The Digitization of Travel: Part 4 – Tour Operators
The Digitization of Travel: Part 4 – Tour Operators

The Digitization of Travel: Part 4 – Tour Operators

The internet has been the death of some traditional tour agencies while at the same time it’s been the main channel of growth for others. Some tour companies love the internet, peer sites and the power of ever-changing technologies while others detest everything this medium embodies. Technology is enabling small, far-flung, traditionally unreachable niche operators to enjoy a level of success not possible ten years ago and attract guests from the other side of the globe directly. Other traditional large travel conglomerates are finding it hard to maintain their dominance, no longer being the only voice in town. More travelers will no doubt strike-out on their own due to an abundance of online information, some good, some not, some up-to-date, some not accurate in the least, but discerning travelers will continue to trust savvy operators with their precious holiday time. One thing’s for sure, the internet, peer-to-peer sites and 3G mobile technologies are changing the balance of power in the tour industry.

Small tour operators in off-the-beaten-track locations like rural Laos and Cambodia are perhaps benefitting most from technology. Many of these areas now have robust 3G mobile service, allowing them to reach out directly to potential customers, interact with them and win business they normally never would have been able to acquire without the help of a connected international agent.

The Anantara Golden Triangle’s Director of Elephants, John Roberts, who has spent a good deal of his career working in remote regions of Nepal and Thailand, believes there’s a huge opportunity to be had here, “Empowerment of smaller operators as they become computer literate and more used to checking their email via 3G mobile signal will mean that small operators can take bookings and answer queries from mobile phones.”

You don’t have to be operating out of a small village to reap the potential power of technology to grow your business either explains Jason Williams, founder of bike touring company Grasshopper Adventures. “The ride of the internet has been only a positive for us. There’s no way I feel we could have gotten to the position we are now without the internet and sites like Trip Advisor.” “In the past small companies getting started still had to have a network of agents to sell their trips and market through traditional PR and advertising. Now, if you can build a good website that’s found by the search engines and get some good reviews on Trip Advisor the business can easily take off,” he enthuses. “We went from 30 pax per month before Trip Advisor, to nearly 300 pax per month today. I guess as people are booking their holidays more themselves rather than through an agent that they want more information upfront so that they can check on these details.”

Walk though your city and chances are traditional travel agencies have closed, downsized or gone online, their employees now working from home. While the plethora of online travel information, ability to book hotels and air tickets online will no doubt empower many travelers to strike-out and do it themselves, many industry experts see a trend shifting back to creative travel planners who bring high value to the table.
“The rise of information online allows travelers to find experts who have a niche and do it well and to travel with these tour companies rather than joining with more generalist companies,” says Williams.

Roberts also shares this sentiment, “There will still be a place for imaginative agents who can deliver true insider knowledge. Clever social networking will be key to explaining the difference without spoiling the surprise or killing the feeling. Less imaginative and guest-centric agents may find their place squeezed.”

Few travel planners have done a better job of remaining relevant than New York City-based Absolute Travel. Founder Ken Fish says it’s all about communicating value, “The challenge has been in the market, how we reach our customer, how they interact with us, how we provide them with information and what information they come to us with and how we manage that.” “We have to be able to close a trip, plan and use our expertise. What we do is very much an upfront proposition and we have to help clients understand why it [a trip] costs what it does.”

Fish goes on to explain how the value in certain industries is obvious and what he and his team do to help their clients understand the value proposition they bring to the table. “You have to build up your trust with your clients, there are people who want your expertise and trust your expertise. Here’s an example: someone goes to a very expensive restaurant, they don’t walk in and ask why it’s so much. It’s because it’s an experience. You go to a tailor and buy a fine suit; no one asks why the suit costs $3,000US. In our industry we really have to prove our expertise over and over and sometimes people don’t bother thinking about the expertise in the value, you have to emphasis what you’re offering: experience in planning, execution, a vast network of contacts and we provide unique experiences they can’t do themselves. We’re also on the ground to handle any situation that may arise during the trip itself. Any number of 150 things we deal with on a daily basis, they’re [clients] not prepared to handle those things.”

It’s not just a business’s ability to get online, answer emails and be creative that will ensure success in today’s market. Tim Russell, an Englishman whose Come and Go Travel based in Vietnam, has enjoyed a good deal of success over the last few years due to being online. “As more hotels in the region go online and it becomes easier to book transport tickets or research train/bus timetables online, more people will travel to the region independently. Luxury tour operators, or tour operators who make it easy to book online, will survive, many others won’t.”

But there’s more to the success equation says Russell, “I also think that online one-stop shops, or switched-on tour operators, will become increasingly popular, given the huge diversity of hotel & flight booking sites and the often disparities in rates. It gets tiring trawling through dozens of booking sites & aggregators.”

It’s this abundance of information, confusion with prices, schedules, hidden policies, extra charges and the sheer time of putting a winning trip together that makes informed travel agents appealing to some savvy travelers. Leslie Overton, Senior Travel Planner at Absolute Travel, feels the internet only goes so far. “Technology has opened up airline and hotel bookings to anyone, plus provided reviews of these services, so seemingly you can do away with a trip planner of any kind. But I think we all now know that Trip Advisor reviews can be bought, and what shows on a hotel website is not necessarily what you will find when you arrive at a destination. I think that for a while the trend went towards doing everything online, but now the trend is swinging back to using a travel planner. Booking a hotel in Paris might be one thing, but planning a two-week trip when that is all your vacation time for the whole year, to a destination that is not familiar to your immediate contacts is another thing entirely.”

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