Tour ops face challenge of nonstop bad news in brochure season

Contiki introduced Independent Insider, which enables travelers to build trips in three-night blocks.
Contiki introduced Independent Insider, which enables travelers to build trips in three-night blocks.

For tour operators vying to be heard amid a cacophony of competing voices, brochure launch season presents both opportunity and challenge.

This year, they have had the added challenge of trying to drum up excitement for their 2018 tours amid a nonstop negative news cycle that has been the backdrop to much of their September and October sales and marketing efforts.

Stephanie Mirando, marketing manager at Collette, was making the rounds last month at the AAA Travel National Conference in Charlotte, N.C., where she was experiencing the challenge of marketing Collette's 2018 brochure firsthand. She noted that in addition to selling escorted tours, Collette's travel agent partners often also sell cruises and hotel packages that might have been affected by the recent hurricanes.

"It's definitely been a challenge," she said. "Being in touring, we understand that they have their cruise suppliers and their hotels."

Acknowledging that even during a quiet year -- which this has not been -- travel agents have a lot of information to retain about all their different supplier partners, this year Collette did something different when releasing its 2018 products.

In addition to the regular consumer brochure, the tour company created a brochure specifically for travel agents called the Agent Resource & Worldwide Travel Guide. The guide is meant to be a selling tool for agents with information upfront such as how to sell guided tours, a training page that dissects itinerary pages (which are tabbed by destination so agents can quickly and easily find them) and ways in which agents can and should maximize tour sales.

"It's really giving them selling tips that they don't get from a consumer brochure," Mirando said. She added that the timing of introducing such a guide during a year when agents are more distracted than usual was fortuitous.

Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for Globus, said that the timing of all the back-to-back breaking news just as tour operators were heading out to market new products wasn't ideal, even though many of those products focus on destinations like Europe, Asia and South America that were, for the most part, not affected by the recent headlines.

"The practical challenge for leisure travel sellers was the back-to-back storms in September, which set back the entire industry on forward bookings," Parrish said. But, she added, "things are now on their way back."

In an effort to offer something unique for 2018, Globus introduced an Undiscovered Italy product, a series of tours designed to showcase more off-the-beaten-path destinations, such as Sicily and Apulia. According to Parrish, the new tours worked. Italy bookings are up 17% compared with this time last year, with the Undiscovered Italy product line serving as the driving force.

"We don't think this is an Italy rebound overall," she said. "Instead, we believe that creatively marketing an innovative product that travelers were craving -- and no one else in the market had -- we have had the opportunity to address a gap in the escorted tour market and break through."

Parrish pointed to the crucial intermarriage of innovative product and creative marketing that tour operators need to engage in to effectively market and sell tours.

While operating tours might not always seem to lend itself to a whole lot of newness -- there are no shiny, new ships to showcase, and many of the destinations they sell remain the same year in and year out -- operators report that finding ways to introduce products, whether new destinations or new ways of experiencing destinations, is a crucial component to generating excitement and giving agents something to talk about and sell to their clients.

"'What is new?'" Mirando said, "is absolutely one of the biggest questions that I get. They always want to know what is trending and how we're delivering on those trends."

For instance, she said, Collette has introduced a trip to Finland for 2018 that includes a hard-to-nab stay at an igloo resort, which generated some buzz among agents.

And of course, deals and promotions timed to coincide with launch season that incentivize agents and clients to start making bookings are an important part of kicking off the forward-booking momentum for the coming year.

"Promotions are an important part of the travel industry," said Phil Cappelli, president of Insight Vacations. But, he added that as a luxury vacation provider, Insight Vacations is not focused on price competition. His challenge during launch season, he said, is communicating the uniqueness of the product and how Insight differs from the rest of the marketplace with things such as exclusive VIP experiences for guests.

One of the biggest launch-season dilemmas for tour operators has long been that they are all rolling out their products for the coming year at the same time. The result is a rush of new-product marketing campaigns, promotions and incentives that are being thrown at agents at the same time.

Globus launched an Undiscovered Italy product line.
Globus launched an Undiscovered Italy product line.

Several agents who were asked what most annoyed them about launch season said it was the onslaught of marketing emails. What's more, they acknowledged that they are more distracted this year because of bookings impacted by the hurricanes.

Wycliffe Seamans of Potomac, Md.-based Travel Leaders, said, "Winter in Caribbean will be off. I'm offering Europe" as an alternative.

Leslie Lindenberg, who works at the same Travel Leaders office, added, "Some just are not booking at all right now."

Asked what Contiki's biggest challenge is in terms of being heard by agents, Adam Cooper, USA president of the youth tour operator responded, "Noise! Specifically with our Europe launches, we tend to introduce our experiences at the same time as others in the market, so cutting through can be a challenge."

Cooper said Contiki has a big advantage in that it has a different story to tell regarding the opportunities in the age 18 to 35 touring market. For 2018, Contiki has introduced a travel style called Independent Insider, which Cooper said has provided a great marketing tool for kicking off conversations with agents about what's new and different for next year.

The Independent Insider line enables travelers to build trips in three-night blocks up to a full 12 nights of travel. The itineraries are more flexible and enable travelers to opt in or out of suggested activities.

Communicating new products and the upcoming season of tours has become more complex and nuanced with the evolution of communications technology. Most operators say that face-to-face meetings with agents remain among the most effective marketing and selling tools. But of course, they are reaching out in other ways, too, and with a wider variety of tools.

"When schedules don't allow, we're also big fans of video training and utilizing our growing Facebook group for agents," Cooper said.

And in terms of physical marketing materials, "We're definitely seeing a huge increase in the number of brochures that are downloaded in electronic format from our website, and we're confident that these numbers will continue to increase," Cooper said, adding that good old-fashioned paper brochures remain a really important piece of the marketing package.

"There's still something very special about the anticipation and excitement that comes from holding the new paper Contiki brochure in your hands," Cooper said. "I've seen many over the years and can honestly say that the 2018 brochure is special; it has a real editorial feel that tells the story of what you and your customers can expect to experience with Contiki."

Insight's Cappelli said that he prefers to refer to the new paper brochure as a "magazine" in which the company has included more maps and, for the first time, editorial content.


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