Open up a web browser and start searching for tour operator technology and you can easily sink an afternoon just on working out what different technology companies mean by “tour operator”.
First you have the UK usage, where if you are a flight and hotel reseller you are a tour operator. For me, to be a tour operator you have to employ tour guides and you, the customer, have to go on a tour (move from place to place, for example, on a nightly basis) – the UK usage is a misnomer.
Even once you have tour guides employed, the definition is not agreed. There are several kinds of tour operator, hence tour operator systems – technology for day-tour companies versus technology for multi-day tour companies.
"Multi-day tours have not been so attractive to these large digital players yet because they tend to include accommodation within the tour package, so compete directly with accommodation retailing that the OTA may already be undertaking in that destination."
Technology for day tour companies is all about transaction automation. Companies will be trading low margin, high volume, so you need people to be able to check availability, book and pay without any human interaction. It is e-commerce.
Technology for multi-day tour companies is about keeping the expert human in the sales and booking flow, but improving their performance. Every transaction will require some kind of question and answer session (by email, chat or phone) with the potential customer or travel agent.
Where technology can help is ensuring that the answers are consistent over time and between different members of the sales team. For example, are all members of the team able to answer the question about whether a particular attraction included within a tour is wheelchair accessible?
Seeking a new market
In recent years, perhaps because the online flight and hotel sector has become saturated, the large global online travel agents have moved into selling tours. Initially, they focused on day tours and experiences as these can be upsold simply from a hotel or flight booking.
Multi-day tours have not been so attractive to these large digital players yet because they tend to include accommodation within the tour package, so compete directly with accommodation retailing that the OTA may already be undertaking in that destination.
However, watch out for the introduction of chatbot technology in the coming years – the human experts still required within a multi-day tour retailing operation may be supplanted (or assisted) by artificial intelligence powered tools.
This could build a new digital “barrier to entry” that individual multi-day tour operators may struggle to compete with for direct sales. Perhaps the opportunity for the big OTAs is to come into the multi-day tour retailing sector with an offering that is both useful to customers and valuable for tour operators.
Alex Bainbridge writes at destinationcto.com