This article is from TMR's upcoming Escorted Tour Operator Report Card for Travel Agents. The report, which will be released in the coming weeks, is the fourth in a series of supplier policy report cards designed as a useful resource for travel professionals.
There are many advantages for travel agents to sell escorted tours or guided vacations. There are challenges, too, but it is worth the effort to surmount them because escorted tour programs are ideal in many ways. The primary challenge for the travel agent is the same as for the tour operator: people don’t know what tour operators do. It’s a problem of education.
“You have to educate them on what an escorted tour is,” said Steve McSwain, owner of Arta Travel in Plano, Texas. “There are common misconceptions, this concept that you’re going to be stuck on a bus and be herded around like cattle and not have a unique experience. Depending on the tour operator, I guess that could be true to an extent. But if it’s not, you can educate them about it, and make them understand that you miss the highlights of a destination by not taking a tour.”
While many people imagine guided touring to be like the 1960s movie “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium,” tour operators have been refining their craft for decades to banish that image from history. They can’t shake it, so the problem of perception remains. And the chosen solution of tour operators is communication through the national network of travel agents.
“We get this sort of pushback all the time about tours,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “Of course, the number one solution is always a basic quality sales process, meaning accept the fact that the concern of fear is there — and real — and work to educate and overcome. People buy from people they trust. You have to build that trust.”
The travel agent is the necessary bridge between the wholesaler and the public.
“Some of the challenges I encounter are normal concerns,” said Claire Schoeder, of Travel Edge in Atlanta. “People ask, ‘Why should the bus be delayed for the same people who are always late?’ I try to find out guidelines from tour companies. Some have rules in place and others say they deal with it if it happens.”
Many choices for group travel
Today, tour packages are available to satisfy any desired degree of independence.
“The primary problem with selling an escorted tour is that people don’t think they have enough free time,” said Beth Baran, owner of Travel Leaders in Mason, Ohio. “You have to explain what the tour is. What’s good about escorted touring is maximizing time in the destination, going to see all the most important highlights in whatever area you are in. You’re not going to have to wait in line to enter any venues because you’ve got agreed-upon entry times.”
“We’re actively engaging with travel agents in order to give them the opportunity to debunk many of the myths associated with guided travel – specifically for those who may be hesitant to take a group tour because it’s too rigid,” said Courtney Iannuccilli, vice president of marketing at Collette. “We also know that the added bonus of having a tour manager far outweighs the benefits of traveling alone. But what many don’t know is how much goes into finding the perfect experiences for our guests.”
Learning about the range of product available is the first step to selling tours. The other basic staple of education is to learn to clearly explain the advantages of group travel over independent travel to a client. Once the initial sale is made, clients tend to lock into return business with some regularity.
“It’s really all about how you make the experience more personal and intimate and offer better service within the movements of a program that happens with others,” said Steve Spivak, vice president of sales for Tauck, the Connecticut-based tour operator. “So for us, so much of it is about the experiential elements of the program and how unique they are and how exclusive they are.”
The prospects for return customers
For tour operators, the big hurdle is getting people to take their first escorted tour. If it is a quality program and well-suited to the client’s preferences, they will discover the many joys of escorted travel and it will wipe away their misconceptions. Their sales resistance will be gone. They will become return customers and will provide what Tauck calls an “annuity.”
But getting them to take that first tour is the most difficult thing.
It is because of this problem that tour operators are among the best industry partners for retail travel agents. The tour segment of the industry is fragmented and highly diverse. Each operator approaches each destination in a highly individual way. No tour operator has any hope of monopolizing a market, as a few airlines have done. Their products are not commodities that are all essentially the same.
The tour operator needs the travel agent to be their reach into the far corners of the U.S., to explain to prospective customers what they actually do. To the tour operator, the travel agent is golden. Tour operators are not looking to cut commissions. They are looking for ways to help agents stay in business because without agents their businesses will die.
The problem is one of education. To partner with tour operators, travel agents need to educate themselves on the different kinds of tour programs that are available so they will know what kind of program would fit a particular client. They need to understand the benefits of group travel, and they have to develop the vocabulary for getting that knowledge across to clients.