In 1980, Sun Tours, an Albuquerque-based tour company, planned its first group trip to the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany.
The Catholic game appears every 10 years; every decade since that initial trip in 1980, Sun Tours has brought a group of young Mexicans to see it.
Except in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the show and dried up Sun Tours’ business.
Like many tourism businesses, Sun Tours failed during the pandemic.
“When we canceled our 100th tour, we stopped counting,” said Frank Fine, the recently retired president of Sun Tours and a business consultant.
But even downsizing to just six employees — less than half the staff they currently have — Sun Tours was able to weather the pandemic. The 44-year-old company, which is once again running domestic bus tours and international tours, is even planning a trip to the late passion game this year.
Despite the end of many pandemic travel restrictions, the challenges haven’t stopped, says general manager and owner Eric Rosenberg. Inflation, flight cancellations and regulatory changes continue to make tour planning more difficult.
“Every day is a little more challenging,” Rosenberg said. “… Lots 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 travel spending in 2022 was higher than spending in 2019.
Rosenberg said that despite greater demand for their services after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, “delivering on their promises” has become more difficult.
Sun Tours plans, prices and books its tours months, or even years, in advance. Recently, many vendors have declined their original prices due to inflation and rising labor costs, Rosenberg says. Because customers have already booked and paid for tours at a fixed price, Sun Tours is left with the bill.
“Our vendors are coming back to us and saying, you know, your bus has gone up 20-30% in your fare because fuel or labor costs have gone 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 have closed — or no longer have the staff to handle large groups.
“The places we’ve relied on for years have changed,” Rosenberg said. “… And now, we promised all our travelers that we’ll have a nice group dinner that night, and so we must regroup.”
A slew of different state and local COVID-19 regulations have also complicated travel. Many national parks, Rosenberg said, have limited visitor centers and limited the number of people who can go to the overlook.
Even getting guests to their destinations has become more difficult. More airlines are canceling and adjusting flights at the last minute, Rosenberg said, which ruins travel plans made well in advance. Recently, Fine and Rosenberg toured Nova Scotia. The airline they were supposed to use changed their arrival time from 5pm to midnight, leaving Sun Tours scrambling to book passengers on a flight to Philadelphia, put them up in a hotel for one night, and was flying to Halifax the next morning.
“It becomes more of a challenge to get your customers from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time,” Rosenberg said. “… It’s especially a headache in some international destinations.”
Rosenberg said merging the airlines together has reduced the number of routes offered and reduced choices for the company. He personally stopped flying between Albuquerque and Tucson, where he owns a second tour business, Pleasurebent Tours. He leads the country.
Rosenberg originally planned to buy the Albuquerque travel company more than two years ago.
“Then COVID hit,” Rosenberg said. “… So we started doing some joint tours together”
He officially bought the business 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, to ever deliver on what we promise because of things that are out of our control, right: airlines and hotels and whatever closings,” Rosenberg said. “But we always manage to pull it off and pull it together for them.”