Marketing Tours

By Rick Steves
Rick with Bland Travel Bus
If booking a bus tour, be careful to find the one that’s best for you. (photo: ETBD staff)

I just enjoyed a brainstorming breakfast with a “tour organizer consultant.” He’s smart because tour organizers across the USA think he’s smart, hire him, and discuss their situation with him. Therefore he knows everyone’s business and can give excellent advice to competing tour companies. Anyone considering booking a tour might enjoy an overview of tour trends and an insight into how organizers sharpen their marketing. Here’s a bit of what I learned between the omelet and the English muffin:

Some companies advertise peak-season prices and discount off-season prices. But most tour companies advertise the lower off-season prices and charge a supplement to go during popular times. For European tours, the demand (and, therefore, the price) spikes in late spring and early fall.

Recently there has been a huge new influx of Chinese and Indian tourists on the European scene. Imagine 200 million people in India, for instance, with enough money to book a tour. This is one reason why booking hotels is becoming more and more difficult and expensive for American tour organizers.

While Europe is vast and varied, tour groups zero in on relatively few destinations. Good tour organizers need to diligently navigate the traffic jams. For instance, to get into the Vatican Museum during the 90-minute “groups only” window (each morning from 8:30 to 10:00), you must fax your request exactly one month in advance (literally within a 20-minute window of when you want an appointment). Otherwise your group will have no choice but to wait with the masses for up to several hours in the general admission line. While individual travelers are accustomed to long lines and have no one to complain to, good tour organizers can’t inflict this waste of time on their customers.

When competing with bigger tour companies, small tour organizers need to stress their undeniable strengths. Any company can — and does — advertise that it has great guides. But if a small tour organizer takes small groups (say, 28 people maximum per group versus the standard 40 to 50) who stay in centrally located hotels, its competitive advantage is clear. Big companies and budget companies routinely book hotels that are far from the center. Consumers need to be savvy in this regard. Read the promotional literature carefully. Sleeping “in the Florence area” could mean halfway to Bologna.

Solo Americans travelers want single rooms — and they are willing to pay a “single supplement” to get them. Strangers are reluctant to share a room because in Europe a “twin bed” can consist of two single mattresses on a big double frame. That’s just too cozy for the typical American traveler.

Cruise companies are getting more popular — even on Europe's rivers. The cost compared to buses and hotels for organizers is more affordable as hotel costs have skyrocketed. Plus, tourists like the "one hotel" concept of not having to pack and move on every day or two. With a boat constantly relocating, you enjoy different locations without ever needing to pack up and move.

Because many mid-range tour companies use the word “deluxe” to describe their tours, the truly deluxe companies no longer use the term. Rather than promote themselves with a superlative that only ranks them with mediocre companies, the top-end tour companies are taking out the fancy words and relying on their reputation.

A key perceived value for top-end clients with a top-end tour organizer is the assumption that the tour will be filled with a more sophisticated crowd...not the low-end riffraff that fills Brand X tours. If a tour company has a desirable clientele, they should make that clear in their marketing material.

When planning itineraries, tour organizers need to be mindful of their geographical market. While a seven-day tour to Europe from the US West Coast can be problematic, a seven-day jaunt from the East Coast (with less jet lag and a shorter, cheaper flight) is no big deal.

The big opportunity for a tour company seeking to expand its offering is to provide for the aging baby boomer market. The consultant suggested offering “free and easy” tours for more “mature” travelers, claiming that “Grand Circle Tours grosses $700 million a year by catering to this market.” While many travelers are loyal to a particular tour company and have enjoyed repeated trips with them, they may want a tour with a slower pace and fewer physical demands as they age.

For you, a tour of Europe can be the culmination of a lifelong dream. For a tour organizer, it’s a business. Be savvy, understand the marketing, and know what you want. The choices you make shape the cost and success of your trip. The rewards are huge.