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Some of us held our breath, others giggled, but most of us were oohing and aahing as our driver squeezed our motorcoach through a narrow one-way, cliff-top street — in reverse.
“He’s driving that thing like it’s a little sports car,” said Darlene Luna-Wilson, a travel agent from Vacaville, Calif.
We were carefully inching toward our beachfront hotel in Tenby, a resort town along Wales’ southwest coastline that was added to CIE Tours International’s itineraries two years ago. From our right, we could see every nook and cranny of the walls on the buildings along the street. From the other side, we had an elevated view of Tenby’s postcard-perfect North Beach.
It was the last few hours of low tide, and the sand stretched out almost as luxuriously as the water beyond, giving way to low-lying mountains. A fort reminiscent of all of the castles we had toured stood at the top of a green hill, perched over the water. At the other end of the beach, the mountains and hills wrapped upward and inward, framing the same view we’d get from our oceanfront guestrooms.
“As you can tell, we’re happy to go to places that most people don’t go,” said my coach-mate John Vavrina, vice president of sales at CIE.
The last few years have been a wildly good ride for CIE, an 83-year-old niche tour operator that offers more than 40 itineraries in Ireland and Great Britain (Scotland, Wales and England). Though CIE’s roots lie with the Irish government, CIE was honored as the “International Tour Operator of the Year” from Scotland’s Heritage for the last two years, and sales for Scotland/Ireland itineraries have been growing 60 percent each year for the last five years. Ireland sales are solid — CIE booked about 500,000 bed nights in Ireland in 2013 — and sales in the West Coast region of the U.S. are 27 percent higher than last year.
“Each year in the last four years has been a double-digit growth in sales,” said Brian Stack, managing director and CEO of CIE. “We are 16 percent ahead of last year, and we expect the same this year.”
So how is a niche destination company that receives only 10 percent repeat client business doing so well?
“Travel agents are the key,” said Stack. “It’s usually the client’s first time with us, but the agents have booked passengers with us throughout the years.”
This year, CIE paid travel agents more commission than any other year in the company’s history.
“You’re constantly hearing about how travel agents are not important and that their usefulness is diminishing,” said Stack. “That’s not our experience. Consumers are getting wise to the fact that we pay for travel agents’ expertise.”
CIE attributes some of this growth in bookings to the Gathering, Ireland’s well-publicized call to the Irish diaspora to come and explore their roots.
“We accounted for $7 million in revenue due to the Gathering,” said Vavrina. “But even after that, we still have double-digit growth over last year. The economy is better, the stock market recently had the highest points it ever had — I think consumers are more confident.”
On CIE’s end, one significant investment has been in sales staff.
Vavrina, for instance, was hired in 2013. Two of his main goals were to integrate the inside and outside sales teams and to organize the outside sales team. He also hired six business development managers, including Dan Dorn, the director of sales, Southwest, and Angela Restivo, the director of sales, West Coast.
“We have a very good sales force that is out on the road,” said Stack. “We have a marketing team that is very active in advertising and social media. We spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising, and we’re always reviewing our products.”
CIE issues one of the most comprehensive client surveys of any tour operator, which allows the company to tweak its product constantly.
“We have a CIE Tours Awards of Excellence function in Dublin, and we award those who score 90 percent or more on the questionnaire,” said Stack. “That keeps all the hotels in line and it keeps us informed on how each of the ingredients of our tours is operating. We track it very early in our season. If we have a hotel that is not performing very well, we can change that quickly.”
The company has been doing this for the last 25 years. The hotels I stayed at showed off their awards, usually displaying them front-in-center. For CIE, hotels play a defining role in differentiating its tours.
“We’re in a unique situation. We’re all inclusive — with no options and great guides who don’t sell you stuff — but we stay in three-star, four-star and five-star properties,” said Vavrina. “If you have high-end clients, put them on a supreme series trip (five-star properties) or a chauffeur trip — you don’t get much more high-end than having your own chauffeur, and those are custom if you want them to be. If you want the lowest price point, go with our three-star. But it’s all the same experience: all-inclusive with the same guides.”
Selling a consistent, high-quality experience helps with customer satisfaction and word of mouth, but CIE has also had ample time to become masters of its craft.
“Very good tour companies such as Brendan Vacations, Trafalgar and Globus Family of Brands have a much bigger range of product than we have,” said Stack. “We specialize in Ireland and Britain. We are a niche operator. The word has gotten out — if you’re bringing someone to Ireland or Britain, you’re better off going with a specialist.”
Because of CIE’s focus, the company offers more variety and departures in the region than any competitor. For 2015, CIE will offer 24 Ireland-only itineraries and 16 itineraries that combine Ireland and a part or all of Britain for a grand total of 40 tours that include Ireland.
“Our closest competitor has about eight and most have three or four Ireland itineraries,” said Vavrina. “Many operators have one Scotland/Ireland combination itinerary and they are mostly the same. Also, some of our tours go out once or twice a week, where a competitor is going out once every three weeks. It’s not just the number of tours we offer, but also the frequency going out.”
Indeed, if you spend one hour in Dublin, you’re likely to spot at least two CIE coaches. And it’s not uncommon to pass a coach while traveling to and from attractions throughout the country.
Though the category “group tour” has become rather passe over the last few years, CIE has had no problem filling up its coaches. In fact, Vavrina says that one reason CIE received so many bookings from the Gathering is because consumers were searching the Web for the phrase “tours in Ireland.”
“The funny thing is, some people want to do an exclusive group until they see the prices,” said Vavrina. “So many people come back and say, ‘Why spend an extra $250 per person? We can meet other people.’”
And for some travel agents, going to Ireland (and England, Scotland and Wales) simply means traveling with CIE.
“I thought taking a coach tour would be like ‘Tuesdays at Tenby,’” said Luna-Wilson. “It wasn’t the idea of the motorcoach, but the schedule and the idea of getting up every morning and repacking. This showed me that touring is something I can do and enjoy. There are certain destinations you can’t see on a cruise — the only way I was going to see Ireland was to do this, and I’m having a great time.”
Many CIE itineraries visit the Blarney Castle, one of the top attractions in Ireland. // © 2014 Shutterstock
CIE stops at St. David’s Cathedral, a major pilgrimage site in Wales. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
A highlight on Wales itineraries is a ride on the 151-year-old Ffestiniog Railway through Snowdonia National Park. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
A CIE tour director/driver and local Welsh guide offer commentary on the way to Conwy Castle. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
John Vavrina, vice president of sales for CIE, and Paul O'Meara, director of sales, New England for CIE, sample craft beers at Albion Ale House. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Wales’ Caernarfon Castle, the location of the investiture of Prince Charles, is also included on itineraries. // © 2014 CIE Tours international
CIE itineraries to Wales include the beach town of Tenby, a walled city with plenty of pubs, restaurants and shops. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Visiting an Irish sheep herder is a CIE guest favorite. // © 2014 CIE Tours international
CIE closely monitors guest satisfaction, only selecting properties with guest approval, such the Killarney Plaza Hotel & Spa. // © 2014 CIE Tours international
8 Things you Might Not Know About CIE
1. Is all-inclusive, so you get commission on everything. There are no options sold during the tour.
2. Pays 5 percent commission on airfare
3. Is currently offering travel agents and their guests a 50 percent discount on the new eight- or nine-day Celtic Sampler Tour
4. Creates custom tours for at least 10 people
5. Gives a $500 refundable deposit on custom tours if they are not selling up to 100 days to the departure
6. Is dedicated to physical documents rather than e-documents
7. Provides Wi-Fi access on all coaches
8. Features new itineraries each year. For 2015: Best of Ireland South, 14-Day Leisurely Britain and 24 Day Grand Tour of Britain & Ireland