Tour Operator Terminology
On this page we’ll try to clearly define the terms you need to know to run a tour business, and interact in our Tourpreneur Facebook Group.
General Tour Industry Terms
This is a catch-all term that implies a type of travel experience that takes place over time, generally visiting multiple sights. It could last 1 hour or 30 days, and be done as a walk, or in vehicle. It could be a solo traveler or a group of 50 people. Other words might be used to describe the same thing: tour, experience, journey, excursion, etc. It usually implies something organized, either by the traveler themselves, or a tour operator, who designs and delivers a tour for a traveler or group of travelers.
Thanks to Disney, guest is what we generally use to refer to our customers. Why the difference? “Customer” implies a financial relationship, whereas guest relates more to a personal connection and a sense of welcome and hospitality. But it’s the same as customer, passenger (PAX), traveler, etc., and different companies will prefer different terminology.
- Guide / Tour Guide / Tourist Guide
“tour guide” is used more often in Anglophone countries, especially in the U.S., whereas “Tourist Guide” is used in Europe and elsewhere globally.
- Tour Leader/Tour Director/Tour Manager/Tour Escort/Trip Leader
This role goes by many different names. It refers to a guide who works over multiple days, usually traveling with a group of guests to multiple cities or regions. In addition to delivering commentary about the locations visited, a tour leader also handles the tour logistics, including working with the motor coach driver, staying on schedule, checking into hotels, meals and activities on time.
A guide working often at National Parks or heritage sights; interpretation theory is a 100-year old body of theoretical work focused on strategies for helping individuals make their audience connect with and care for the site that’s being interpreted.
The name sometimes used for a guide usually in a museum or cultural heritage sight.
- Day Tour
A type of experience that begins and ends in the same day. Usually used to distinguish an experience from a multi-day tour.
- Multi-Day Tour
Any type of experience that lasts for more than one day. Often includes hotels, meals, short activities, and a form of transportation.
- Package Tour
A kind of experience (usually multi-day) in which several different components are bundled together: it may or may not include airfare, hotels, guided experiences, meals, etc.
- Group Tour
You’ll see these terms used differently to a kind of experience in which separate individuals or smaller groups come together to share an experience. Group tours can be public or private.
- Public Tour
As the name implies, this is a tour that’s open to the general public to sign up. The tour therefore consists of a variety of people who don’t already know each other. A public tour is usually offered at a set time and day.
- Private Tour
A tour that is sold specifically to an already-organized group of travelers who don’t wish to experience the tour with others. A private tour might be a couple, a small group of friends, or a large church group. Private tours might be at a set time, or organized according to group’s specific needs.
- Custom Tour
A custom tour is usually also a private tour. Custom refers to the operator crafting an experience customized to the specific demands of a client. A tour operator might be engaged by a client to design a unique experience, for one person or a large group.
- Pre-Formed/Affinity Group
These are commonly used terms in the multi-day tour space to refer to a group tour not made up of individual solo travelers & couples, but instead of an alread-formed large group of travelers. An “affinity group” shares a common trait—they belong to a church, a retirement community, or a family reunion traveling together, for example. A pre-formed group might also be created by a “Group Leader” who sells a tour for a tour operator, often in exchange for a free trip or a commission.
- Escorted Tour
Used most often in the multi-day tour space, an escorted tour means you’re traveling with an escort (old fashioned term), more commonly referred to today as a tour manager, tour director, tour leader, or trip leader. The TM’s job is to handle the logistics of keeping the group together, checked into hotels, arranging meals, etc. They work for the tour operator.
- Guided Tour
In short, an organized excursion led by an individual or individuals. “Tour Guide” is the generalized term, but a guide could be a museum “docent” or an adventure guide, tour leader, etc.
- Self-Guided Tour
This has two different meanings, one related to technology, one related to nature. When talking about mobile phone apps, a self-guided tour is one usually done in-destination using audio recordings and GPS data to guide an individual along a tour route, sharing recorded stories. In the world of adventure tours, a self-guided tour happens when an individual hires a tour operator to provide guidance in the form of itineraries, maps, possibly technology, all to facilitate an extended journey involving walking, hiking, biking, etc.
- FAM Tour
A “familiarization” tour, focused on helping one set of professionals (travel agents, for example) learn about a destination, or about vendors in an area. A group of tour guides might take a FAM tour to a new attraction that opened in town, to become familiar with it. A group of travel agents might sign up for a FAM to a destination that they’ll then sell to clients.
- FIT Tour
Very confusing term. It’s evolved over time. It once meant “foreign independent travel” but now is more often thought of as “flexible independent travel.” The goal is to distinguish this kind of independent traveler from someone who buys into a packaged group tour. FIT is more associated with a client who engages with a travel agent or operator to design something that suits their specific customized needs.
An activity is usually different than a tour in that it is less about guided sightseeing and more about doing something, well, activity based. Examples might be watersports, biking, hiking, etc.
Think amusement parks, museums, and the Eiffel Tower. What do they all have in common? They require tickets, they’re single place-based experiences, and rather than do them in groups, thousands of people pour in at once, with no specific booked time requirements (unless doing so for crowd control or pandemic related reasons).
- “Tours & Activities Industry”
This is just one of many ways to talk about our industry. You’ll also hear Tours, Attractions & Activities,
- DMO/CVB/Tourism Board
A Tourism Board or Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) or Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) are all essentially the same thing. — an organization (public, private, or a mix) whose goal it is to promote a destination, be it a city, region or country. Examples include NYC & Company and Visit Scotland.
Pronounced like the animal, stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events. From a tour perspective, this is where an operator might work with a CVB (see above) to organize tours for business customers hosting or attending a conference in a location. Incentive tours are reward experiences that a company offers a group of employees.
Tour operators who work with other operators
Types of Tour Operators
- Tour Operator
A business that organizes and sells tours. They sell to a customer, and possibly work with vendors (hotels, restaurants, vehicle companies, etc.) to create an organized tour experience. In short, operators do the grunt work.
- Travel Agent/Agency
In general, an agency works with travelers, and books travel components to relieve the traveler’s burden of figuring it out on their own. An agency might book a tour operator’s tour as part of the services they provide the travel, in exchange for a commission from the operator.
- [insert word here] Operator
Tour Operator is a general term, but that’s not the only kind of operator out there. You might also be an adventure operator, watersports operator, ATV rental operator, you name it. But in all cases, you’re not an agency booking someone else’s service, you’re providing the service yourself.
- Day (or Multi-Day) Tour Operator
Both are subsets of “tour operators” in general. It might be used in the Tourpreneur community when we’re referring to the specific challenges of a specific kind of operator, since the products and challenges of each type of tour can be very different.
- Inbound / Receptive Operator / DMC (destination management company)
These are all versions of the same thing, with terminology that is sometimes preferred over the other words for various reasons. This kind of tour operator creates experiences in a certain location (often a specific city or a region or country), working B2B with tour operators or corporate entities needing local knowledge and connections. Receptive operator is an older term meaning they “receive” clients who are coming in (or inbound) from somewhere else.
- Outbound Operator
This version of tour operator (usually multi-day) designs experiences that take guests elsewhere. An outbound operator might be based somewhere (Australia, for example) but focus on creating trips that send their Australian customers outbound to other countries.
Sales, Marketing & Software Terms
Search Engine Optimization—the art of optimizing your website and online presence to bring your content to the top of search engine results (principally Google).
Means “Pay-per-click” and references the kind of digital advertising done by companies like Google: you create an advertisement to appear in search engine results, for example, and you pay for that ad a specific market rate each time someone clicks on your link.
Online Travel Agency—this is a catch-all term for a wide variety of online marketplaces servicing the travel industry, selling everything from rental cars to flights to hotels to tours. An OTA in the general industry might refer to big players like Expedia or Booking.com; in the tour industry, it refers to companies like Viator (the largest tour OTA) and GetYourGuide. There is a long tail of “niche OTAs” that serve specific types of tours and activities (like watersports) or a specific region.
- Online Marketplace / Platform
This is a more general term for the kind of website platform (like Viator) that sells a wide variety of tours online. Think Guide Marketplaces like ToursByLocals or Withlocals, companies that curate large amounts of guides, but aren’t traditional OTAs like viator.
- Restech/Booking Software
You’ll hear “restech” (alternately reztech, rez-tech, etc…) as a fast way to refer to the software industry centered around creating helping tour operators accept online bookings, and keep those bookings organized. The largest companies in this space work mainly with day tour operators.
- Tour Operator Software
Different than booking software/restech, TO software offers an extended suite of features meant to help operators across their whole business, from operators to itinerary proposals to budgeting and pricing. This software may include a booking/payment component, but is a much more fully integrated and holistic (and expensive) solution.
Short for “Software as a Service” — this is how the tech industry refers usually subscription-based websites or software that help you do something. Examples of SaaS include booking software and CRMs.
In the language of selling tours to customers on a platform, tour operators are suppliers; you supply tours that are then re-sold by the platform.
This is the dark art of how you, the operator (supplier) connect to sales channels.
These are sales channels that sell tickets to your tours on behalf of you. They could be everything from an online marketplace like Viator and GetYourGuide, to a personal travel agent or hotel concierge..
- Channel Manager
This is software that helps you manager all your different sales channels in one place.