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A former CATO board member, JUSTINE WADDINGTON is the founder of award-winning wholesaler Encounter Travel. In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Traveltalk, she discusses the impact of COVID, the growth in solo travel and trends emerging in 2023.

Q: It’s been a difficult few years for the travel industry. Do you see hope on the horizon?

A: As a born optimist – 100 per cent I see the hope. It feels like an awakening; a reminder not to miss out on the joys of living and experiencing our colourful world of travel.

For our clients there’s still a front of mind awareness of COVID and how it can impact travel and there are still some (a small number) not yet prepared to travel outside Australia.

However, overall, I feel our customers understand it’s a part of booking now; acceptance that COVID is here to stay (at least for some time) and it’s a real possibility you may contract it on your travels.

But they are no longer prepared to wait and accept this when they make a travel plan.

Q: What is it about travel that still motivates and excites people?

A: I think motivations can be far and wide but above all, it’s the escapism and excitement of something completely new and away from routine.

For our mature solo travellers, a motivation can come from newly found freedoms; maybe their kids are older and they have less family commitments. Then for many of our travellers that are single parents it’s about creating ‘me time’.

For some it’s something very new to leave home alone and it’s the challenge of going solo for the first time and making sure they don’t miss out just because they don’t have a travel partner.

Q: Are there any travel trends you’re tipping will be popular in 2023?

A: I feel like we’ve only just returned to ‘some kind of normal’ and the patterns aren’t quite there yet.

However, clients are definitely picking up where they left off pre-pandemic and finally departing on missed trips.

Otherwise, the more ‘exotic’ locations seem to be in favour and for us that would be Morocco, Egypt and India. Then, the big trips are getting ticked off the dream list as I feel the pandemic has created a ‘why wait’ state of mind.

Q: AFTA and CATO have announced events aimed at celebrating and encouraging women in travel. Is enough being done to promote and inspire women working in the industry?

A: We need experienced talent to return to our industry and enthusiastic new talent to ease the burdens of the recovery phase and work towards a thriving return of the travel industry in the years to follow.

I think these events help to position our industry as progressive. I think the events that have already been announced are amazing given the demands of our industry and we are all just getting back on our feet.

For myself as a small business owner I seek out the opportunities to connect with my peers in the industry. I always feel like I take away something positive from all industry events but there’s something more from events that celebrate women.

It’s the sense of the power of women and how we can be a major force to shape the positive future of our industry that I feel is very empowering.

Q: You’ve visited more than 60 countries. What destinations are on your bucket list?

A: I had plans in place to get to Malta pre-pandemic – still keen on Malta, especially to visit their island, Gozo. I think Malta would be a nice adjunct to an Italy trip, or other European touring. 

I see Mongolia in my near future; that is exotic to me. Finally, the Stans – I thought I’d be there before now.

Q: Your company specialises in solo travel. Is this as a growing trend?

A: I think the ‘train has left the station’ already and solo travel is soaring to all-time highs.

What is significant is the growth of solo travel among mature aged travellers of 50 and above.

When I started Encounter Travel in 2006 it was such a different landscape for solo travellers. There was a lot more hesitation and a lot more nurturing of our mature customers to get them to the point of making that choice to book a trip on their own.

It’s different now and referral to us from other solo travellers plays a big part in instilling confidence in new solo travellers to join us for their first time.

Q: A lot of travel agents have left the industry. Will they return and how do we encourage new talent?

A: In time, I believe we will see returns to the industry; the travel industry is a stand-out. I didn’t start my career in travel so I can compare to other industries and without question I think our industry ‘rocks’.

It’s the vibe of the industry that will bring them back and of course ‘travel.’ We’re blessed that we all get to think about travel as work and bring the travel dreams of our customers to life.

Justine_Japan January 2023