Programming an Industry Conference When Your Industry Is on the Brink

Creators and sellers of tours, activities, attractions, and experiences are at a crossroads like no other. For Arival 360, we’re going to skip the optimism and pessimism for a big dose of realism.

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Last week I was having a video call with a tour operator owner from Italy, one of many calls I’m having as we prepare for our upcoming virtual conference, Arival 360

“Douglas, give us some good news,” he pleaded. “You have always been so optimistic about our industry, but I don’t see that in you today.”

Staying optimistic during 2020 has not been easy. Here are two representative quotes from my discussions with tour and activity operators over the past few weeks.

“We were down more than 90% this summer, and winter will likely be worse.”

“I’ve pretty much hibernated my business, and I’m not sure if or how to reopen, or when.”

The facts about the industry speak for themselves. This comes from Arival’s Recovery Survey, which will be presented in full at Arival 360:

  • Industry gross bookings (GMV) are down 76% year to date.
  • Half of the businesses were able to open for a truncated July-August summer season.
  • 30% of businesses remain closed.
  • Fewer than two in five are optimistic about their company’s future. 

There has been no starker summary of the situation than the American Bus Association’s Peter Pantuso industry eulogy.

And yet, despite all of this…

Winter is coming. And with it, as I write this one week before Arival 360, Covid-19 case numbers are rising yet again around the world. After travel’s limited summer resurgence, it seems as if there is more uncertainty ahead than ever. 

And yet, amid all of this, there is remarkable resilience within our industry: operators who are determined to see through to the other side. These operators are determined to build better businesses as a result.

“In August, we did about 20% of what did in 2019, which was better than I expected. We had budgeted zero revenue for the rest of 2020.”

“I’m only down 58% this year. I’m pretty happy with that.”

Again, from our forthcoming Recovery Survey:

  • More than half of operators have adapted their products and marketing to serve local and domestic guests.
  • 70% of operators are using the downturn to “spend a lot of time and effort to improve digital marketing, technology, and business processes to prepare for the rebound.”
  • 46% of operators say their business “will survive the pandemic no matter what.”

Operators Are in One of Three Places

Brian Nicholson of Blend Marketing puts tour and activity operators today into one of three groups:

  1. Doing somewhere between OK and very well: There have been narrow pockets of success – even strong growth – as travelers shun classic tours and attractions for outdoor and small-group experiences with a lower risk of COVID exposure. These are operators with strong local or domestic markets and appropriate product fit for the times.
  2. Pivoting and surviving: a much larger subset of operators has made deep cuts in costs and changed up their product mix to suit the current climate, such as the tour operator getting by with private tours, the food tour company cooking up virtual experiences and ingredient boxes, or the bike tour operator shifting to long-term rentals and delivery services. 
  3. Hibernation: For the operator dependent on the inbound international traveler, whether the tour company in Europe specializes in serving American travelers, or the many, many operators in Hawaii, the Caribbean, or other destinations with virtually no local or domestic audience, there are really few options to pivot.

The vast majority of operators are in the latter two groups, and they face a huge question: with a business now a shadow of its former self and a very uncertain 2021 ahead, how long am I going to keep this up? 

An Arival Like No Other

We founded Arival nearly four years ago to advance the business of in-destination experiences and to give this industry a platform – through events, news, and knowledge – to call it’s very own. Our mission had been to accelerate travel’s third-largest sector by fostering digital transformation and innovation.

Our first three years, our first five conferences, were filled with optimism – optimism for an industry long overlooked by the rest of travel. It was an industry coming into its own. 

Our industry consists mostly of small businesses and entrepreneurs. It is nothing if not optimistic. But this year our conference calls for something more. 

Yes, at Arival 360 you can expect success stories, of pivots, of innovation, of determination. But there will also be real conversations about the reality each of us faces.

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From the largest attractions to small businesses and individual tour guides, we all face the same questions: What is my industry outlook? For how long am I prepared to endure? What steps should I be taking right now? Is there a pivot available to me and my business? Should I hibernate and look outside an industry that has been my home?

Beyond Optimism

We have all heard it numerous times from industry CEOs and pundits: “Travel will come back. Travel always comes back.” 

We all know travel will come back. But that’s not the issue. The question is, “when?” And are we prepared to do what it takes to get there? 

The hardest of these questions only you can answer for yourself. But we can all ask them and explore them together. So join us and more than 1,000 of your friends and colleagues from the Best Part of Travel at Arival 360 for five days spread across Oct 26-Nov 5.

Together, let’s forge our way forward. 


There’s still time to join us at more than 1000 leading creators and sellers of tours, activities, attractions, and experiences at Arival 360. Register now with promo code (MKNL36020) to receive a 75% discount and pay as little as $99 for all five days.

We accept fee waiver applications for small operators and individuals who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. There is a link to the application form at the bottom of the registration page.

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