Thousands of travel professionals—representing destinations, hotels, attractions, sightseeing companies, etc.—work with NTA tour operators and their groups. But what goes into assembling a group and putting them on the road to explore new places and ideas?
We asked representatives of three NTA tour operators how they do it:
- Tom Armstrong Corporate communications manager, Tauck
- Cathy Greteman President, Star Destinations
- Diane Sphar President, Ohio Travel Treasures
Their companies use different business models, but each operator strives to create unique and memorable tours that meet the traveling goals of their customers.
How do you assemble groups: Do you start with an idea to get a group, or do you start with a group and get an idea?
Sphar: I typically create an idea. I look at a potential destination and see what kind of treasures we need to find to make a tour exciting. We look for WOW factors. We usually theme the tour, e.g., Made in America (factory tours); American Pride; Tour of Biblical Proportion; Baubles, Bows, Boutiques and Blue Suede Shoes; Christmas Stars in Nashville, etc. I am a wholesaler of over 100 different and unique tours that I create, and we run more than 800 customized tours a year.
Armstrong: Groups aren’t typically initiated or created by Tauck. Rather, groups that are already formed (or are in the process of being formed) will come to us, either through a travel advisor or directly. Those types of groups include family, alumni, affinity, culinary and incentive. Depending on the group size and whether they’re traveling on a land tour or cruise itinerary, the group may travel on the same departure as other Tauck guests, or, if large enough, they may reserve an entire departure exclusively for their group.
Greteman: We work primarily with preformed groups. Most are groups of people, organizations or clubs that we already have a relationship with. Generally we focus on sharing with them the destinations that are new or current and hot. We often know their typical group size, and we understand what appeals to their frequent travelers. We show them an itinerary and, based on what we know about the clients, it includes adjustments to the class of hotels and the number of meals and attractions.
What about different sizes of groups? What changes when you take six or 60 people?
Greteman: Small groups are much easier to handle. You can use different transportation sizes, and you have so many more options for small groups. For example, you can allow them to order off a limited menu in restaurants. We’re finding that small-group travel is a very popular option for people who are experienced travelers.
With large groups, you are challenged by the number of airline seats available, if flying together is a requirement. Also, we like included-food options to be a special event, and it can be a challenge to find food venues that give the group the attention they deserve. On the other hand, we do have special food events that are only practical to use if you have a large group.
Armstrong: We really don’t do customized tours or cruises, so when groups travel with Tauck, they’re experiencing one of existing itineraries. For us to host a group of 40 isn’t really any different than hosting a group of 10. And by traveling on one of our existing trips, the group enjoys the benefit of all the planning, choreography and refinements we’ve already invested in that itinerary.
Sphar: I do not run tours for less than 20 people, and a large group can fill upwards of 10 to 15 coaches. It does take some juggling when you’re dealing with smaller attractions or limited space. As an example, if there is a tram that only holds 35 people, then you have to allow enough time for the group to do two different things: You need to find something for half of the group to do while the other half takes the tram tour, and then you flip them. It takes more coordination, but we make it work.
How do you find the balance for customizing an itinerary, in terms of time spent planning vs. margin per guest?
Sphar: We customize every tour we do, with groups coming from all across the United States to go on our tours. It is time consuming, but I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter tour company. I want groups to be able to have something different. It might be stops along the way or overnight locations. It could be a special dinner or private entertainment, and it flows with the tour theme. Also, we need to be aware of mileage and have groups that are coming from shorter distances do something different than those coming from longer distances. No one likes bus butt!
Greteman: We only do custom itineraries. It’s time consuming, but it gives the group leaders an exclusive trip that cannot be cost-compared to a similar tour. And yes, they are a bit more expensive, but in the end the difference is that you are giving your customers a trip that is tailored to them and that brings them home with real bragging rights. We can give customers experiences they could not create for themselves, and the relationships they build and the ease of group travel is a real selling point.
How has your business changed over the years?
Armstrong: We’ve seen more large family reunion groups, likely as a result of families now being more scattered geographically. With family get-togethers already requiring vacation time and airplane flights, it makes sense to make the gathering into a real occasion and have it in a fun destination.
Getting consensus among family members (or any other group) can be difficult, but with Tauck, only two decisions need to be made: Which itinerary should the group take … and which departure date should they travel on? Everything else is handled by Tauck: organizing the itinerary, planning the sightseeing, and choosing hotels and restaurants. And because everyone pays their own share of the cost before the trip, there’s no mounting tension about financial arrangements and “who’s-paid-what-so-far” concerns over the course of the trip.
Greteman: No longer are group leaders expecting to fill a 56-passenger bus. Often the first thing that a prospective traveler asks about is how many people will be in the group. They understand it takes a lot more time getting 50 people off a bus versus 20. They know how hard it is to serve 50 people a great meal. They also know that the more guests you have, the higher chance of problems, which can slow the pace of a trip. Group sizes have gone down and the price of tours has gone up, but believe me: People are willing to pay for small-group experiences.
Another trend is the age of groups. Boomers are here, and they are definitely traveling. But they’re not the typical group traveler of yesterday. They want exciting activities, great food and nice hotel properties. They want early admissions and private tours. And they want new destinations, or traditional destinations that offer exciting new activities. The key thing is they are willing to pay for it. Once they try a small-group tour, they are hooked.
Sphar: We have changed a lot since 1992. Gone are the days of visiting museums and being behind a red rope. Travelers want the museum to come alive. They want re-enactors, they want to meet with a survivor at a shipwreck museum, and they want to see the picture on the wall brought back alive.
And people want bragging rights. Show them the world’s smallest or largest. Let them meet the makers and talk with the bakers and candlestick makers. Create VIP experiences, such as having an event open early just for tour. This works for major shopping events, theaters, etc. All of us who create tours must take into consideration that interests have changed, and we need to forget what used to work. Bring the tour to life!
Trends in tour packages
The National Tour Association surveys its tour operator members each year and asks, among other things, about the percentage of business that their company derives from three types of packaged tours. From 2010 to 2017:
- Scheduled tours remained about the same, increasing from 40% of overall business in 2010 to 41.7% in 2017.
- Customized tours decreased from 51% to 44.4%.
- But FIT, which could be considered a type of customized tour, increased from 9% to nearly 14%.
Top photo ©Syda Productions/Adobe Stock