In coaching the saying is “never follow a legend,” and many who have ignored the advice have had relatively short tenures. In the arena of travel-related associations, Terry Dale has turned the trick twice, first Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) where he took the reigns from Jim Godsman and more recently at United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) after the passing of Robert Whitley. Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan recently visited Dale at USTOA’s new New York offices to find out his secret formula and get an update on how his eclectic group of travel providers is creating elite traveler experiences.
ET: Can you give us an overview of USTOA?
Terry Dale: We have a very diverse membership—selling travel from group, escorted and guided to FIT (independent) to educational and academic travel and cruise operators. Each year our members provide great travel experiences for 11 million customers and generate $9 billion in sales. We have 44 corporate members and with150 brands. We have over 700 partner members, including airlines, car rental companies, hotels and ground service providers.
ET: What’s USTOA’s mission?
Terry Dale: USTOA’s motto is “Integrity in Tourism” and we require members to adhere to the highest standards in the industry, including ethical conduct, disclosing all facts, conditions and requirements relating to tours and vacation packages truthfully and accurately. We require members to advertise and quote prices, which are totally deliverable; accurately identify facilities, accommodations and services; and communicate any substitutions. Members must also demonstrate ethical and financial responsibility in their business conduct. Additionally, we educate the travel industry, government agencies, and the public about tours, vacation packages, and tour operators; protect consumers and travel agents from financial loss in the event of an Active Member’s bankruptcy, insolvency or cessation of business, and foster a high level of professionalism within the tour operator industry. As an organization and as members we also facilitate tourism development on a worldwide basis.
ET: Do any members cater to private jet travelers?
Terry Dale: I would say about 20 percent of our members have products and programs that would appeal to the super-rich audience. Avanti, as an example, has a strong emphasis on Latin America, particularly Peru and Ecuador. Cox and Kings does a lot of high-end programs and I know has quite a few celebrity client and is well know for Africa and India. Wendy Wu, as an example, does high-end customized experiences to China where you can have private tours of museums or a dinner on the Great Wall. Swain does extraordinary experiences to New Zealand and Australia and recently had an experience that was selling for $98,000 per person, and I know they can handle any request.
ET: Are there any major new initiatives you’ve launched?
Terry Dale: We just had our first Congressional Caucus and for the first time in history we hired a lobbyist. We had our first meeting as an association with the Department of Transportation. They are writing regulations on a daily basis that impact our members. There had always been talk about government affairs, but if you’re serious it takes time. The goal is to educate them before they write regulations that impact us. We also wanted to discuss Cuba—people want to travel there but it is a challenging process to get a license.
ET: Was there any particular strategy?
Terry Dale: (Former Massachusetts Speaker of the House) Tip O’Neil used to say all politics is local. So we broke into teams with members from different states splitting up and spent the afternoon on the Hill to begin building a base of awareness so when the time comes we don’t have to go scrambling. You want to be strategic in how you approach it—it’s filled with landmines and you can do more harm than good.
ET: Are there any key messages you wanted to deliver?
Terry Dale: Over 50 percent of members added jobs in 2011 and 45 percent plan to add jobs in 2012 so we have a good positive message that our members are adding jobs.
ET: Is there a good reason to use a tour operator instead of going direct?
Terry Dale: Time is a precious commodity. Do you want you or your assistant to be calling castles all over the world? And what about the castle right down the road that is even better for what you want. Our members have inventory, experience and relationships.
ET: What are the hot destinations that should be on the flight plans for elite travelers?
Terry Dale: Ecuador—the Galapagos islands is like passing back in time, and Quito to the rain forest. Vietnam, China, Ecuador and Brazil were at the top of our member survey
ET: Tourism is in many ways is a big picture industry, isn’t it?
Terry Dale: Our members have a commitment to recovery tourism, so there is a strong sense of commitment to Egypt and Japan. Tourism is an important, fast way to bring back the economy—when I was with NYC & Co. (The New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau) after 911 I remember our friends from around the world who reached out to help us.
ET: Tell us a bit about your background?
Terry Dale: The funny thing is I was born and raised on a farm in Iowa. Our major vacation was to go the Iowa State Fair. I did an internship at the Cedar Rapids CVB and saw what tourism could do, even for a small Iowa community, if the community embraces tourism. I ended up in Providence, Rhode Island, and thought I was going to stay a couple years but stayed for a decade, then decided I was going to go to New York with no job. I ended up working with an investment banker who was trying to get the Olympics for New York and from there ended up at NYC & Co. for six years. I got a call from a recruiter about the CLIA job. I said this is going to be your shortest call of the day. I’ve never been on the cruise and I have no desire to go on one. He said you might be the perfect candidate, and I ended up there from seven and a half years. It’s a phenomenal industry, but at some point the members said why should we have the office in New York when we are mainly all based in South Florida. We moved but I wanted to come back to New York.
ET: What’s your advice for replacing a legend?
Terry Dale: I don’t think about it. I think it’s about fresh eyes, and taking a solid foundation and thinking about what is the evolution not merely executing. Have we considered this or that? I have tremendous admiration for my predecessors. They accomplished amazing things. For me, hopefully it’s about helping the organizations and their members grow.
ET: Many times companies or groups say they want change, but really don’t?
Terry Dale: I spent awhile interviewing with the USTOA board. We not only wanted to see if there was a culture match, but was there truly a desire for change. You’re right, people often say they want change and they don’t, but I came away thinking this board is truly open to change, so it is recognizing a good company or organization has to always rethink and re-imagine what they are doing. Change for the sake of change is not good change either.
ET: What do you like to do when you have spare time?
Terry Dale: Read a book and relax, I like broader experiences through people I meet.
ET: Any recent memorable trips?
Terry Dale: Ecuador was amazing—in the main square in Quito, we were having drinks in a hotel across from the cathedral where we were going to have dinner. All of a sudden we were taken by locals dressed in native costumers and led across the square through two lines of children holding candles with their families behind them. You looked into their faces and my heart melted. Then I did a Helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef after going snorkeling. What an amazing experience.
ET: Any advice for readers who may want to buy a travel company?
Terry Dale: Make sure you hire extremely talented individuals from the travel industry to guide your investment.
ET: Can USTOA help readers who are looking for advice on members who can help with their travel needs?
Terry Dale: We can help guide consumers to our members who are best able to help meet their needs.