What’s in the future for tour operators?

What’s in the future for tour operators?

I ran a webinar here on the WTM Hub recently which looked at how tour operators will need to adapt to change quickly in order to survive. It proved to be very timely and attracted a large audience of companies keen to find a way forward out of the current crisis.

One of our panellists, Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, said that as a result of the pandemic, travel and tourism are now the world’s biggest start-up.

He is not wrong.

Travel has gone from a position where it represented more than 10% of global GDP, employing or supporting more than 300 million people, to a virtual standstill with only limited signs of any early rebound. What travel will look like in the future is anyone’s guess.

Bruce Poon Tip knows a lot about start-ups. He founded award-winning small group adventure travel company G Adventures following a transformational backpacking trip to Asia in 1990 at the age of 22 using two maxed-out credit cards.

Our other guest on the webinar knows a lot about keeping calm in a crisis.

Rachel O’Reilly is head of communications with KUONI. In her career she has worked for companies of all shapes and sizes, from large mass-market companies to small, independently run start-ups. For six years she ran the press office at TUI UK, dealing with a wide brief ranging from crisis response to brand campaigns.

The webinar – which you can watch again here – attracted more than 1,200 registrations and large numbers of questions from concerned tour operators and other travel companies. Yet there were more questions than we had time for during the webinar. Bruce and Rachel have kindly agreed to answer some of the other questions raised in the webinar below:

As tour operators what would you expect from destination tourist boards and destination management firms in the post COIVD-19?

Rachel O’Reilly (ROR): Going forward we’d be looking to continue to work closely with tourist boards and destination management companies. The priorities will be reassurance that safety measures are being taken in destination and insight and transparency about what the experience will be like on the ground for our customers. As we start to activate more marketing activity then we’d also be keen to look at joint campaigns to attract customers back. Seclusion and avoiding crowded areas is also going to be on people’s minds, so we may want to look at ‘less discovered’ parts of the destination.

Bruce Poon Tip (BPT): I think from a tourist board you’re going to want support in a very different way.  We’re at a place now where we must bring business back and not increase business. It is a very different conversation with customers.

As for destination management, you need to know they are staying on top of the global guidelines and interpreting them locally to integrate into their business. The best partners will be the ones who are informed and can adapt quickly to meet the new needs of the customer. Companies who can pivot to the needs of the customer are always the ones that do better during any disruption or downturn.

How can you be sustainable and operate in a mass tourism market asking for rock bottom prices? Is this the end of the low budget traveller?

BPT: Initially, everything is going to be more expensive as you’re catering for early adopters. It is when things begin to shift to be more accepted by the mainstream that prices will become more reasonable. When competition creates tension we will see the return of budget prices.

Demand drives behaviour. It’s very much like the organics industry that started in the late 90s – the first organic products were very expensive.  As demand grew prices became more reasonable. It takes time, patience and planning.

ROR: Interestingly one of the leaders on sustainability in recent years has been TUI, a mass market operator. Sustainability should not just be for the premium end of the market. I think all operators, no matter where they sit in the market, should address it. Ultimately government also needs to support the industry as it rebuilds and sustainability should be central to recovery.

What do you say to students who are graduating soon and want to be involved in the tourism sector? What do you want them to focus on?

BPT: With every downturn or disruption comes great opportunity. This is no different.  You might have to work a bit harder and it might not be a linear path to get where you want to go but there is no question that tourism is a great industry to be part of over the next decade.

If I was to suggest what to focus on I would say innovation is going to be the future of our industry.  That would be in tech through AI, sustainability or cultural heritage preservation. You should know how these areas will impact tourism in the future and focus on studying those areas.

ROR: It could be a great time for students to gain work experience. I have already helped some students out by doing interviews and assisting with their studies over the past few months.  If you are in a position to then I would write to MDs, CEOs and ask for work placements; these may be unpaid in the beginning but it could help you stand out.

Skills which will be important: project management, commercial skills, market mapping and research, new product development, content creation, video production, social media and selling travel. Research companies that you are interested in carefully; watch what they are doing and make a personal and professional-looking pitch that will get you noticed. There is always room for talent and our industry is going to need it.

As well as engaging with customers, are there examples of how operators are engaging with specific destinations and local partners to support them in post-COVID recovery and rebuilding too?

BPT: There is a difference between destinations and local partners. I think it’s generally difficult for the tourism industry to engage with destinations as this is done through government or tourist boards traditionally. Because of what we do at G Adventures and through our Planeterra Foundation, we engage regularly with communities and it’s imperative for us to create dialogue as part of the community tourism model we’ve pioneered over the last 30 years. Local tour partners are a very different relationship and I think we all support our partners where we can.  I think we’re rather limited in what we can do but we certainly are all here to support each other. We need to reach out and help where we can. We are all devastated by this pandemic and we’re all rebuilding.  In many, if not most, cases our local partners have been reaching out to us to help with the recovery and rebuilding process.

Do you think tour operators will now be more choosy about which suppliers they work with? Do you think customers will pay a premium for the suppliers who can guarantee a high level of cleanliness?

ROR: In the short term it’s likely that we will be using a ‘less is more’ approach, working perhaps with a smaller number of carefully selected partners. Relationships and trust are going to be vital and knowing that our customers are going to be handled with care, but still have a brilliant holiday, will be essential. It may be too early to say, but my guess is that customers may pay more to have that peace of mind.

BPT: I don’t think it will be about being choosy. Our suppliers are partners. We view them in that way and we build business together.  When obstacles arise we work on them together and help each other succeed. That is what the customer will ultimately pay a premium for. I don’t think customers will pay a premium for more cleanliness because I think this is something that is expected and I can’t see how any company would differentiate enough to create messaging around being cleaner than everyone else to justify paying a premium.

What measures will your companies take to ensure the travel experience will still be ‘holiday-like’?

BPT: We will continue what we’ve always done.  G Adventures has pioneered small group holidays since 1990. We can’t get any smaller really. We’ve always tried to push people away from the tourist hordes and maybe now we’ll have an easier job of it! I think we define holidays very differently however. I think there will be an evolution of the ‘travel experience’ and we will be well positioned to continue offering ‘holiday-like’ experiences.  Outside of creating space to honour social distancing requirements, I don’t think we’ll have to do too much!

ROR: From our conversations with our partners in the Maldives, there are ongoing discussions about getting the balance right: reassurance that distancing, cleanliness etc is being carried out but at the same time that it still feels like a holiday. There is still work to be done on this, but if the experience is so complex and off-putting then people will likely think that it’s not worth the hassle, so we need to be very careful about that.

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Mark Frary is co-founder of Travel Perspective, a social and digital consultancy working with travel companies and tourism organisations to create successful marketing campaigns He is an author and writer specialising in travel, social media and technology. He writes regularly for The Times and has written for many other publications including the Evening Standard, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Express, Food & Travel, ABTA magazine, the easyJet magazine and Teletext.  Mark also gives expert advice to leisure and business travel companies on their social media and communications strategies and is the co-founder of Social Travel Market, an annual conference on the use of social media in travel at World Travel Market. He is the author of seven books including The Origins of the Universe for Dummies and is currently working on a biography of the ski pioneer Erna Low. Mark lives in Ampthill in Bedfordshire, UK with his wife and three children. www.travelperspective.co.uk

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