Every thriving tour company started with an idea. That idea differed from one entrepreneur to another, but at the heart of each was how to share a love of travel with others.
Successful tour operators don’t need elaborate marketing strategies to attract customers. They don’t know the one elusive social media secret that allows them to sell out each tour. Instead, these tour companies simply listen. They listen to trends and to their travelers for which direction to take the company next.
Everyone can learn some useful business lessons from how these five tour operators grew their group business from the ground up.
Royal Tours and Travel
About 35 years ago, a group of people in Smithfield, Virginia, needed someone with a background in history to lead a tour. They asked a retired history teacher, and she enjoyed the experience so much that she started Royal Tours and Travel. Several years ago, another retired history teacher, Donna Adams, took over the company.
“During my years in education, I had taken kids overseas to Europe and different places,” said Adams, owner and president of Royal Tours and Travel. “Travel is in my blood. Now, because I plan all the trips, I know all the history and details of every place we visit. I’ve done the research myself. That makes a huge difference. I’ve seen people who just go by the itinerary when they lead tours. If I plan a trip, I’m calling to find out everything that happens once I walk in the front door of an attraction. People will say, ‘You’ve been here before.’ But I haven’t. I’ve just researched it well.”
Adams books trip ranging from a three-day women’s trip to Abingdon, Virginia, to a seven-day exploration of Iceland. Her biannual mystery tours sell out months in advance. Sometimes she will receive calls from people trying to reserve a spot on them before she has even planned them.
She said part of her success is understanding her niche. She plans trips primarily for senior citizens, which she says these days are asking for extra comforts during tours.
“People want to be treated special,” said Adams. “They want to go to great restaurants. They don’t want a crowded motorcoach. I don’t pack my buses by choice. I like my folks to be able to get up, play cards and talk with one another. The motorcoaches also have electrical outlets and Wi-Fi.”
Adams’ marketing strategy includes an up-to-date website, social media, brochures and, most importantly, treating her travelers like family. New members trickle in on their own through word-of-mouth. Recently, one client brought in eight new people through a recommendation.
“You really have to have a passion for travel and really love people,” said Adams. “Your primary response has to be wanting to make people happy.”
When Charlene Troggio and Chris LaCivita decided to partner and start Breakaway Tours in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, they began small with a trip to the Ice Capades.
“We planned it in two weeks and thought, ‘Hey, this is easy.’ Turns out it’s not,” said Troggio, laughing. “We’ve gradually grown over the years. We’ve been in business 27 years. We plan about 200 trips a year, with about 75 day trips and the rest between two and six overnights.”
The company operates a travel agency that brings in 15% of the business. About 75% of the rest of their business is retail with preformed tours, and the rest comes from preformed groups calling and asking for custom-made tours.
When Troggio and LaCivita started the business, they were using typewriters and landlines. To keep up with technology, Troggio said the company simply adapted one change at a time.
“It’s just constant change in the tour business,” said Troggio. “In the early days if you had a problem, the driver had to look for a pay phone. Now everyone has a smartphone.”
In addition to changing technology, the team has also worked to stay on top of changes in traveler preferences. Troggio remembers when clients wanted every minute of the day planned. Now she works to add in free time and adventurous options for boomers.
“We try to go to travel shows like ABA, Travel South and Heartland to stay current,” said Troggio. “I recently hired my granddaughter, who helps with the technology. You just have to try to keep ahead of it.”
Breakaway Tours uses a variety of methods to market their tours, including social media, website posts and direct mail. The company plans a huge travel show each spring with vendors and approximately 600 potential customers.
“The biggest way we get new people is word-of-mouth,” said Troggio. “Sometimes, groups will come out of our retail travelers. One traveler came to us and said their church would like to see a religious site with us. You have to keep your eyes and ears open; then they come.”
If staff members of Star Destinations receive a phone call at 11 p.m., they know to answer the phone. It might be a group in trouble. Based in Carroll, Iowa, Star Destinations sends groups all over the world. The company prides itself on being available for groups for every step of the tour.
“Our travelers have comfort knowing they can always call and there is someone to help them,” said Cathy Greteman, president of Star Destinations.
Star Destinations started in 1984 in the student market. The company transitioned to leisure groups as the staff learned the preferences of the adult group market. The company started customizing tours to fit the needs of each group. Greteman finds that this model has helped develop a large and loyal base of group leader customers.
“Many times people will be surprised we don’t have a travel catalog,” said Greteman. “We don’t because we want our program to be unique and special for that group. Group leaders will start with one or two trips a year. Once they understand they are getting something unusual, they will eventually start doing three or five trips a year with us. As long as the group leaders understand their customers, we can create a quality product for them.”
Star Destinations will partner with the group leader to provide marketing materials and presentations for potential travelers. Greteman and her staff regularly plan both visual and face-to-face presentations to convince members to sign up for a tour.
Another way Star Destinations has stayed relevant over the years is by understanding the changing preferences of travelers.
“We are really strongly into the boomer market,” said Greteman. “I have discovered boomers are a little more independent travelers, but they love the group experience. Once you get them on a quality group experience, they are ready to come back for more. They like time on their own, a little adventure and nice accommodations. Meals aren’t just a meal but more of an event.”
Star Destinations doesn’t spend much effort in marketing beyond social media and involvement in several travel organizations. The tour operator primarily focuses on presenting a quality program.
“Our goal isn’t for Star Destinations to shine,” said Greteman. “Our goal is for the group to shine. You don’t see our name in a lot of the materials we make. It’s all about them.”
For Bob Cline, CEO and founder of U.S. Tours, running a tour company has had its bumps along the way. Opened in 1996, the company, based in Vienna, West Virginia, thrives with two affiliated tour companies and has received several awards for innovation from the American Bus Association. Cline remembers all that success came with a lot of on-the-job learning.
“My mom always said I was a slow learner,” said Cline. “I’m a survivor, and here I am today in spite of all the stumbles I’ve had along the way. A way to explain our recent business growth is that I learned how to run a business.”
Rather than going along with what everyone else was doing, Cline always chose originality, which benefited his company by setting it apart in style. U.S. Tours’ signature events blend history with travel fun. For example, where else could groups watch a Johnny Cash-themed concert in a prison or explore Hawaii on an Elvis-themed trip?
“Innovation and humor are a major part of a lot of our trips,” said Cline. “I’ve always believed in alternative ideas. The boomer market is different. If you aren’t looking for alternatives to what you did last year, you simply won’t have a business next year.”
U.S. Tours focuses on staying up-to-date on technology and marketing with social media, print advertising, trade shows and research. The company’s sales team helps hunt down new opportunities, both face-to-face and otherwise. Many opportunities come from happy clients looking for more business.
“We are the largest seller of the Kentucky Derby in the group tour market,” said Cline. “It is a different program than anyone else does.
Brian Doughty, owner and president of Trips, says his No. 1 marketing strategy is happy customers.
“It’s old-school thinking to take care of the customers you’ve got,” said Doughty. “We really focus on taking care of the customers who work with us because we appreciate their trust in us. We make sure those loyal customers are taken care of every time. We want them to come back over and over again, so it just makes sense.”
Based in North Hollywood, California, Trips focuses on building relationships with its clients, as well as encourages relationships among the group leaders themselves.
“We have created a family of group leaders that all know each other,” said Doughty. “That lends itself to a nice camaraderie. We host events where we can all meet for a long weekend somewhere. They all do different tours in different years and love when they get to go on tour with one another.”
Doughty says he also fosters old and new relationships at the Select Traveler Conference, which is the main marketing event the company sponsors.
The 20-year-old company began with an emphasis on tours to Italy. Gradually, it diversified to tours all over the world to build a substantial portfolio of destinations.
“It was very time-consuming because you want to make sure what you create works,” said Doughty. “We are well known for our Kenyan safaris, Cape Cod, Montana, Europe and many, many other places.”
Trips helps group leaders make their members comfortable traveling overseas by relaying plenty of information about the destination before the trip.
“The more the travelers know about a destination, the better time they will have there,” said Doughty. “They are far happier when they come prepared than if not.”