OTAs Acquiring Tour Operators: The Ideal Outcome
With the news of OTAs acquiring tour operators, my immediate reaction was the same as many in the tours & activities section; not a positive one.
However, after accepting the inevitability, I started to think about the potential positive outcomes. The obvious one being that the small tour operators being acquired can continue to operate and provide local jobs. Their guides can continue to work.
The second positive; imagine if the OTAs really did these tours right.
By running high quality tours at scale, they would inevitably lift the bar for the entire tours & activities industry. Customers would no longer be willing to give 5-stars for average experiences (as is unfortuantely common now).
Imagine even, if OTAs would commit to Responsible Travel? Making sure their experiences have positive impacts on the destinations in which they run. It could have the potential to eradicate the negative impacts our industry currently has and serve to educate the customers who are increasingly interested but not quite sure where to get accurate information.
Below I outline both a wishlist and recommendation to OTAs who are shifting into tour operations.
Four things I’d love to see OTAs do as they step into tour operations.
1. Be really intentional about tour operator relationships.
You need to be really clear about what you want the relationship to look like from the start (take it from someone who worked with 164+ local teams at one point under Intrepid Travel’s now-disbanded day-tour franchise).
It has to be rigid enough to create brand consistency, but flexible enough to work in all different regions and cities (all of which have very unique ways of working, from how easy vendor relationships are to maintain, to how much you need to pay your guides).
Expectations need to be set ahead of time and local tour operator expertise should be both trusted and listened to. Most importantly, differences should be acknowledged.
Tour operators often have very small teams doing an incredible amount of work. Something as simple-seeming as creating a tour can cost an incredible amount of resources. And so to be asked to create an ‘animal tour’ or ‘shopping tour’ by the end of the month because “our customer data shows that these topics are popular” can make relations immediately stressful, especially when those tours then do not sell (and yes, that is an actual example from my own experience).
2. Have a clearly defined brand (and communicate that with the guides).
When a guide puts on that OTA-branded t-shirt, what does that change?
In my experience with partnership tours, the guides give the same tour they always give (as they’ve often been left out of most communications except to be told “When you see this brand name that means this tour is for their customers.”). And because of this, I’ve yet to see brands scale and keep consistency (and quality!) across tours
Why not? It takes a lot of extra effort to define the brand in a way that can be physically realized during the experience. Something easier to do if you have a very niche product (for example nightlife tours) but hard to do if you want to have a variety of product. Each city, each tour, each guide is so different.
This will be even harder for OTAs who already cater to everyone.
A quick search on one OTA’s ‘About Us’ page tells customers that they offer ‘extraordinary trips’ which ‘change the way people travel’ by showing the the ‘unique’ and ‘above average’.
However, when I type New York City into the search bar, the first 3 tours that come up are unguided attraction tickets the Empire State Building and Ellis Island. ‘Unique’ experiences? Not really. An ‘above-average’ experience? Considering it offers just the ticket and no guide, not quite.
To have your brand shine through from marketing to experience, there needs to be extensive brand training for guides on these local teams. And this internal marketing needs to be done with the guides in mind, B2C (and especially not B2B) language will not be relatable to them. At the very least, guides should be able to easily recite the brand mission and values (specifically in terms of how it relates to their jobs and to the actual experience).
3. Make full-time guide roles.
The “full-time guide” is an elusive myth in the tours & activities sector. A few claim to have full-time guides (which usually means that the guides are guaranteed X tours per week for X months out of the year), but I’ve only ever met one tour operator who truly paid one of their guides full time, year-round (with benefits).
Why? It’s nearly impossible to do for many local operators financially. Margins are already low on tours, especially if you’re capping your group size. However OTAs are running more tours across different high-seasons. Not to mention that quite a few of them have gotten incredible funding over the past year.
If OTAs are passing some of this fortune onto local tour operators by buying them up (or investing), why not let guides share in that pot as well as opposed to them remaining incredibly high-skilled workers who make incredibly low yearly wages?
4. Commit to Responsible Travel (and I’m not talking about carbon offsetting).
There is so much the average tour company can do to make sure their experiences have a positive impact on the local community. Environmentally, economically and culturally.
Recently there’s been a lot more talk about Responsible Travel in the larger industry (and amongst consumers), but it’s often centered around easy-to-track (and easy to publicly check off) actions like carbon offsetting or no longer offering your guests plastic water bottles.
However, with small actions like making sure to include diverse narratives on your experiences, or including local minority-owned businesses in your itinerary, or educating guests about how to be better travelers, OTAs could make an actual difference, at scale.