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Travel n Tour

How to start a … tour operator business

Find your niche
So you want to launch a tour operator? First you need a clearly defined proposition. Ask yourself: what would make a potential guest book with my company?

It helps to specialise. At One Traveller we cater for single travellers over 50, a group that can be poorly provided for by the travel industry. Single travellers are often charged a supplement to join holidays or find themselves the only singles on trips full of families and couples.

So think about what you can offer that’s different or distinct. Without a clear idea of your target customer, you’ll struggle to cut through the competition.

Source local suppliers
Coach companies, hotels, restaurants and local guides – you name it, you will rely on exceptional local suppliers in all your destinations. Without them, you’ll never be able to offer your guests a complete holiday. Social media can be a useful, initial source of information. Search a potential supplier’s name on Twitter, Facebook and review sites to make sure they haven’t received negative feedback from customers.

As a tour operator, you are responsible for the safety of travellers. Both Argent and SGS offer tour operators health and safety audits into local accommodation and suppliers.

You may choose to become a member of a trade association such as the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) or the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Members are offered discounts on the cost of health and safety audits.

Throughly research every destination you visit, and work towards forming strong local connections.
Since your suppliers lie at the heart of all you do, it’s worth putting in the effort to get it right. Remember that face-to-face contact is the best way to cultivate a strong relationship. If you treat your suppliers with respect, you’re more likely to get it back.

Part of ensuring you choose reliable suppliers is knowing the right questions to ask. The better you know your destination, the better equipped you will be to do this. Thoroughly research every destination you visit, and work towards forming strong local connections. This will help to ensure you offer guests the best possible holiday experience. Use excursions and meals to show them places that haven’t been discovered by other tour operators.

Insurance is crucial for tour operators. The ABTA bond and Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (ATOL) licence (if your tour packages include flights) are essential, as well as public liability insurance. Depending on the tours you offer, you may consider product liability and professional indemnity too. AITO can also be a useful source of information.

You must also comply with the 1992 package travel regulations, which cover consumer protection and liabilities.

Avoid hidden costs
Watch out for hidden fees and poor exchange rates when paying your foreign supplier.

Your bank may not give you the best deal on international payments, so it’s a good idea to shop around for a specialist transfer provider that can be more transparent about its rates, as well as providing currency plans for business customers. Look out for platforms that will allow you to pay multiple businesses at once – I use UKForex. It can be a major time-saver when dealing with hundreds of foreign suppliers.

Recruit top talent
You’ll soon discover you can’t do everything yourself; as your business grows you’ll have to start recruiting. To attract the best people, you need to be able to sell your vision, and this requires a wholehearted belief in what you do. Only hire tour managers who share your values and are comitted to giving travellers a great experience.

There are no required qualifications to become a tour manager, but there are many universities and college courses in tourism management that could be helpful. The Confederation of Tourism and Hospitality is a leading professional awarding body for qualifications in the hospitality and tourism sector. The Institute of Travel and Tourism also offers various courses.

We look for tour managers who are experienced in working with single travellers and who are familiar with the destination – preferably they’ll have lived or worked in that country.

Expand intelligently
Once you hit on a formula that works, it can be tempting to expand quickly and add lots of new tours. But it’s easy to forget your original goals, and then you might struggle to maintain the quality that makes your company special. Thoroughly plan and research each tour to maintain high standards.

Market your business
Marketing is important for any startup, and young tour operators are no exception. In the early days, it’s worth thinking about ways to boost your online presence for free.

Starting a business with a friend? Make sure you read this first
Could you add a blog to your website to build SEO, or spend time cultivating your social media presence? Always consider what makes sense for your audience – if you’re specialising in holidays for the under-30s, for instance, social media should be your priority.

Awards are a great way to boost both industry and customer recognition, and well worth entering. Specialisms are catered for by the Group Travel Awards and the Business Travel Awards, and several other awards programmes cover the wider market, so there’s bound to be something suitable for even the youngest company.

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