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How to Become a Successful Tour Operator in The Digital Age: 6 Steps

How to Become a Successful Tour Operator: 6 Steps

Tour and activity operators don't organize travel packages. They create authentic experiences that travelers won't find in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Sure, competition is tough, but there's money to be made. Experts predict that tour operator revenue in the United States will total $6.573 billion by the year 2022.

However, only the best tour companies—the ones who capitalize on the latest digital trends—will thrive in this ever-competitive industry.

Here are six tour operator marketing tips for the digital age.

1. Know What Makes You Unique

Whether you specialize in ziplines, adventure parks, rentals, tours or activities, you need a niche—something that will separate you from your competitors. 

If other operators organize wine tours in Napa County, do things differently. Think of a twist on the conventional Californian wine trail, for example. Or what about luxury train packages that chug through the Rockies? Or spectacular whale sightseeing tours in the Pacific Northwest?

Millennials, in particular, crave unique experiences. They want to live like locals. This means staying in unusual neighborhoods, not the city center. This means local tours, local food, local people.

Armed with their smartphones, almost everyone can get to the Trevi Fountain in Rome or Empire State Building in New York City. But only a tour guide can introduce travelers to that unique neighborhood on the outskirts of the city—the place where tourists seldom visit.

It's impossible to know every single neighborhood in every single city, of course. Working with a destination marketing organization (DMO) proves useful here.

Research shows that 90 percent of travelers want to make "memories" on vacation instead of acquiring "things." Moreover, 91 percent seek out local experiences, so double down on these. Combine local accommodation, food, and tours for a truly immersive experience.

2. Research Your Target Market

Not everyone wants to experience the same thing from their vacation, so research your ideal customer and target your tours to your chosen demographic. If you already know who to target, research the customer journey—the steps your customers take when researching, planning, and, finally, booking tours.

Determine your audience persona—their age, their background, their interests, motivations, their inspirations. What do these travelers want from one of your tours?

The customer journey can be a long process for some. In fact, a traveler's journey can have between 70-800 touchpoints over a 1-7 month period, while one in five travelers don't even know where they want to go when they start searching for a vacation.
An example of a customer's path to purchase, from dreaming to planning to booking.

The customer journey can be a long process for some. In fact, a traveler's journey can have between 70-800 touchpoints over a 1-7 month period, while one in five travelers don't even know where they want to go when they start searching for a vacation.

As a tour operator, it's your job to move these customers through your sales and marketing funnels and create authentic tour experiences that suit their personality, lifestyle, and budget.

3. Cover All Your Bases

Creating unique experiences is the fun part, but there's a lot of other stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef possible.

As a tour operator, you are usually responsible for the following:

  • Public and product liability insurance
  • Professional indemnity
  • Business interruption
  • Fidelity cover

Don't forget about any of these things—they are really important for compliance and avoiding legal action.

"Additionally, insurance is something that should be high on your priority list; namely because it could shield your business from potential risks and unexpected events — delays, sickness, accident, poor weather, etc.."
- Tour booking software company, Orioly Tour

4. Have An Online Presence

So, you've created the ultimate tour. The only problem is, nobody knows about it. This is where you need to crank up your SEO. Making sure your tours are visible on Google and other search engines will increase traffic to your site the chances someone will book with you.

Sixty percent of leisure travelers start their customer journey on search engines, according to one study. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, though. You need a good website that also converts visitors.

5. Use Strong Visuals and UGC

Travelers are wary of conventional ads that show actors in luxurious destinations. The likelihood is that these actors have never even visited these places before, so glossy commercials aren't always the best choice if you want to come across as authentic.

User-generated content (UGC), on the other hand, is completely authentic. It shows real people in real situations having real experiences, and it's the kind of thing you want to incorporate into your website and marketing campaigns. It works, too. This type of word-of-mouth marketing generates more than twice the number of sales than paid-for advertising.

You can either curate UGC content or convince your customers to create their own visuals. Why not encourage your followers to become "travel advocates" for your brand and post their experiences on social media? Or host contests? Or encourage followers to use certain hashtags in their posts?

Building your visual influence boosts engagement and conversions. Videos on a landing page, for example, increase conversions by 86 percent. A combination of owned (UGC), earned (branded), and paid (influencers) content should provide you with a return on your marketing spend. Use the latest software to save time figuring out which visuals work best and connect with your target audience.

6. Focus on Consumer-Direct Bookings

In 2018, the proportion of direct website bookings dropped to 66.7 percent from the year before, while bookings through local tourist offices, agents, and affiliates rose to 24.3 percent. However, focusing on consumer-direct bookings will provide you with more bang for your buck. In short, third parties won't take a cut from your tour bookings. You will most likely need online booking software for this. 

You can increase direct bookings with strong visuals and UGC, and incorporating click-worthy call-to-actions on your landing pages. Nearly 90 percent of all website visitors read CTA copy, even if they don't read anything else.

Want to become a better tour operator in 2019? Follow the marketing tips above and create unique experiences that will keep customers coming back to you time and time again.


About the author

Julia Manoukian is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at CrowdRiff. A former journalist, she has helped several Toronto startups raise their thought leadership profiles and scale their content efforts to influence revenue. She's passionate about storytelling, traveling, and tech.

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