Business Development For Tour Operators

Recently I was involved in founding the Latin American Travel Startups Association (LATSA).  The idea was to bring travel startups and tourism businesses together to share ideas so that they could learn from each other.  Looking back, had I known how much work was involved, I’m not sure I’d have committed to being involved.  There were times where it was distracting from my day to day and I asked myself “why am I doing this?”  In the end the launch event was a success and I think over time my efforts will be repaid through the relationships and potential partnerships developed.  However, it got me thinking…how as a small tour operator do you balance business development with the day to day marketing and sales of your tours?

Business Development for Tour Operators

What is business development?

Business development is a confusing topic, for many it’s the same as sales and marketing for others it’s creating partnerships to sell your tours through other organisations. For example, a hotel packaging your tour with a weekend stay. Really business development is about creating long term value so it can persist over time and consistently deliver revenue. There are many ways to do this, such as creating partnerships with hotels, becoming a thought leader in your local tourism industry, chairing an association or developing relationships with media outlets so that you’re the go to guy/gal when “soundbites” are required.

“Really business development is about creating long term value so it can persist over time and consistently deliver revenue.”

The important thing to remember is that business development takes time. Sometimes you can put a lot of effort into creating relationships that lead to nothing, but that unfortunately is part of the process. Think of business development like friendships, what you give now you get back in spades in the future.

That being said you can’t do everything, your time is simply too precious. Read on for our tips to successful business development for tour operators.

Local Partnerships

There is a lot to local partnerships that often gets overlooked, particularly by new tour operators. Building your network in your industry is vital to succeeding. Working together with your fellow tour operators is vital to selling your region as a place to visit. Tourists tend to pick locations first and then search for specific experiences.  Getting your town or region into prospective customers minds as a place to visit is the first step to boosting your sales. To do this join a local association of tour operators or hospitality professionals, if it doesn’t exist – set one up. It will give you and your fellow tour operators a voice, make it easier for local government to listen to you and help generate press for your area and ultimately your tour business.

Network with local tour operators

For example, in my home city Dublin, the local tour operators including: Viking Splash Tours, The Jeanie Johnston and Extreme Ireland filled the void left by a disbanded city tourism agency to promote networking amongst themselves. They took turns hosting events for industry professionals. This created opportunities for networking but also the opportunity to showcase their own tours.

Conferences

We highlighted the importance of attending conferences in a previous post, where we talked about giving yourself the time to stand back from your business and think outside the box. Of course conferences are also a fantastic business development opportunity for tour operators.

This is where you get the opportunity to meet with buyers from international travel agencies that are looking for tours like yours to market to their customers. A great example of this is the ATTA’s Adventure Travel World Summit. Held annually, in breathtaking locations such as Puerto Varas in Chile and Killarney in Ireland, it is an event that focuses on local sustainable tourism operators.

Getting the opportunity to make connections, sit on roundtables’ or give presentations are great ways to highlight your tour company and also to develop long standing relationships that can help market your tours for decades.

Government

Like it or not: Government is a key part of your sales strategy. It is often frustrating dealing with the multiple layers…particularly when they never seem to talk to each other. But it’s necessary. Your national marketing organisation such as Visit Britain, Failte Ireland or Discover America have marketing dollars to talk about what’s going on in their country. You want to be part of these efforts, how else would you get such exposure. Making yourself visible and getting yourself known to them is the best way to make this happen. Being the chair of a local association, appearing in the media or talking at conferences, gives them the trust that you are a safe bet.

“Like it or not: Government is a key part of your sales strategy.”

At a local level, your local authority can be very important to removing obstacles to running a great tour business. Are there traffic restrictions which prevent you from accessing a popular attraction, inadequate litter services in your area or badly maintained roads? Stressing the importance of tourism as an economic driver for your town or region will put pressure on local government to respond to your problems.

Lobbying as a collective with your fellow tour operators is even more important. Good infrastructure is fundamental to positive experiences just look at the successes of New Zealand and Chile to promoting off the beaten path locations. They’ve made them accessible.

Lobbying government is also a great way to get noticed in the media, get coverage and be top of the list when the next travel supplement in your local or national newspaper goes to print. Take Peter Lewis of La Bicicletta Verde, in Santiago Chile, he has been featured in raft of publications, including CNN and the New York Times.  Peter doesn’t always talk about his business, he’s often interviewed as an expert on Chile, but it gives him credibility to future customers and also in the community.

Low season development

When the tourist season quietens, business can become alarmingly slow very quickly. Creating local festivals or special offers for your local market can be a great way to address this. Maybe you run a food tour or a historical walking tour. You could look at coming together with a collection of businesses promoting a food or cultural festival. This would attract locals that would not otherwise be your customers and allow you to piggyback on the marketing efforts of the other participants. These could be restaurants, museums or food markets.

Conclusion

Business development is a fantastic way to consistently grow your business. It is not a get rich quick scheme but something which builds long term value primarily through the relationships you develop. It requires you to be active in your community and open to working on joint initiatives with your local tour operators and hospitality industry. Get active in a local association and make yourself visible, putting you in the minds of government, media and conference organisers.  This will give you free exposure worth thousands of dollars.

Olan O'Sullivan
Olan O'Sullivan
CEO at Acteavo
Olan is the CEO and Co-founder of Acteavo. You can follow Olan on Twitter or Linkedin.