What is a tour operator?
A professional tour operator is basically an individual, partnership or corporation that designs, markets and operates group or individual tour programs as a business, and for a profit.
Like any other profession, there are certainly great tour operators, good and mediocre ones, and a few that a group leader would be well advised to avoid. Conscientious tour operators have spent many years learning their trade, participating in industry events and educational seminars, traveling extensively and preparing to serve group organizers to the best of their considerable abilities.
Except for the largest international corporations, almost all operators specialize in one or a limited number of product types, destination areas or target markets. Most realize that it is literally impossible to successfully be all things to all people, and structure their products accordingly. As a result, group leaders are likely to find it helpful to locate an operator whose area of specialization matches their specific need.
Group leaders seeking a good tour operator should best begin by researching members who not only belong to but actively participate in one or more of the major professional industry trade associations such as the National Tour Association, United States Tour Operators Association or the American Bus Association. And remember that reputations for honesty and integrity are not automatic: Tour operators must continue to earn these accolades every day, even after many years in business.
Value and advantage to working with tour operators
One of the best reasons for using a professional tour operator is simply to be able to offer quality trips to destinations with which a group leader is personally unfamiliar. Most group leaders that the author has encountered have tended to create and operate their own one-day and/or short regional trips, while relying on outside operators to handle longer or more involved tour programs, cruises and international travel.
It makes little sense for a group leader to attempt to “recreate the wheel” by personally tackling a one-time extended trip without the necessary destination knowledge, when operators with a vast amount of experience and buying power on the type of program desired are readily available. Professional “partners” are able to combine all of their business (i.e. multiple tour departures) to negotiate rates for which a group leader will never be able to qualify. And using their services allows a group leader to concentrate on promoting and filling the trip rather than operational matters.
Most established tour operators also provide group leaders with an entire program of incentives, such as commissions on sales, complimentary trips, customized fliers and trip documents, promotional “giveaway” items, and familiarization tour opportunities.
Tips for working with tour operators
First, please note that it is certainly not necessary, nor sometimes advantageous, for a group leader to utilize an operator that is domiciled in his or her community or state. Toll-free numbers, inexpensive long-distance calling, cell phones, e-mails and faxes make frequent communications with an operator located across the country a breeze, and most such companies will be happy to dispatch a representative in person whenever needed.
Second, individual operator personnel who have “gone the extra mile” to continue their education and update their knowledge by earning one or more professional industry certifications are generally worth additional group leader consideration. Such individuals can be identified by the initials shown behind their name on business communications, initials like CTP, CTIS, MCC, ACC, CTIE, CTC or DS.
Finally, most successful group leaders realize that it is just not a good idea to “put all of their eggs in one basket” by working regularly with only one tour operator. Instead, it just makes good sense to get a couple of competitive bids on any trip, requested from a “short list” of trusted companies. This helps make absolutely certain that these suppliers keep their pencils sharp and work hard continuously to earn and keep the group’s business.