Surf Or Turf? Move Into Selling Tours
by Maria Lenhart /

This is part one of a series on making the most of the burgeoning tour segment.

With interest in experiential travel on the rise and agent commissions holding steadier than in other segments, the time is clearly right for travel sellers to set their sights on building tour business.
“We see tours rapidly becoming more important to agents,” said Suzanne Hall, senior director-land supplier partnerships for Ensemble Travel Group.

“With the NCFs (non-commissionable fees) coming from the cruise industry, tours are where the money is. And consumers are driving the move toward tours as well.”

Travel Market Report spoke with travel sellers with a long history of success in the tour arena for their tips on getting the most out of this potentially lucrative segment.

#1. You have to be in it, to win it: consider selling tours
Among agents experiencing a pronounced shift from cruise to tour business is Michelle Duncan, president and CEO of Odyssey Travel in Centreville, Va.

“Cruise has always been my bread and butter, but recently tours have jumped from 5% to 30% of my business,” said Duncan, a member of NEST and The Affluent Traveler Collection.

“There’s an explosion of people wanting in-depth experiences. And I haven’t seen tour companies hitting us below the belt the way the cruise lines are.”

#2. Use your consortium resources
These days there is a tour product to suit practically every taste, whether it’s a traditional escorted coach tour or a one-of-a-kind bespoke experience for a solo traveler.

A good place to start shifting through the hundreds of options is with your agency group or consortium, which typically vet suppliers for reliability.

“Just as consumers are faced with a flood of information on the Internet, so are agents when they go to look for suppliers,” said Hall. “We help cut through the clutter.”

Agency groups can also facilitate connections with tour companies that an individual agency might otherwise never know about, according to Tony Cardoza, president of Cardoza-Bungey Travel in Palo Alto, Calif., a Virtuoso agency.

“For example, through Virtuoso we found a vendor in Italy who was able to get our clients special access to the statue of David,” he said. “People want extraordinary experiences—and we need to know who in the location can make them happen.”

#3. Work with preferred suppliers
Paul Seiferth, owner of Terra Travel, a Signature agency in Phoenix, recommends channeling as much business as possible through tour companies that have preferred supplier relationships with his consortium.

“Getting more business to preferred suppliers results in higher commissions for us,” he said. “Of course, if a client insists on a non-preferred supplier, we will comply.”

#4. Any client is a tour candidate
Who among your existing clients is a tour candidate? The answer: don’t rule out anyone.

Even honeymooners are potential tour customers, according to Sandy Anderson, president of Riverdale Travel Leaders in Coon Rapids, Minn. Anderson recently matched a couple in their 30s with an escorted tour.

“Honeymooners are a good market for tours – some don’t want the hassle of traveling on their own,” Anderson said.

With more tour operators courting the family market, Anderson has also found a multitude of possibilities for multi-generational vacations that offer great flexibility for affluent grandparents seeking memorable experiences for their children and grandchildren.

#5. Get feedback
While the vetting agency groups do of suppliers is valuable, feedback from clients and other agents about their experiences is also important.

If Duncan isn’t familiar with a tour company or local vendor, she finds it invaluable to consult with other agents, including through such sources as a discussion forum provided by NEST.

“You must have feedback from someone who has experienced it. Never think you know it all,” she said.
#6. Reach out to BDMs
While it’s helpful when tour BDMs take the initiative in reaching out to agents, the relationship is a two-way street, according to Duncan.

“When agents complain that their BDMs don’t call, I remind them that your finger isn’t broken – you can call too,” she said.

“Agency owners and agents need to engage their BDMs, especially if they want to branch out.”

#7. Pick a specialty
Developing a specialty is better than being a generalist because most clients who choose an agent over booking online are seeking expert knowledge of destinations and tour products, said Hall.

“You want to become really knowledgeable about a destination and a travel style such as adventure or luxury,” she said.

“These days understanding the nuances is important, along with developing a close relationship with partners in your specialty.

#8. Up the upsell
In making the most of each transaction, whether its tour or cruise, Silvestri never hesitates to suggest adding a pre- or post-trip option.

If the pre- or post-packages are sold out, she arranges her own extensions for clients.
“Whatever you add on to the tour is going to be commissionable, whether it’s an extension or travel insurance,” she said.

#9. Educate clients on the realities
Clients sometimes need to be educated about the advantages of tours, particularly those features that may initially look like disadvantages.

Lisa Silvestri, owner of Silvestri Travel in Sarasota, Fla., found this out when clients balked at some of the early morning departures required on a three-week Italy tour she led.

“I pointed out that the reason you get up at the crack of dawn is that it’s the way you can see places before they get overrun with hordes of visitors,” said Silvestri, a member of  NEST and The Affluent Traveler Collection.

“We were able to explore Pompeii when only 35 people were there. Getting up early is well worth it.”

#10. Get familiar
Taking advantage of tour operators’ educational opportunities—everything from webinars to fam trips—is essential, said Anderson, who recently returned from a Globus Fam to Cuba.

“The trip was very valuable,” she said. “I encourage agents to take fams as much as they can, although it’s not always easy to take the time and the air component can be expensive.”

Cruise has always been my bread and butter, but recently tours have jumped from 5% to 30% of my business. There’s an explosion of people wanting in-depth experiences. And I haven’t seen tour companies hitting us below the belt the way the cruise lines are.

Michelle Duncan, Odyssey Travel