When the Globus Family of Brands and Trafalgar launched their 2012 sales and marketing campaigns last fall, the two fierce competitors found themselves taking very different approaches to the growing problem of negative perceptions of guided tours: Trafalgar (formerly Trafalgar Tours) decided to eliminate the words "tour" and "escorted" from its company name as well as from all marketing materials, while Globus concentrated on changing the image of touring by focusing on its core strengths.
"The tour can have a complete rebirth," Jennifer Halboth, Globus' director of marketing, said when the company launched its Misconceptions campaign in September. "People understand what a tour is. So we're calling it a tour because that's what it is ... and it's pretty damn good the way it is."
The Misconceptions campaign employed data from surveys of past customers to determine and respond to common misconceptions about touring, such as the notion that tours are for older travelers and that tour-goers spend the majority of their travel time on a motorcoach.
In fact, 80% of travelers on a Globus tour are boomers or younger, according to Globus. And the brand's most popular multicountry tour, European Tapestry, attracts passengers whose average age is 44. Moreover, travelers spend less than 20% of their time on a coach, Globus said.
But Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar, is concerned that those misconceptions about touring are exactly why the escorted tour needs not just reimaging but rebranding.
Consequently, in its brochures and marketing materials, Trafalgar replaced words like "escorted" and "tour" with words like "vacation" and "experiences."
Terry Dale, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), said that part of the challenge tour operators face is the fact that the concept of touring is shifting.
"For USTOA, [the escorted tour has] been a part of our DNA for 40 years," Dale said. "It has evolved significantly over those 40 years. ... It's got flexibility built into it now. The tour can be part boat, part train, part motorcoach."
As the marketing rivalry heated up between Globus and Trafalgar, the two tour giants ultimately agreed to go toe-to-toe on the issues of how they define their product, why they are taking different marketing approaches and the future of the escorted tour business in an industry first: a side-by-side, Q&A debate format.
Wiseman and Scott Nisbet, president and CEO of Globus, separately answered identical questions, after which each was given an opportunity to make three rebuttal statements. Let the debating begin!
Q: How would you define an escorted tour?
Scott Nisbet, Globus: An escorted tour is a travel package that has all the components: the hotel and the flights and transfers and meals. But it also has the key elements of sightseeing and inclusions and a tour director who helps bring these destinations to life.
Paul Wiseman, Trafalgar: An escorted tour would be a group of people traveling together, guided by a professional tour escort who would be with them the entire time.
Q: Do you think the terms "escorted tour" or "tour" are still valid in today's market?
Wiseman: We do not. And the primary reason is one of confusion both within the travel industry and, more concerning, within the consumer market.
Nisbet: The term "escorted tour" may be not quite as well known, but "touring," yes. People search for the term "tour" online. In 2011, there [were] 6 million searches on the term "Italy tour." People are searching for tours. There were 131 million searches on the word "tour" in any kind of configuration. So there are a lot of people out there looking for tours. TravelStyles did a recent study that asked, "Would you take a tour, an escorted tour?" Seventeen million people said they would be open to an escorted tour. So it's still a term that people know. By contrast, trying to call things "guided vacations," I understand where that's going, but there were only 1,600 searches last month for "guided vacations." So that's just not a term people know.
[Editor's note: The searches Nisbet referred to are Google searches in the U.S. in a typical month, as reported in an October 2011 Google report. TravelStyles is a biennial travel study. This particular study is from the 2009-2010 report.]
Wiseman's rebuttal: The word "tour" is used to describe some form of travel. Unfortunately, the term is not useful in connecting a customer's perception with Trafalgar's new reality. We would be delighted if 100 million people searching for "tours" purchased our product, but the absolute majority of those people are buying different FIT independent tour packages, day tours or even cruises. ... Whilst we may not use the word "tour" to describe our company, it does not stop us from working with our travel agent partners to present our guided vacations to those people searching for "tours."
Q: Do you think the terms "escorted tour" and "tour" have a positive or negative connotation?
Wiseman: We believe that in the travel industry they're confusing, and in the consumer market, for prospective travelers who have not undertaken an escorted tour, we believe [the terms have] strong negative connotations.
Nisbet: Well, I think different people would [see the terms] differently. Importantly, it's a term that has some meaning to them, so I think there's a lot of value in that. I think it has a positive connotation to many people. I think we've got work to do with a huge segment of travelers who do have a negative perception of it. And that's the campaign we're doing ... to get the message across that 80% [of tour-goers] are boomers or younger, there's less than 20% of your time [spent] on the coach, half of your time is unstructured time, and the satisfaction rates are the same or higher than cruising.
Wiseman's rebuttal: Whilst we all enjoy the wonderful loyalty of past travelers and their friends and family who are comfortable with various terms, unfortunately our research shows the vast majority of prospects are distinctly uncomfortable with "escorted" tours. It has a very negative connotation, and "tours" alone is too broad. We believe that by changing the conversation, talking about our insider highlights and experiences, talking about the experiences within a guided vacation, these terms are so much more positive and effective.
Q: How has the escorted tour evolved in recent years?
Wiseman: It's changed dramatically. The new style of touring is best defined by Trafalgar's At Leisure program, which has no starts before 9 in the morning on traveling days; more free time and flexibility built into the itineraries than ever before; small-group sightseeing; and slow-moving, low-distance, regionally focused itineraries, which are the complete opposite of [the 1969 film about escorted touring] "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium." And unfortunately "escorted tour" immediately speaks to [that film]. It doesn't immediately speak to Trafalgar's At Leisure program, which is why we've dropped both of those words. It's significant for us after over 65 years in the business to have taken the word "tours" out of our name. It's a significant step in identifying how concerned we are with that name.
Nisbet: Escorted touring, if you take a long view of it, is segmenting. If you go way back to "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," when that movie came out in 1969, the biggest thing we sold were panorama tours, multicountry tours. As the decades went on, people said, "Well, I've seen London, I want to go to Spain. I want to spend some time in Italy." So, it segmented into regions, and now it's segmented into more exotic destinations. Where it used to be much more Europe, now the whole world has opened up to people. ... They're discovering all these destinations, and touring is a good way to do it. But it's segmented even further with special interests. It's culinary, it's religious travel. One of the fastest-growing areas in our company is custom tours. So there are just so many interests people have, and they're realizing they can fulfill those interests through a tour.
Q: Is there a segment of the market that still wants a classic guided, escorted tour?
Nisbet: Our average age [on escorted tours] is early 50s. But there's a range. There are people who are in their 70s, and there are kids even who are traveling. The key time to hit them is really around [the age of] 40. Interestingly, if you look at our panorama tours, which people might think, "Oh, that's kind of a dated way to travel," they're the youngest people. The average age on a number of our panorama tours is early 40s. There's a Cosmos panorama that has an average age of 39. So it's interesting that these people are finding that that's a good way to travel.
Wiseman: We are not separating ourselves from the core elements that we know the customers love. The No. 1 element is a professional travel director traveling with the customers. No. 2 is people traveling as a group. There is a group dynamic that happens on guided vacations of more than seven days in length that causes huge customer satisfaction, so we're not separating ourselves from that. We're not separating ourselves from fixed itineraries with fixed departure dates. We're not separating ourselves from any of those things that you could define as the key elements of escorted tours. We are adding experiential items to that basic formula. ... And by adding insider highlights to the core formula, we've created something new and different, and we're working hard to make sure that we are separating ourselves from that old world.
Q: What kind of tour or tour products do other travelers want?
Nisbet: The fact that some people do not want to be on a motorcoach, do not want to be in a group, those people are out there, and I get that. That's what we developed Monograms for. It's essentially the benefits of group travel without the group, and mostly without the motorcoach, because you're taking trains in between cities. So it was created for that chunk of people who are just never going to want to take a group tour. It's got the local host, and it's got all the little elements of a tour but without the group and without a full-time tour director.
Wiseman: Let me answer it the other way. What they don't want is to be regimented, and they don't want to be restricted. And "escorted tours" immediately creates that negative perception. When we do our consumer research among prospects who have not taken an escorted tour or guided vacation, the words that come back to us are "restricted," "regimented," "inflexible." When we ask a customer, "What do you think an escorted tour is?" they immediately come back and say, "It's not for me because it's too regimented, too restricted and potentially rushed." ... Doesn't take rocket science to work out that we want people to talk about [more] positive words.
Nisbet's rebuttal: 131 million Google searches tells me the term "tour" is not as big an obstacle as Paul suggests. There are a lot of elements to a tour, which means a lot of questions. This is why we sell through travel agents. This is also why we launched our Misconceptions campaign: to arm agents with the facts. One fact we share is that on a typical touring day, 50% of your time is unstructured.
Q: Where do you see this market in 10 to 15 years? Will you still be operating traditional motorcoach tours that far into the future?
Nisbet: Yes. I think it'll be a little different; I think it's going to be a heavier mix of exotics. It'll be less Europe in the future than it is today. It'll be more special interests emerging. The key is that balance that I mentioned of just getting the must-see sites, those unique experiences in there and having some unstructured time.
Wiseman: We don't see the core business model of Trafalgar changing. We will deliver a group vacation, a group guided vacation to our customers. What will evolve are the experiences that they have, the style and structure of what we deliver. But we do not see a fundamental change, and that's simply because the customer satisfaction level is not our difficulty; it is attracting the customer to the product with the communication that we use. We have to change the conversation, and we have to engage our partners in changing the conversation. We have to educate and train the distribution system to be able to talk about [these products] as effectively as we can. And that is a Herculean task, particularly with retail travel agents in North America who are very experienced, who have been doing this the same way for up to 40 years, getting them to change the conversation. We have to prove that it is worth the distribution system's time and money economically, and we believe we can prove ... that agents will make more money by changing this conversation.
Nisbet's rebuttal: I feel agents are having success attracting new people to touring. In 2011, 30% of our travelers were first-timers to touring. To reach this number, we developed marketing initiatives to target these new adopters, using travel agents to reach out and close the sale. Interestingly, these first-time touring customers have the same high satisfaction and repeat rates as the traditional touring customer.
Q: Do you think that when Globus rolled out its 2012 marketing campaign, with a renewed focus on the fundamental elements of touring, they made a good decision?
Wiseman: No, I don't, because our research clearly shows that prospective customers in the 2012 marketplace have very negative perceptions of escorted tours and great confusion over what a tour is. And we don't believe that to be successful in the sales process you should ever introduce a negative connotation and have to work hard to change a perception or overcome a misconception. Because perception is reality. If a consumer perceives an escorted tour to be regimented, rushed and not for them, you have to work twice as hard to convince them that it is for them. And I wouldn't encourage any retailer to work twice as hard. I want to make it much more simple and easy to close a sale, to convert a prospect into a customer through a more positive conversation.
Nisbet's rebuttal: Travelers are smart. If there is a group, a travel director with the group, sightseeing, hotels, meals and transportation, they know it is a tour. The conversation to have is: How is touring different today?
Q: What do you think about Trafalgar's decision with the launch of its 2012 marketing campaign to eliminate the words "escorted" and "tour" from the company's name and marketing materials?
Nisbet: I think we're both trying to do the same thing: We're both trying to get people to relook at touring, the ones who are not looking at it. We're doing it through: "Hey, this is a tour. People are loving it; higher satisfaction than ocean cruising. Take a look." [Trafalgar is] doing it by saying, "Hey, listen, it's different, and it's even called something different." So I think we're both trying to do the same thing; it's just a different approach. I hope they have success with it, because if more people are moving into touring, that's a good thing.
Wiseman's rebuttal: I would agree. The Globus direction is to try to change the misconceptions, and ours is to avoid any negativity by changing the conversation. The bottom line here is that the products are fantastic, the commissions are excellent and the customer satisfaction is very high. What we all want is happy, productive agents who are rewarded for introducing prospective customers to the world of guided vacations. And that is totally a win-win for everyone.
For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.