John Severini, president of
Trafalgar Tours, has identified his top three competitors, and none
is a fellow tour operator.
The first is a
concept, not a company: Independence. "Baby boomers think they can
do it on their own," baby boomer Severini said over lunch recently.
"They'll take our brochures and try to buy the components
individually on Expedia because they think it will save them
The second --
speaking of Expedia -- is the Web technology that powers the
dynamic packaging of air, cars and hotels.
And third is cruise
But he believes that
two strong trends -- the rise of the euro against the dollar and
the strengthening of public support for travel agents -- converge
to shift business to him and away from all three
Though many tour
operators are concerned about the stronger euro, Severini sees
opportunity in the dollar's relative weakness.
"If you were to try
to put together the products in our tours by yourself on the
Internet, it will price out 30% to 40% higher," he said. "We're the
salvation for agents against the Internet and dynamic packaging. If
I were a travel agent, I'd put a big sign up in my window, 'I can
beat Internet pricing,' and then give a demonstration."
And with regards to
cruising, Severini knows this competitor intimately. He spent 22
years working for cruise lines: first NCL, then Royal Cruise Line,
then Disney. That experience appears to have informed his strategy
vis-à-vis cruising in many regards.
First, he uses CLIA
research to make his points. "On one hand, CLIA says to agents that
if you're doing anything but selling a cruise, you're doing
something wrong," he said. "They also say that about 750,000 people
will cruise in Europe on a CLIA line this year and that 70% of
those passengers say they're specifically going to sightsee in the
destinations. And of those, 40% say -- remember, this is from CLIA
-- they will return to one of those destinations on a land
"In other words,
after they return, you're missing an opportunity if you just
present them with another cruise."
This is well and
good, I replied, but in the larger battle for agent mind-share,
tour operators have lost ground to cruise lines. CLIA may be
supplying him with a bit of ammunition in the form of select data,
but on the whole CLIA has been relentless in promoting cruising to
travel agents, and there is currently no parallel effort among tour
operators as a group.
Then the conversation
took an interesting turn.
"You're right," he
said. "In my opinion, for the most part, we do our message wrong.
We're following the old model of 'talk about product, product,
product. Pitch, pitch, pitch. Sell, sell, sell.' But we first need
to help agents look at this as the consumer does. We need to show
them how tours, as a category, fit into their customers'
"When I started,
cruise lines struggled for a presence in travel agents' minds. We
were competing against Hawaii and the Caribbean. We were fighting
for mind awareness. You know how we achieved it?
understands the importance of education is clear: Last year, he
hired industry consultant (and Travel Weekly columnist) Marc
Mancini to create a seminar based on the products of his parent,
Travcorp. He also wanted to bring in a partner as a co-sponsor, and
the company he invited was ... Carnival Cruise Lines.
His explanation was
that he wanted a rounded product grouping so he could market the
seminar under the theme "Leading Travel Companies," but there was a
subtext. "It was a way to get into the minds of people who only
And, he said, it was
not a coincidence that he hired Mancini, who is CLIA's educator of
Perhaps it's just
because he's an ex-cruise guy that he decided to take such a
cruise-influenced approach to selling tours. But unfortunately, it
may also be indicative of the difficult proposition of organizing
hundreds of tour operators behind the task of marketing tours as a
concept to travel agents.