Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

Suddenly, it seems like everybody is trying to get a piece of the tours and experiences pie.

Marriott last week said it is going to start selling tens of thousands of activities to its customers. TripAdvisor bought Icelandic company Bokun in an attempt to not just get more tours and activities listed on its site but to give tours and activities companies the tech tools they need to get online. And similarly, Booking.com said it would acquire FareHarbor, an activities and experiences booking software provider.

What does this mean for tour operators and packagers that have been selling tours and experiences for decades? Do they need to rethink the way they do business? Well, yes and no.

For more traditional escorted-tour operators, the DIY-nature of online activities product -- a half-day wine-tasting tour offered by a Marriott property or theme park admission tickets available for purchase on TripAdvisor -- are different experiences than a multiday tour program where meals, hotels and travel, not to mention the day tours and activities, are all arranged.

But -- and this is a big but -- these experiences are becoming more readily available, and in theory that would make it easier for travelers to build more comprehensive vacations online. It's a trend that escorted tour operators should watch closely.

And it's one that packagers that cater more to the same types of FIT travelers who might be inclined to try assembling their vacation online should be watching even more closely.

In order to compete with the rapidly evolving online tours and activities marketplace, tour operators and packagers, and travel agents who sell them, are going to have to focus on what they do (and have always done) really well, while at the same time embracing the ways they need to adapt and evolve to remain competitive.

Let's start with what they have traditionally done well: Hands-on customer service, for one. People who book escorted tours or vacation packages through established wholesalers and who use agents are typically looking for things to be taken care of from A to Z. Similarly, personalization and the ability to customize the tour or package to travelers' needs and wants is going to be even more crucial. Sure, there might be tons of tours and experiences available online, but which ones should a traveler choose? This is where the trade can step in to help: make relevant suggestions and add that personal touch. And of course, just leaning on years, and in many cases decades, of experience creating seamless vacations, ironing out the details and vetting the supplier partners to a tee.

But while remaining grounded in their core values and differentiators, what will keep tour operators and packagers competitive well into the future will be their desire and their ability to innovate to keep up with the latest travel trends.

For instance, tour operators have recognized that even on guided tours many travelers are looking for more freedom and flexibility. Contiki recently created tours that enable customers to mix-and-match their itineraries and create their own adventure. And Globus this month launched a private touring program that enables any of its Europe itineraries to be arranged (at an additional cost of course) for parties ranging from two to 24 people, for those who like the idea of a fully guided itinerary minus the group of strangers. A couple years ago, Classic Vacations partnered with social enterprise company Me to We to offer voluntourism trips.

Tour operators and packagers are also going to have to continue to use their trusted product development teams and ground partners to seek out ever more interesting, exciting and unique experiences that travelers can't find online. They're going to have to develop themed trips (think Intrepid Travel's food-themed tours and unique departures like its 15-day excursion to Siberia's Yamal Peninsula on its Russia Expedition--Footsteps of the Reindeer Herders). Trips that bring together people with like-minded interests or feature sought-after specialists.

In short, they're going to have to continue to prove their unique value to travelers, something they will no doubt continue to do as competition heats up.


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