Converting Clients by Countering Escorted Tour Misconceptions

More travel agents are finding success by diversifying their product offerings and focusing on escorted tours By: Kenneth Shapiro

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As travel agencies look for ways to adapt to the realities of the recent recession, escorted tours have become an option for agents needing to diversify and survive. With a wide range of itineraries, positive customer feedback and high commissions, escorted tours have become hugely popular with clients and agents, yet there are still some travelers that have outdated ideas of what the escorted tour experience is like. This panel at the recent ExecConnect looked for ways that agents can increase business from selling more escorted tours.

Panel participants included Jim Kelly, vice president of sales for CIE Tours; Sharon Symons, director of travel industry sales for the Globus Family of Brands; Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations; and Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours.

Current Tour Market

According to all the panelists, escorted tours are selling better than ever as part of an upward trend. Kazlauskas said that, as customers come back satisfied, they are telling friends about the value and quality of escorted tours, while, at the same time, agents are seeing commissions from $700 to as much as $1,000 per couple. So the combination of happy customers and great commissions is helping to fuel the industry’s growth.

Wiseman referenced a global trends study that indicated that one common complaint among all agents is the fact that they have to do more work for less reward. As cruise lines slash prices and increase non-commissionable fees, agents’ profits are getting squeezed.

“So we’re seeing a lot of cruise-only agents now turning to selling escorted tours,” he said. “Because there are similarities in the type of product, it’s a fairly logical step.”

Symons pointed out that the Globus brands do a lot of demographic studies of their customers and that agents should take a look at that information to see how the industry is growing.

“We did a study in 2009, and we found that 30 percent of our customers were actually new to escorted travel,” Symons said. “And when we asked them why they picked escorted tours, it wasn’t because of price. It was because they didn’t want to take care of their own logistics — it was complicated, it was unfamiliar — so my advice to agents would be not to talk only to the price, but to the fact that escorted tours is like hitting an ‘easy button’ for consumers.”

Escorted Tour Misconceptions

There are a lot of misconceptions with travelers, and even some agents, when it comes to the escorted tour experience. Over-packed itineraries, early mornings and rushed schedules are just some of the outdated notions. All the tour operators on the panel have worked hard to counter these misconceptions.

“The first thing that agents need to know in order to sell these products is that potential clients probably have the wrong concept of them,” said Wiseman. “So agents should take a good look and develop some key words and key products that they can show to clients that really will change the perception that they have. Ask key questions about what their perceptions are on escorted tours and then be prepared with examples to counter that.”

Kazlauskas said that a key reason customers give for booking an escorted tour is the advice of their travel agent. He said that when clients come into a travel agency with a cruise offer, it’s up to the agent to ask the questions and consult with the clients to see if cruising really is the best choice for them.

“We need agents to, first of all, be confident that it’s a great product and that we will take care of their customers and make sure they will have a great time,” he said. “Secondly, we need agents to go out there and offer it as an alternative to other forms of travel, including cruising.”

Symons said that some agents run into customers who are worried about the size of the groups. For those clients, she suggested focusing on tours with fewer departures that are more niche, “or try Monograms, which is very independent. All tour operators have a wide range of product offerings. There’s something for everyone.”

Symons also said that most tour operators have later departures these days, as well.

“Take a look at the map,” she said. “If there’s a lot of ground to cover that day, then it might be an early morning, but most of the time, tours start later in the morning.”

Cruising and Escorted Tours

Kelly suggested that agents are being asked to not only qualify their clients but, when appropriate, to convert their clients from cruise products to escorted tours. By doing this, he said, agents can not only grow their businesses and make their business more profitable, but make their clientele happy because of the varied products tour operators offer.

“What we find is that there’s huge client satisfaction with touring, and those customers come back and want to go to other places and tell others about their experience,” Kelly said. “So there is a real growth in overall business.”

Kazlauskas pointed out that the escorted tour product can easily hold its own against cruising as well.

“I was looking through a cruise brochure onboard this ship and everyone is so fixated on escorted tours spending just a day in every city, which is far from the truth these days,” Kazlauskas said, “but cruise itineraries spend less time than that in most cities. They go around Europe, rather than through Europe.”

Wiseman told the story of one agent who became successful selling escorted tours by asking every customer who said they were interested in a cruise to Europe if they would rather “take a cruise or experience Europe? Pick one.”

“If they wanted to experience Europe,” said Wiseman, “then an escorted tour was simply the better choice.”

Kazlauskas agreed. He said it was important that agents have the confidence to ask the right questions to find out exactly what kind of experience a customer is looking for, including what destinations they are most interested in, because “cruising Europe and seeing Europe are two totally different things.”

“There are some destinations in central Spain or Italy, for instance, that you simply can’t see by taking a cruise” Kazlauskas said. “And you can’t be afraid to ask them the questions that might lead them to understand that they might be better off on a tour.”

Family Travel and Tours

Wiseman pointed out that since Sept. 11, families have wanted to travel together more than ever and, as a result, all travel suppliers, including Trafalgar, have added family programs. The value of these programs is particularly attractive to multigenerational families who will end up paying much more per person on an independent trip.

“Our price point on these packages is very strong,” he said, “probably around $2,200 to $2,400 per person, for a very nice experience at a great price point.”

Kazlauskas said one of the benefits of escorted touring for kids is that families can actually have a bonding experience together, instead of the kids disappearing into the kids’ club.

“Often times, a family member comes to a travel agent and says he or she wants to take a family vacation, and the agent says they should take a cruise without asking them what exactly they are looking to get out of the trip,” said Kazlauskas. “Tours are great for bonding and being together. Agents need to find out if that’s what the client is really looking for.”

Kelly said that as a niche tour operator to Ireland, Great Britain and the U.K., a big part of CIE’s business is groups, including families. In particular, ancestry travel is big for CIE Tours, so they make it easy to block space on a tour.

“I think all of us make it easy to block space on one of our tours, it’s very important to our businesses,” said Kelly. “Up to 35 percent of our business is this kind of blocked group business. We make multigenerational travel very easy and profitable for the agents.”

Symons said the Globus family tours can be customized to make sure there are experiences for the entire family, including young kids.

“It’s the same with small groups overall,” said Symons. “I advise agents to take a look at our itineraries and then we can arrange a pre- or post-trip customized itinerary from there.”

Selling Points of Escorted Tours

Kazlauskas said that the social aspect of the tour group is a major selling point for a lot of customers. He said people want a group with which they can mingle.

“People want to travel with groups of like-minded people, and often the travelers on each tour have a lot of things in common,” he said. “On an escorted tour you get to make some friends.”

Kazlauskas also pointed out that, with the emphasis on authentic travel experiences these days, clients need to be on the ground, in the cities, at night, in order to really experience the essence of Europe.

“And tour operators take care of all the details and make it easy to actually have an authentic experience of Europe,” he said.

Symons agreed.

“You need to tell your clients that you can handle all the logistics, all the details, so that they can have a truly great experience,” she said.

Symons said value is a major selling point for escorted touring. She pointed out that tours are as much as 40 percent less than traveling FIT.

“So when someone walks in the door and says they want to go FIT instead of escorted, just tell them the escorted price and say you’ll be paying 40 percent more than this,” she said. “Then they’ll look at you and say ‘What? It’s going to be 40 percent more than what you’re presenting to me here?’ Then they start thinking they had better take a closer look at escorted packages.”

Kelly agreed and also reminded agents that the client pre-pays about 85 percent of the cost of an escorted tour before he or she actually leaves on the trip, “which is a great selling point for agents.”

Kazlauskas said tour operators heard what the agents were saying about guaranteed departures, and they’ve made it much easier for agents to be certain about tour departures.

“You told us what you needed from us,” he said, “and we all listened, adapted and made the changes you asked for.”

Action Steps

The panelists came up with a range of tips for agents interested in growing their escorted tours business:

* Take advantage of the assistance the suppliers offer: Companies have sales reps, training programs, marketing resources, co-op funds, deals and more that agents can use as a resource. Agents shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.

* Sell to the key facts: Make value, authenticity and logistical support crucial messages of your sales approach. Escorted tours are a great combination of these three factors.

* Ask your clients questions: Find out what your clients’ perceptions are of an escorted tour because they are probably mistaken. Don’t assume that a cruise is the best option for them; dig deeper and find out what they are looking to get out of their vacations because, oftentimes, escorted tours are the better fit.

* Tour operators are great partners: The travel agent channel is essential to all tour operators and so they will never call directly on your clients; they will always share customer information with you and they will support you in whatever way possible.

* Study the options available: Don’t try to fit every customer into the same type of tour. There are a lot of itineraries available from a tour operator. Agents need to do their best to match their customers — especially groups — with the perfect itinerary for them.

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