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Group leaders can gather like-minded travelers—such as these trekkers at Mount Norquay in Banff, Alberta—for tour operator-led adventures.

Post-COVID advice for group leaders

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postedAugust 18, 2020
The short road ahead for the travel industry is pot-holed with COVID closures and protocols. But around the corner, when the disease is under control, tour operators and group leaders can plan with confidence … and they’ll look to each other for help.

“Group leaders need to remain strong and hopeful. Travel will come back once our clients understand how much hotels, restaurants, motorcoach companies, and attractions are doing to keep them safe,” says Cathy Greteman, CTP, president of Star Destinations. “When group leaders choose a tour operator that focuses on providing the best travel experiences in a safe and measured environment, they will come away with a successful series of tours they can be proud to offer.”

Courier asked five veteran NTA tour operators about working with group leaders in the months and years ahead.

Brent Dalrymple  |  Sunrise Tours  |  St. Louis, Missouri
Taunya Wolfe Finn, CTP  |  Wolfe Adventures & Tours  |  Newburyport, Massachusetts
Cathy Greteman, CTP  |  Star Destinations  |  Carroll, Iowa
Paul Larsen  |  Ed-Ventures  |  Rochester, Minnesota
Justin Osbon  |  Image Tours  |  Grand Rapids, Michigan

How do group leaders fit into your business model?

Larsen: Group leaders come in many flavors, and as an operator of custom tours, we work with all types of group leaders. They can be teachers, faith leaders, music directors, bank club leaders, business leaders, a traveler who initiates trips with their friends, an activity director at a senior center, a book club leader, a wine connoisseur, or a travel agent who recruits groups.

Osbon: We are a wholesaler, and they fit very well within our model of selling our tours through travel agents, operators, and group leaders.

Greteman: We are primarily a wholesale custom group-tour company. We see group leaders playing a very important role for travelers who are like-minded, come from the same area, and like to travel with friends. Group leaders bring these people together, choose the tour and the tour components, and organize the participants. It is a win-win for us.

How do you connect with your group leaders?

Wolfe Finn: We connect in person—visiting them or at trade shows—or via personal emails and phone calls. We love working with our group leaders and helping them get their groups on the road.

Greteman: The best way for us to find group leaders is by word of mouth. Our outstanding customer service and ease of working together brings group leaders to us, especially if they have other jobs or are new to gathering groups. We attend trade shows and markets to introduce ourselves, but most often we rely on references. We always welcome group leaders to call us and have a conversation about the future of group travel.

Larsen: With faith leaders, it is often a matter of going to where they are, such as coffee shops, conferences, or social activities in the community. Print promotions work, too, but that takes more financial investment than a cup of coffee—and a lot more time to develop the relationship. As Ed-Ventures’ reputation grew, referrals became a big part of the picture as well. Teachers will respond to local events hosted for them, and letting them know they are appreciated is a good way to start. Websites and social media can be effective, but building a relationship is what brings long-term results.

What’s your idea of a perfect group leader?

Osbon: The perfect group leader keeps their group informed and works with the tour operator to ensure the clients have a trip of a lifetime. They are organized and well-informed, and they understand the trip is for their clients.

Dalrymple: A perfect group leader is clear and decisive with me about the travel package in which the group is interested. They are also clear about the process by which a tour package will be chosen, letting me know if we are in competition with other operators and when a decision will be made. Finally, a perfect group leader makes a strong effort to market the package to their travelers through mailings, newsletters, and emails.

Wolfe Finn: Our current group leaders care about their groups and the experiences they have. A great leader’s groups would follow them to the end of the earth and not even think twice! Trust is huge.

Larsen: A perfect group leader is a partner who understands the importance of their role as well as the expertise of the tour operator. They love to travel and relate to people. They have a purpose for their travel, and they have a group of people who trust them and like to travel with them.

Greteman: The best group leaders are enthusiastic and passionate about sharing new and exciting destinations and experiences with their club, their membership, or their clients. They are more concerned about choosing destinations that appeal to their travelers rather than themselves. They are organized, timely, and communicative.

What can group leaders be doing now, while travel is on hold?

Dalrymple: In the time of COVID, they should maintain communication with their travelers so when the pandemic passes, they can quickly deliver a viable group. Don’t let travelers forget about the travel group!

Greteman: We are encouraging our group leaders to stay in touch with their travelers. We also suggest that they survey their travelers to see how far they will be comfortable traveling in the coming months. Will they only want to travel by motorcoach? Will they fly domestically or internationally? This also helps to discover what destinations are at the top of their bucket list.

Osbon: They can be doing research to see where their travelers want to go, learn about the destinations, determine which tour operators specialize in those places, and start a dialog with those operators. Then when it is safe to travel again, everyone can hit the ground running.

Larsen: They can go on some day trips—and really get creative. Visit the local German brewery to see if someone might someday have an Oktoberfest trip to Germany on their bucket list. Go to a museum or take a cruise on one of the Great Lakes. Host a virtual party with a local guide from overseas. The possibilities are endless.

What will the role of group leaders look like after COVID concerns pass?

Wolfe Finn: Group leaders are going to continue to be someone their students, parents, and adult travelers seek out to make sure they can trust the tour company, the itinerary, and their overall experience. Travelers will want to know their health and safety concerns are being taken seriously, and group leaders can work with their tour operator to make sure everyone is on the same page with appropriate precautions being taken by all the sites, transportation companies, hotels, and guides.

Larsen: The role of the group leader will be much the same with one exception: They will be needed to reassure the traveler that it is time to take off again. They will be helpful in the education process and can help speed the recovery along. Every group leader we talk to and educate will reach a much larger pool of people who trust them, and those travelers will be reassured.

Greteman: We have encouraged our group leaders to not worry about filling the bus. For a number of years, we have based our tours on smaller group sizes, and this is exactly what the post-COVID environment will look like, at least in the near future. Communication is key, and travelers trust their group leaders to make the best choices for them in the travel providers that they work with. Teamwork will get us all through this.

Osbon: Travelers will look to group leaders for guidance, and when the leaders are ready, they will rally the troops and start filling tours. They will be the Pied Piper that tour operators enjoy working with.

Larsen is confident that travel experts will get through the uncertain times of travel’s recovery. “It is important for all parts of the industry to work together in any way we can,” he says. “We in the travel and tourism industry will have a significant role to play in bringing the world and its people back together.”

Top photo: Group leaders can gather like-minded travelers—such as these trekkers at Mount Norquay in Banff, Alberta—for tour operator-led adventures.
Photo by Pat Henderson