Courier asked NTA members about their philosophy on change—plus their tolerance for risk. In the first of a series of articles on change, we’ll learn how members with different roles and specialties answered this question:
How do you approach “new,” and what balance do you strike between going all in and holding back?
Jerry Varner, CTP
Making Memories Tours | Washburn, Missouri
As far as new customer trends go, we have a bit of an advantage living right in the middle of the U.S. Trends seem to start on the east or west coasts and then make their way to the center of the country. So I watch and listen to what my tour operator friends on each coast are saying concerning the feedback they are receiving from their customers. I like to wait a bit before jumping on the bandwagon.
Myer Hotels | Branson, Missouri
We are usually not first-adopters. There have been too many fads that ended up needing more development or just weren’t workable. All of our hotels are major brands affiliated with IHG, Choice Hotels, or Best Western. The brands do a good job of vetting trends and functionality to help us be early with initiatives that impact customer satisfaction. We have been very proactive towards green initiatives and have made changes from a variety of angles: major initiatives such as installing solar panels and smaller efforts like replacing Styrofoam and removing straws.
Sports Travel and Tours | Hatfield, Massachusetts
We try to get out in front of what fits for our niche. Decades ago, we started partnering with other tour operators when it wasn’t cool yet. We were early adopters of co-branding, with partner companies that want to sell sports products linking to our landing pages. It is important for us to collect the original source of each inquiry so we can pay royalties and commissions, even if clients called us directly after seeing us on a partner’s website.
Safir Tours | Victoria, Australia
I have always approached the “new” all out! If I fail, I learn from it and try something else. For example, I try out new marketing methods every year—different trade events, exhibitions, etc. Some fail and some succeed. I let go of the failed ones.
Mark Hoffmann, CTP
Sports Leisure Vacations | Sacramento, California
We have always been willing to get out ahead of things. It’s a way to find things that make you better. John Stachnik from Mayflower pioneered the practice of picking people up at homes to begin a tour and was one of the few companies to do it … until he shared the idea at an NTA Crackerbarrel. That’s where I stole it from him and added it to our services. Clients say it’s one of the best parts of traveling with us.
Another example: Going to smaller groups raised the price of our already pricey tours, but the clients love it. And few of our competitors are willing to follow suit, at least until recently. Because people hate traveling in groups of 50, it was a competitive advantage.
Adventures to Tuscany | Kunkletown, Pennsylvania
We look for opportunities to develop itineraries and activities that interest us personally, and we use the nimbleness of our extremely small tour group size to our advantage.
Two of the trends we’ve seen developing are a desire for soft adventure and nostalgic vignette-style experiences (authentic to a past era). Our new tour, The Beautiful Villages of Provence ... A Château in the South of France, includes a road rally to the summit of Mont Ventoux (soft adventure) and a French country-style picnic (past-era vignette) in the mountains overlooking the famous Provencal lavender fields. Activities like these are certainly a little tougher and more expensive to pull off, but when done well, they become a guest favorite.
Uno Restaurants | Boston, Massachusetts
My approach hasn’t changed over time: Always be an early adopter, but know when to back out if the technology doesn’t get picked up or is no longer supported. When I was a tour operator, I was a strong believer in Windows smartphones, which were among the first to carry a GPS chipset and could run offline TomTom software without data. We provided those to our tour directors, even though the devices were costly and not intuitive. But with the ascension of iPhones and Android phones capable of offering even better positioning accuracy through the Google Maps app, we didn’t wait long to make a switch.
The Amish Experience | Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania
We definitely look for something new and innovative. The proof is in how different our company is today compared to how it was founded. We started out doing only step-on tours. We still do them, but we’ve added and adapted over the years. Building a theater and filming “Jacob’s Choice,” our movie about a young Amish boy making a decision to stay or leave the Amish, was a huge risk for us.
Twin Travel Concepts | Kinderhook, New York
This is a daily struggle. We usually try two new projects a year—willing to lose money on them—just to see what could work. They are not big or bold ideas, not too risky.
Roland Neave, CTP
Wells Gray Tours | Kamloops, British Columbia
Since there are only four outbound tour operators in British Columbia, we don’t have the luxury of watching someone else succeed or fail with a new idea. I’m willing to take risks and be the innovator, and we seem to have loyal followers who will try something new. Cost is always a factor, and there is a limit to what customers will pay for a new experience. Mystery tours, though, are always well above our average per diem, and they still sell out.
You have to be willing to invest time (which is usually staff pay) into exploring a new idea, and be ready to can it if it gets too expensive or complicated. Another piece of advice is to start small with a new idea. Managing inventory is crucial, so it is better to have a sellout and tell people inquiring later that it will be offered next year.
Visit Durango | Durango, Colorado
We’re very open to change, but we weigh out the pros and cons for the Durango area and ensure there is an ability to measure the results.
Mayflower Cruises and Tours | Lisle, Illinois
It is very hard for a small/midsize company to go all in. When we approach something new that could be a game changer, we have to make sure that our core business is still intact. Things that keep the lights on have to be taken care of while also working on the new product. This creates additional work on team members and adds stress and all the negativity that comes with it. Having a good management team that can help with balancing the workload is important to the success of a new product.
Food on Foot Tours | New York City
The idea for a new tour came about after listening to operators complain about their food options and space and cost issues in the city. Working now with leading food halls in NYC, the package we give operators includes a seated event where their guests have market dollars (fake money) to spend however they like with about 15 gourmet vendors.
Cinderella Travel | Rego Park, New York
Sometimes efforts and investments are washed out by the changes in the industry. We are constantly looking for new ways to find new clientele, and it’s not always technology. Service and personal touch are more important than technology.
Terra Lu Travel | Homberg, Germany
Our work as a B2B inbound supplier is still very traditional. We are not working directly with travelers, so we do not have to follow every new communication technology and trend. However, we follow trends closely. Having teenagers at home helps a lot to understand new needs of fast communication.
To see Part 2 of this article, click here.
Top photo by DepositPhotos/3DConceptsMan