Professor leading a tour

How Tour Operators Can Keep Travel Dreams Alive

10+ min read • Mar 09, 2021 • Kayla Voigt

International travel grinding to a halt doesn’t just hurt airlines, cruises, and hotels. For small tour operators, a year without tourists devastates their business—what one expert calls the equivalent of “3 winters.”

“Tour operators don’t make money in the winter,” a spokesperson for Aito—The Specialist Travel Organization, told Skift. “The peak summer season is vital to them; that’s when they can build up their assets, and enough flesh, to survive a winter when they’ve got staff payments, bills to pay, offices to cover, brochures to pay for, and websites to update. Our operators are thinking, ‘When is it going to be me?’”

The tour, activities, and attractions industry represents a $254 billion annual market, and 80% of that is made up from smaller tour operators—think daily whale-watching tours in Norway, market and food tasting tours in France, or biking tours in Napa Valley—that find themselves out of work without much of a safety net.

“Our business model depends in large part on delivering our services when visitors are here; we invoice after our clients arrive,” Spanish tour operator Jon Galdos told Forbes. “To what extent our business will return is something that’s extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Almost 100% of our clients are international, and 95% are from outside Europe. So until we know what the new governmental bans and rules on movement are, we won’t know when we will begin to book tours again.”

3 Ways Tour Operators Can Keep Travel Dreams Alive

The good news? Consumers want to travel—they’re just not allowed to. That means tour operators need to find ways to maintain demand and build a brand while they’re not offering their tours. They can do that in 3 ways:

1. Build a Robust Social Media Presence

Social media is inherently visual, which tour operators can—and should—capitalize on to showcase what makes their destinations special. Whether it’s giving tour guides a voice, showing off details and off-the-beaten-path sites, or providing travel tips, visual and video-based mediums like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook give tour operators a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Consider these examples:

Tahitian dive operator Corallina Tours showcases stunning footage of their underwater whale encounters:

 

And Maria’s Bicycle Tours from Salzburg shows off the quiet scenery you can experience by bike:

 

While tour guides like Mitra Talarman put together fun and informative videos about some of her favorite art and architecture in Rome:

 

…and tour guide Katie Wignall livestreams from London:


2. Create Virtual Experiences

“Our first thought was how we could continue to support our community of scholars and specialists who are normally leading live tours, and how we could continue to offer our customers learning experiences while they’re traveling less or not at all,” Evan Frank, CEO of Context, told Forbes. Context Travel normally operates in 60 cities and now offers online seminars about their destinations, led by their tour guides.

When it comes to virtual experiences, it’s important to consider what matches your existing offerings, whether that’s specific seminars on culture, architecture, or history or creating interactive themed sessions tied to what you’d normally find on the tour. It can be about the destination or about travel itself. 

For example, Backroads, a biking-based international tour company, had their guides offer tips and tricks about staying in shape, bike maintenance, and more throughout spring of 2020:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Backroads (@backroadstravel)


3. Launch Physical Products

Devour Tours, a food tour company based in Spain, launched an online cookbook filled with contributions from guides and restaurants that they typically feature across their destinations. They pair this with virtual offerings on cooking and eating traditional Spanish food and wine:

 

 

And Milwaukee Food & City Tours founder Theresa Nemetz started selling physical products from her usual restaurants and markets, selling $250,000 worth of gift baskets that captured the food scene in Milwaukee and launching her own chocolate company. 

We Will Travel Again

Tour operators are in full survival mode right now, but a little bit of creativity can help to sustain the industry through these unprecedented times. Demand for future travel remains high, and investing in building customer loyalty and stoking those travel dreams will pay off once travel bans are lifted and a vaccine is widely available. It may take until 2022 or beyond for the industry to fully recover.

“Although tours and activities are without a doubt the best part of travel, the industry does not exist in isolation, and without a recovery in air travel and the hospitality sectors, the tours and activities industry will be a shadow of what it was in 2019,” writes Peter Syme for PhocusWire. The tour operators that will thrive, he says, are the ones that stay digitally focused, can adapt to new customer demands like greater space and hygiene, and have the leeway to invest in customer relationships to ride out the wave.

“COVID-19 has resulted in countless setbacks, both to the travel industry and to the world at large,” Christian Wolters, managing director of TourRadar—an online marketplace for more than 40,000 different multi-day tours—told Forbes. “This is obviously an uncertain time right now and that’s tough.” 

When travel does resume, consumers will be eager and ready for experiences, but they may look different, focused more on personalization and privacy. “The type of tour and activities on offer will continue to evolve and grow,” Syme adds. “A disaster like this breeds innovation, so I expect to see a whole new range of experiences as we get back to business.”

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Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.