Do Tour Operators Really Add Value?

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By Martin Cook, Regional Managing Director of Tourvest Destination Management

As most readers of this posting will be aware, I have worked in tourism for almost two decades, handling both group tours and latterly luxury & Experiential FIT travelers from all around the world. I have witnessed the rise of online portals, be they hotels websites, bed-banks, guiding services etc, and duly aimed to keep alive the value of using a traditional tour operator versus the ever increasing competition from ‘technology’.

I now wonder however, how many of us (tour operators) have truly experienced using these technological portals to book their entire vacation and to travel for a sustained (20 day) period? This month, we (my wife and I) did just that.

For our accommodation, We combined AirBnB with Agoda and Bookings.com, (and OK I also called in a few favors), for our entire journey. As a tour operator, we were always looking for unique and boutique ideas, the opportunity to interact with locals, and less touristic ways to improve our clients experiences, adding value, and aiming to differentiate our tours, all at the best possible price.

Given my recent experience over the past three weeks, I must however admit, that as a tour operator, there is a huge hurdle to leap! Moreover the ‘blinkers’ (at least for me) are now well and truly ‘off’!

Quite simply, our vacation was a huge success. 90% of our journey was unassisted and it was so easy to do, combining local interaction, home stays, ‘glam’ hotels and adventure, all rolled into one. We also made it back to Saigon on the day we had planned/anticipated, mixed the experiential with luxury, booked many things on-the-go, had the freedom to choose what we did, when, and at a pace we could manage and enjoy.

Our first stopover via AirBnB was in an old traditional, home-from-home Laos Villa for 3 nights ‘living’ with a Laos local. How much more interactive could this get! And all for under $30 dollars per night. We hired a motorbike for less than $10 dollars per day, used TripAdvisor and various other mediums to select the places we wished to/should visit, Wikipedia and the internet to read up on what we would see and learn about, and Map Me, a down-loadable App to help our route planning and direction.

AirBnB also provided our accommodation in Vang Vieng and Chiang Mai. In Vang Vieng we stayed at a resort with only 4 bungalows and a lake view to die for. This place was so good we decided to skip Phonsavan and enjoy this local treasure, its infinity pool and privately guided lake cruise. Bungalow for three nights, meals, drinks, cruise and free use of kayaks, local transport to and from Vang Vieng cost under $100 dollars per day! Likewise in Chiang Mai, we found a 4* equivalent, 7 bedroom, boutique guesthouse including the prettiest breakfast known to mankind for under $30 dollars per night. But the best deal of all was our 5* star (officially rated) suite in Bangkok at less than $60 dollars per night via Bookings.com!

In terms of transport I will admit the local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng was truly local. But this was meant to be a very localized experience and actually, with a very good driver. Our Green Bus from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai was equivalent to a business class flight. Leather reclining seats, refreshments, film to watch, and a great ‘pilot’. We landed despite the turbulence, (in this case sharp bendy roads), feeling great after a 5 hour journey overland! We needed no guide to make chit-chat, we simply soaked up the views and daily life, and designed and ate our own four-course brunch which we could salvage from the snacks we had accumulated during the trip and brought on-board.

In terms of transport I will admit the local bus from Vientiane to Vang Vieng was truly local. But this was meant to be a very localized experience and actually, with a very good driver. Our Green Bus from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai was equivalent to a business class flight. Leather reclining seats, refreshments, film to watch, and a great ‘pilot’. We landed despite the turbulence, (in this case sharp bendy roads), feeling great after a 5 hour journey overland! We needed no guide to make chit-chat, we simply soaked up the views and daily life, and designed and ate our own four-course brunch which we could salvage from the snacks we had accumulated during the trip and brought on-board.

We booked a local carrier on the internet for our flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The difference was that it provided its own airport lounge access, all for little more than $100 per ticket. The leg room in the aircraft was amazing for economy class. The ease of the train and the MRT from the airport into downtown Bangkok, astonishing..! So OK, we needed to walk 200 Mts. to our hotel with our combined 20 Kg. of luggage. Great chance to sit, have coffee and locate ourselves with ease. (Map Me App, TripAdvisor also shows you where the local coffee shop is).

At the beginning of our journey we had not booked anything beyond Chiang Khong, apart from our overnight there and the Green bus. The rest we booked en-route in those downtime moments, sipping cocktails, relaxing, whilst choosing our future preferred travel options.

I believe the term ‘flash packer’ may best describe our journey. But more importantly, I say again,  90% of our journey was unassisted. We also made it back to Saigon on the day we had planned/anticipated, mixed the experiential with luxury, booked many things on-the-go, had the freedom to chose what we did when, and at a pace we could manage and enjoy. Freedom, Choice, Unexpected and Real Life Interaction. The NEW Luxury in Travel.

The future of travel is upon us. As Tour Operators, let us really make sure we can differentiate ourselves, otherwise the ‘Golden-age’ of our profession will soon be over. Equally, do you really know how to ‘package’ this and do you really know what is out there that can be booked with such ease? Let us no kid ourselves or be lulled into our own self sense of perspective, that we can easily miss/dismiss the point.

I will take this learning with me. I would advise that you do the same and try this form of travel. Only then will you learn what the real competition (and I do not speak of fellow Tour Operators here) are providing, just by the click of a button!

Finally, our trip is chronicled on TripAdvisor, sharing our experiences with other fellow travelers. Within a week of returning I have a viewing audience of 1000, countless helpful votes and a grade 6 expert traveler rating that supposedly makes my opinions and comments valued.

See original article at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/question-all-tour-operators-martin-cook

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Founded by two travel and technology professionals with years of experience in Asia, Representasia specialises in sales & marketing representation throughout Southeast Asia for travel/hospitality technology providers and travel-related startups, as well as providing marketing consultancy services for hotels and travel businesses in the region.

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