say, “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t do some homework on your own and come and let us help you tell you if it’s really a good value because travel agents are all about value, not just an airline ticket anymore.

GWEN IFILL: We have lost Sandra Hughes in Orlando, so let me direct this question to Mark Orwoll, which is: How important is the travel industry as a driver in the economy? How important is it as a segment of the economy if the economy is to come back?

MARK ORWOLL: It’s incredibly important, Gwen. In fact, many states and individual cities rely for tourism receipts for as much as half or more of their revenues. It can mean the success or failure of the livelihoods of millions of people. It’s not just going on vacation, but it is, as you put it, it’s an entire segment of the nation’s economy as an industry. So getting out and traveling is not just an enjoyable thing to do, it’s a patriotic thing to do. It’s a good thing to do for the country and it’s fun.

GWEN IFILL: Whether you’re going to the Grand Canyon or to Las Vegas, right? (Laughter)

MARK ORWOLL: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: It’s still patriotic. Okay. Thank you both very much for joining me, and for Sandra Hughes, also, in Orlando.