In 1980, Sun Tours, an Albuquerque-based tour company, planned their first group trip to Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.
The Catholic play occurs every 10 years; every decade since that first trip in 1980, Sun Tours has brought a group of New Mexicans to see it.
Except in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the play and dried up business for Sun Tours.
Like many tourism businesses, Sun Tours has failed during the pandemic.
“When we canceled our 100th tour, we stopped counting,” said Frank Fine, recently retired president of Sun Tours and a consultant to the company.
But, even reduced to just six employees – less than half the staff they currently have – Sun Tours has been able to ride out the pandemic. The 44-year-old company, which is once again running national and international coach tours, is even planning a trip to the delayed Passion Play this year.
Despite the end of many pandemic travel restrictions, the challenges have not ceased, says CEO and owner Eric Rosenberg. Inflation, flight cancellations and regulatory changes continue to make travel planning more difficult.
“Every day is a little harder,” Rosenberg said. “…A lot of moving targets there.”
According to the US Travel Association, in June 2022, travel spending was the highest since the start of the pandemic – the third month in a row that 2022 travel spending exceeded that of 2019.
Rosenberg said that despite increased demand for their services after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, “keeping their promises” has become more difficult.
Sun Tours plans, prices and books its tours months or even years in advance. Lately, many vendors have waived their original prices due to inflation and rising labor costs, Rosenberg says. Because customers have already booked and paid for the tours at a fixed price, Sun Tours ends up with the bill.
“Our suppliers come back to us and tell us, you know, your rate for your coach is up 20 to 30 percent because fuel or labor costs are up,” Rosenberg said. “…So we have to absorb a lot of the other costs.”
Rosenberg said many of the hotels and restaurants that Sun Tours relied on had closed — or no longer had the staff to handle large groups.
“The sites we’ve relied on for years have changed,” Rosenberg said. “…And now we’ve promised all of our travelers that we’ll have a nice group dinner that night, and so we have to regroup.”
A patchwork of different state and country COVID-19 regulations has also complicated travel. Many national parks, Rosenberg said, have restricted visitor centers and limited the number of people who can go to viewpoints.
Even getting guests to their destination has become more difficult. More and more airlines are canceling and adjusting last-minute flights, Rosenberg said, wreaking havoc on travel plans made well in advance. Recently, Fine and Rosenberg toured Nova Scotia. The airline they were supposed to use changed the arrival time from 5 p.m. to midnight, leaving Sun Tours to rush to book passengers on a flight to Philadelphia, put them up in a hotel for one night and take him to Halifax the next morning.
“It’s getting harder to get your customers from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time,” Rosenberg said. “…It’s particularly a headache on some international destinations.”
Rosenberg said the airline merger has reduced the number of routes offered and narrowed the choices for the business. He personally stopped flying between Albuquerque and Tucson, where he owns a second tour company, Pleasurebent Tours. He drives instead.
Rosenberg originally planned to buy the Albuquerque travel agency more than two years ago.
“Then COVID hit,” Rosenberg said. “…So we started doing joint tours together”
He officially bought the company just three months ago.
Fine and Rosenberg are working harder to keep their clients happy in the face of uncertainty.
“It’s a challenge, of course, sometimes to keep what we promise because of things that are beyond our control, right: the airlines and the hotels and whatever the closure is,” said Rosenberg. “But we always manage to get out of it and pull ourselves together for them.”