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TAP into the Future

The future looks bright for Travel Alliance Partners, the innovative consortium of tour operators founded in 2001. In the more than 15 years since it started, the organization often referred to as TAP has taken hundreds of groups on trips around the world. And an exciting array of new technologies and marketing approaches has the partners positioned to serve more group travel planners than ever before.

TAP began when a number of individual tour operators saw an opportunity for cooperation that could lead to increased business for everyone. The first partners in the organization made an agreement to buy into and sell each other’s products, which meant that a company in the West could sell its customers a tour put together by a partner in the Southeast, for instance. The idea caught on, and the partnership has grown to include dozens of tour companies that offer trips throughout North America and around the world.

Each member company is a partner and owner of TAP, and each has its own expertise. Most TAP tour operators specialize in travel to a certain region, such as a group of American states, Canadian provinces or international destinations. Others focus on a specific type of travel experience, such as sports, history, outdoors or cruises.

By participating in TAP, each of these tour companies opens its catalog of tours to the other partners in the organization, who can sell space on those trips to their own customers. With this wide range of travel products at their disposal, each partner can offer their local customers access to expertly designed tours in places where they don’t have personal experience. And because of the power of partnership, the trips that each company creates are sold through the entire network of other TAP operators, giving them a larger market presence that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

The most popular of these trips are offered as Guaranteed Departures — trips that are guaranteed to run regardless of how many or how few people book them. Customers and group leaders never have to worry that one of these trips will be cancelled due to low interest.

But the TAP catalog also includes other scheduled tours, as well as opportunities for group leaders to work with TAP partners to build customized experiences for their groups.

“Custom tours are now the fastest-growing segment of our tour departures,” said TAP executive director Stefanie Gorder. “And every day there is fresh product being loaded onto by one of our tour operators, so there is always new product there. It is constantly changing.”

An Expanding Reach

Much of TAP’s growth in recent years is due to a number of forward-looking marketing efforts. The organization debuted a new website recently and has been using the site not only to sell trips but also to inspire travelers with editorial content.

“We have a brand-new blog available on our home page, and it’s great content,” Gorder said. “Right now it’s all about the holiday season. We’ve also done articles on things like Kit Carson’s Old West and the history of some old towns in the Western states. We have done articles on patriotic tours and student travel. Because it’s not just the senior market — we’re now reaching out to millennial travelers and student travelers too.”

TAP has also found success in its webinar series, TAP Tuesday. Held each Tuesday at two o’clock, these informative online sessions feature TAP partners providing in-depth information about specific destinations that they sell, giving travel planners valuable resources for tour research. Each session is recorded and made available in an online archive, so visitors can get the information even if they aren’t able to attend on a Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re not only focusing on great new tour products, but we’re also providing educational tidbits,” Gorder said. “So once a month they address how travel planners can make more money, enhance their marketing or move into additional markets. These educational components are there to help viewers grow their business.”

Another effort to help travel planners is the TAP Tour Wrap. This technology tool allows group leaders, travel agents and independent tour operators to display TAP’s online catalog of trips to their customers through their own websites, without redirecting them to TAP’s home page.

“This year, anyone who is connected to The Group Travel Leader can have a complimentary TAP Wrap,” Gorder said. “Anyone who calls and says they read about it in this magazine will get a free wrap if they have an active website.”

Betting on TAP

TAP is also reaching out to travel planners by inviting them to get a behind-the-scenes look at the organization and its unique benefits. Formally known as the Buyer’s Education Tour — but more frequently called BET on TAP — this program is available to qualified group travel leaders and tour operators.

“It allows travel professionals to join us at our exclusive June event, TAP Dance,” Gorder said. “Buyers of travel or potential partners can come in and see how we operate by attending a portion of our annual conference and then going on the local familiarization tours after the conference ends.

“We tested the concept this year, and it worked out really well. It will be approved travel professionals, and there will be a screening process. They can meet with TAP partners and our Preferred Professional Travel Providers [PPTPs] and see what it’s like on the inside of TAP. They can talk to people about putting together exclusive, custom trips or even about becoming a TAP partner.”

The BET on TAP program will make a good opportunity for professional tour operators who are interested in becoming members of the partnership to learn more about how it works. Gorder also said that TAP hopes to grow its membership ranks in the coming year, and that a number of new tour companies are already in the application process.

“We want to continue to find new partners that fill holes of destinations and services that aren’t currently in our portfolio,” she said. “We expect 2017 to be a year of real growth.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.