SBJ/May 13 - 19, 2002/Marketingsponsorship

‘Variables are working against us’ in World Cup travel package biz

The president of Miami-based Soccer Vacations says aftershocks of Sept. 11 terrorism continue to be felt in the sports travel industry on the eve of World Cup 2002.

Antonio Paz, who founded his agency in 1986, estimates bookings for World Cup packages among U.S. fans might be more than 80 percent below pre-Sept. 11 projections.

"We are booking packages for between 100 and 120 passengers from the U.S.," Paz said. "Before 9/11, we were expecting 500 to 750 passengers. Right now, this is not the best business. All of the variables are working against us."

Soccer Vacations is the official travel packager of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

This year's World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, was certain to be challenging for travel packagers regardless of global events, mainly because of high air fares and great distances to Asia from soccer-loving nations in Europe, Central America and South America. Closer to home, the combination of high travel costs combined with U.S. economic instability, and the American public's fear of language barriers, has proved nearly insurmountable.

"We're doing more business outside the U.S. than in the U.S.," said Paz, noting that his agency is fulfilling packages for 600 customers for the Mexican soccer federation's travel agency and 200 packages for groups out of Costa Rica.

A two-week package deal for the U.S. national team's three first-round games, beginning with a June 5 opener against Portugal in Suwon, South Korea, is $3,500. That covers air travel, hotel nights, ground transfers, match tickets and entertainment. Most U.S. customers select this package, although it can leave fans scrambling if the U.S. team advances beyond the first round. A few customers have bought the full, 30-night Cup package, which carries a price tag between $15,000 and $20,000 depending on hotel selection.

Typically, customers are drawn from corporations sending groups as part of sales incentive programs, or from hard-core organizations such as the well-documented U.S. soccer fan club, Sam's Army. For the 1998 World Cup in France, Paz said, 90 percent of his customers were corporations, compared with 5 percent this time. Sam's Army members bought more than 300 packages to travel to France four years ago. In 2002, 18 are booked thus far.

Sam's Army co-founder Mark Spacone says around 300 members are planning to be in Korea, but most are cutting costs with Internet air fares and hotel alternatives such as host family programs in private residences.

Paz said he realized packages to Korea would be a tough sell as early as January, when he'd sold zero with fewer than five months to go. It was then that he unloaded hotel rooms to avoid cancellation penalties.

  INTO THE POOL: Korea is hosting the World Cup finals for the first time in its history, but years of planning, stadium construction and promotion do not a soccer-frenzied nation make.

As co-hosting nations, Japan and Korea were allotted about 788,000 tickets each — half of the total of 3.15 million. Japan sold out, but Korea recently returned an estimated 160,000 to the worldwide online sales pool.

 FOOT NOTES: United Airlines spokesman Chris Brathwaite reports an average of 1,300 people are visiting the company's online World Cup auction page (united.com/auctions) daily. Members of the airline's Mileage Plus program, at least those able and willing to bid a minimum of 300,000 frequent-flier points, can vie for tickets, hotel nights and two business-class round-trips to the Cup's semifinal and final phases. The top seven bids prevail. United recently joined the sponsors of official site fifaworldcup.com. ... Korea's Ministry of Construction and Transportation clearly envisions traffic woes for World Cup visitors and is trying to reduce highway volume. According to the Korea Herald, five Cup host cities, including heavily congested Seoul, will use an odd-even system to keep cars off the roads. The last number of auto license plates will determine days on which vehicles will remain parked.

Steve Woodward can be reached at SteveWoodwardHere@hotmail.com.

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