Combine FITs and guided tours to create a uniquely customized vacation for your clients.

When it comes to touring, it’s easy to automatically divide the options into two separate categories: escorted or guided tours for travelers who want a more structured experience, and FITs for more independent clients. But if you’re not considering ways to combine these two travel styles, you might be missing out on valuable opportunities to sell longer vacations, make more commission and create more customized experiences that will keep clients coming back to you again and again.

The benefits of escorted and guided tours are well-established and varied, from peace of mind and ease of travel to in-depth knowledge from reputable tour guides and special access to attractions. What’s more, this market segment is booming, and definitely one travel agents benefit from: Growth in sales for 2018 is anticipated for 95 percent of the United States Tour Operators Association’s (USTOA) tour operator members, according to USTOA’s annual survey of travel forecasts and trends—with 53 percent of USTOA Active Member bookings in 2017 made through a travel agency.

FITs, on the other hand, offer the freedom to explore whatever, whenever and however travelers choose—an appealing opportunity to dive deeply into a destination and the traveler’s own interests, especially in an age that so values travel personalization and immersion. 

Chances are, your clients want some combination of all these offerings—special access and in-depth experiences, alongside free exploration and local discovery. By pairing guided tour options with FIT opportunities, agents can provide customized trips that deliver on multiple fronts. 

Pairing Up
Whether agents suggest a longer guided tour with pre- or post-itinerary FIT options or add shorter escorted tours to a mostly FIT experience, there’s an opportunity to create a comprehensive combined vacation that will meet travelers’ increasingly specific desires. 

“I've found over the years that most clients want additions to what the guided tours offer,” says Linda Frazier, CTC, an independent travel consultant with Aladdin Travel Services in Alpharetta, Georgia. To meet these needs, she frequently adds specific interest-based FIT opportunities to enhance the overall experience.

Jean Paugh, CTC, ECC, CSS, owner of All About You Travel Unlimited in Rockledge, Florida, also often adds on FIT components before or after guided tours. “A lot of times when you have a guided or escorted tour with set dates, clients like to go in early to adjust to the time zone and to see things that are not included,” she says. “Clients often don’t get a chance to see more of where the tour begins or ends. FIT add-ons let them be immersed in the culture of the beginning or ending city, similar to what you might arrange for a cruise passenger.”

Combining the two travel styles can also provide an overview to a destination followed by more leisure time for clients to explore their own unique interests. “I might use a shorter hosted product to Europe for three or four nights and then add on an extended FIT,” says Paugh. “Clients get an overview with the tour, and then the FIT on the end gives them more immersion. I usually see what’s not included in the tour to determine what’s best to add in.” 

Blending tours and independent travel can also work well for multi-destination trips, where the client’s needs and desires might differ in various locations. Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA, provides one such example: “In France, on an escorted tour through Paris, guests will benefit from unparalleled access such as skipping the line at the Louvre and private after-hours entry at Versailles, as well as insider know-how from local guides,” Dale explains. “Then when it’s time to head to Bordeaux, some might favor an FIT experience in order to visit preferred vineyards based on personal taste and explore the region more leisurely.” 

In fact, many travelers have already discovered the benefits of combining FIT time with an escorted tour—and agents who are only booking the tour element are missing out on valuable opportunities to boost commission, while clients are losing out on the professional advice and expertise of their travel advisors.

“A customer might add on pre- and post-tour cities on their own and not realize that they can do all that with the travel agent as well,” says Tommy Ryder, head of sales for TravelBound. “You can sign customers up for two or three nights pre- or post-tour and add in local experiences, like a food tour, or just let them get over jet leg. This way they can experience the city and enjoy more of it instead of going off on tour right away. Or, as part of an FIT, you can also use short guided tours where it’s not easy to drive or get rail connections.”

Positioning the Combination
While some clients will jump easily onboard with the combined tour and FIT approach, others might need a little more help understanding the benefits. 

Leila Coe, CTA, a travel specialist with World Class Travel in Kissimmee, Florida, has even redefined “FIT” to fit into her style of travel planning. “I think of FIT as being all about ‘Fitting It Together,’ she explains. “To me, FIT is a mix of guided tours and unguided leisure time so they work together well. For example, you can do an escorted tour for a couple of days from a main base and then do local city tours and other activities before and after.” 

Travelers seeking an immersive and authentic experience “sometimes balk at the idea of going with a guide,” says Coe. But agents can recommend small group tours as a more intimate experience with appealing insider opportunities. “This type of traveler usually likes to have ample time to explore on their own, but might want a guided tour to benefit from ‘skip the line’ access or to have a knowledgeable guide with them for certain areas,” Coe explains. “Once they think about it, they usually agree and then are happy that they did.”

Local guides enhance trips, agrees Paugh, but even she had to be convinced at first. “My husband and I used to travel and say we didn’t need a guide and then we’d think, ‘I wonder what we’re missing without a guide,’ ” she says. “The knowledge you get from local guides and hosts is phenomenal, and that’s why I use that product a lot. It’s a powerful connection to put the FIT and guided tours together.”

Paugh now sees an opportunity to combine the two travel styles for “anyone who is looking to engage more and who is interested in the culture of the area.” She adds: “What I build with FITs and hosted together works for anybody. Whether it is a group I’m escorting or a family on their own, I always look to see what is not included on the tour and would be of interest to them.”   

Agents can also work directly with wholesalers to create custom, multi-part itineraries that they can present to clients as personalized travel experiences. “All travelers want to put their own thumbprint on the experience,” says Dale. “And for that reason, tour operators are building in more flexibility.”  

This is a strategy Coe often uses to create a seamless travel experience. One example: “I had clients who were in Dublin for a conference but wanted to get out of the city to see some sights in southwest Ireland,” she says. “I was able to combine an escorted tour for a few days with their stay in Dublin. They loved it as they got to see the countryside before they had to be in Dublin for work. It was no hassle to them, as they had a guide that did the driving and worried about the logistics. They just had to show up and enjoy the tour. Their itinerary was a combination of FIT (transfers, hotel, city sightseeing) with the guided tour.” 

Paugh agrees on the importance of working with tour partners with connections all over the world. “There are so many tours we can do with these partners, and they can often link everything together,” she says.

Knowledge of the diverse products available is key to creating the best combined options and itineraries for clients. “My main specialty is customized vacations and my clients know that,” says Coe. “They know that I don't like cookie-cutter vacations and that I listen to their wants and needs to match them to the right travel product. They know they can sit back and actually relax on their vacation because it will be what they have been dreaming of.”

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