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Doune Castle

Contingency planning in an unpredictable industry

A UK tour company has learned to look (and even cook) ahead.
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postedApril 1, 2019

We’ve all been there. The event has been announced, the itinerary put together, the accommodations secured and the ground services finalized. A year passes by without interruption. Then, without warning, disaster strikes.

As tour operators, we have to accept that there are occasional circumstances that are out of our control. One of my favorite travel-crisis anecdotes concerns a group walking tour in a remote English village. Despite making reservations 12 months in advance, the hotel we had chosen went into administration (bankruptcy) just three days before the group arrived.

Understandably, there were no vacancies at such short notice in this secluded village. The obvious answer was to cancel the reservation, but we didn’t want to give up. After hours of searching, we managed to find a charming country house with space. There was just one problem: It was self-catered.

Rather than admit defeat, we sent our team out to cook, clean and entertain for the group. It was a little unconventional, but the group members were thrilled that they didn’t have to cancel their plans. It was also a valuable lesson in contingency planning.

Knowledge of the industry teaches us how to mitigate the effects of such disasters. Experience, on the other hand, equips us with the foresight to plan for nearly all eventualities, be they logistical, financial, geographical, cultural or even political.

When planning packages, tour operators need to consider all these factors. Ideally, it’s prudent to think two or even three years ahead. Something as seemingly trivial as a new movie release can have monumental effects on tourism.

  • “Slumdog Millionaire” turned a Dharavi slum into a tourist attraction in India that grows by 50 percent each year.
  • Thousands flock to the Philadelphia Museum of Art just to climb the famous “Rocky steps.”
  • Even British guilty pleasure “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” put Scotland’s Doune Castle on the map. (Long before “Game of Thrones,” millennials.)

Not-so-welcome developments

Of course, package planning is about more than just subscribing to “The Hollywood Reporter.” While it’s wise to expect an influx of requests for destinations based on popular culture, we should also plan for not-so-welcome developments. A common mistake for tour operators is to quote a package price years in advance without considering realistic inflation hikes. And new government levies may crop up suddenly.

A recent blow to inbound tourism in Europe was the Irish 2019 Budget Statement, released in October 2018. Starting Jan. 1, the value-added tax for activities in the tourism and hospitality sectors has risen by 50 percent, increasing from 9 percent to 13.5 percent.

On the face of this, tour operators could argue that they had little time to prepare for such an increase and the consequences that came with it. However, in July 2017, the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation published a paper that outlined the importance of the VAT, hinting at the potential increase in years to come. It’s also worth noting that the 9 percent rate was actually a reduction, introduced in 2011 as a “temporary measure” to boost tourism. Perhaps the shrewdest tour operators were planning for a change as far as eight years ago.

Tour operators can by no means be expected to be psychic, but they can formulate realistic solutions. Take, for example, the recently proposed visitor tax in Venice, which comes into effect in May. Tour operators can plan itineraries around this flexible fee, which will range from 65 cents to $13 per person, depending on whether travellers arrive in low or high season. Note that this is for day travellers only, as those staying in hotels are subject to an overnight tax; however, there is talk of the hotel tax increasing from $6.50 to $13 per person. It’s better to allow for these increases when conducting pricing or contract reviews than to take the hit later on or, worse still, risk damaging your reputation with your clients.

At this point, we cannot overlook the value of our relationships with suppliers. In cases such as the above-mentioned reservation chaos, having reliable on-the-ground contacts is the difference between winning and losing a sale. You never know when your chosen hotel could be hit by a change: a refurbishment project, a burst pipe, a fire … even a total shutdown. Knowing that you have a Plan B contact provides additional assurance to your groups. How you handle these changes—for example, arranging coach services for hotels slightly further out—can directly impact your customer feedback.

Opportunities that arise

Being prepared doesn’t always mean preparing for the worst, though! Just as challenges can arise out of changing situations, so too can opportunities. Keeping your finger on the pulse for new hotel openings, new airline routes and special events or accolades will all help you better serve your groups.

For example, beginning in April, Pennsylvania groups can fly directly from Pittsburgh to London Heathrow with British Airways, while direct routes will also be available from Charleston, South Carolina. London is a great stopover point for new routes into Europe, including Kiev and Bourgas, Bulgaria’s new up-and-coming destination.

Speaking of hot new destinations, look out for cities that have been chosen as European Capitals of Culture, a desig-nation bestowed years in advance by the European Union. In 2020, Croatian seaport Rijeka will welcome visitors to 17th-century cathedrals, and Galway, Ireland, also gets its year in the spotlight. In 2021, Timisoara, Romania, will give travellers a fresh look at the flamenco art form as one of three cultural capital cities.

Timisoara, Romania (Photo by

Working with sports groups? Expect big changes in the next two years. In October, NFL London will host games at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. Former NFL star Osi Umenyiora has described the stadium as “incredible,” and the games will follow what is sure to be show-stopping experience at baseball’s inaugural MLB London Series this June. For golf fans, the 150th Open, in 2021, promises to deliver an extra-special outing over in St. Andrews, while NBA Europe is rumored to take pro basketball from London to Paris next year for the first time.

So, how do we plan two years in advance? By consulting our trusted sources, of course: travel insights from organizations such as NTA and Creative Europe, newsletters, trade shows, sports bulletins and even whispers from our partners and clients can all help us to plan ahead. This goes hand-in-hand with an efficient stream of communication. We cannot stress enough the importance of keeping clients and end users informed. Take it from us: It will make all the difference if disaster strikes.

Katie Thompson represents The Group Company, based in York, England; Boston; and Maastricht, Netherlands. The Group Company is an award-winning provider of accommodations, custom-made itineraries and ground services to tour operators.

Ones to Watch

Rijeka, Croatia
Rijeka, Croatia, will be one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2020. (Photo by

Take note of these changes in destinations around the world that could impact your tours:

  • Washington, D.C.’s Newseum (an NTA member), celebrating journalism and the First Amendment, will close on Dec. 31.
  • Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House is now taking bookings only up to two months in advance.
  • London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone will come into force April 8. Any motorcoaches not adhering to emissions standards may have to pay a $130 daily charge.
  • Florence’s Uffizi Gallery will no longer permit groups of more than 25. Groups of 15–25 visitors will be subject to an $80 charge.
  • Madrid’s four access-restricted zones (Areas de Prioridad Residencial) have been merged into one, although tour coaches will be permitted to enter until 2023.
  • Edinburgh is among three U.K. cities considering a tourist tax, with a $2.60 charge per hotel room per night (up to seven days). Bath and York are also considering similar levies.
  • Japan’s tourist tax is now in operation, charging all travellers $9 when departing by air.
  • Croatia’s first Hard Rock Hotel is coming to Rijeka in 2020, just in time for the European Capital of Culture celebrations.

Top photo: Doune Castle in Stirling, Scotland, was a filming location for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Photo by CC Wikimedia Commons/GODOT13:


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