To quote the Bible, “…if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” There’s no beating around the bush here—a tour operator is almost essential for planning a group trip. Groups need a reliable partner to assist with organizing and executing a trip; otherwise, they may find themselves flying blind. There are hundreds of quality tour operators out there, but not all of them will work for every religious organization. Each congregation is different.
If you’re working with a religious tour operator and considering moving your business elsewhere—or searching for a tour operator for the first time—there are a few things you should keep in mind during the decision process.
Does Your Tour Operator Lack Experience and Expertise?
Ask any expert about the most important characteristic to look for in a tour operator, and he or she likely will say “experience.” If you’ve selected a company that’s relatively new to the market, closely evaluate its product with one from a company that has been offering itineraries for several years.
There are many tour companies with a large name in the industry for vacation packages that have recently entered this segment and it takes much more than certain language or marketing to attract groups—it takes intimate knowledge and understanding of what groups need for their trip.
if you’re planning a religious trip, the tour operator you select should be able to differentiate between denominations, says Nick Mancino, president of Regina Tours. It’s essential that they understand the difference between the needs of a Catholic group and needs of a Protestant group. That kind of expertise can only be found in a company that has years of experience in this segment of the faith-based market.
Does The Tour Operator Offers Cookie-Cutter Itineraries?
Each group is different and requires certain elements to make their trip special. Many tour companies that lack experience with niche groups offer only a cookie-cutter itinerary anyone could select and doesn’t have distinct activities or amenities that make it unique for each group. I’ve seen too many tour operators that offer the typical cookie-cutter itineraries without a fully immersing experience for travelers.
Paul Larsen, president of Ed-Ventures, says, “I would recommend that groups work with somebody who will listen to their needs and customize the tour to meet those needs, as opposed to using an off-the-shelf kind of itinerary.”
What is the Value in Tour Packages?
More often than not, price becomes a major factor in choosing a tour operator. However, the highest price shouldn’t automatically be tossed aside, and the lowest price shouldn’t immediately get selected. A higher price is usually reflective of higher quality tours with more included in the itinerary. For example, some tour operators offer 4-star and 5-star hotels in all its packages. These are comfortable accommodations that provide great service for groups. A lower package cost doesn’t mean the hotels are of lower quality, but it is something to research when analyzing companies.
Groups should also evaluate other inclusions in the itinerary. Look at how many meals are included, what kind of special excursions or exclusive experiences are part of the schedule, and the kind of service you’ll be receiving on the trip, such as luggage handling and transportation.
There are a lot of important questions to ask when looking at itineraries. Is the tour operator able to arrange private events and services for a group? Can the tour operator schedule visits with important figures? Ask these kinds of questions and really pay attention to answers provided by the companies.
Does The Tour Operator Offers Financial Protection?
It almost goes without saying that if a tour operator does not offer insurance—or some kind of financial protection—you shouldn’t work with them. However, it still bears repeating. Many large companies are part of the United States Tour Operators Association, and many experts would insist that you only work with a USTOA member, as it guarantees some degree of stability should the operator go belly-up. But because of the size of these tour operators, the USTOA protection will not make every customer whole should that operator go bankrupt.
However, this kind of protection comes in handy if something goes wrong with the tour or the company. For example, if you’ve already made payments for your group and the tour company goes out of business, you will suddently be in a bind. How to protect yourself? Look for operators that hold funds in escrow, and put monies on a credit card so you have some restitution should that operator go out of business.
And always, always buy insurance from outside the company from a reliable travel insurance company. Self-insurance policies don’t cover you from supplier bankruptcy in most circumstances.
Does the Operator Only Offer Minimal Service?
Another key element to look at when analyzing your current or potential future tour operator is to find out what kind of additional services they offer. This can be anything from marketing assistance to payment collection and maintaining reservations.
“Marketing services can go a long way to help spread the word of their upcoming trip,” says John Klados. If a company offers little or no help with this, it is left up to you to market the trip on your own, leaving you with limited resources. A good tour operator will provide a variety of different services to make the trip a success, such as free printed flyers and posters, email and social media content, or a visit by company representative to discuss the trip with members.
Deposit and full payment collection is another useful service that tour operators can and should provide. Rather than you collecting payments and keeping track of who has submitted money, a tour operator can set up a personalized website just for your group and members can send money directly to the company (preferably, again paying by credit card). The operator can then let the group leader know who has paid in full and whom they’re still waiting on. This kind of service is also useful when sending reminders about when deposits and full payments are due, as well as information on itineraries, packing essentials and other trip details. It’s just one less thing for your group to worry about.
Does the Tour Operator Have a Poor Reputation and Recommendations?
Of the biggest red flags you can come across when searching for a tour operator is bad reviews. Obviously, not every bad review is a true reflection of the company and it’s always smart to research further if you see one or two negative testimonies.
Checking Google Reviews, Yelp and other online sources is a good start. But most importantly, talk to a group who’s traveled with them. RRequesting testimony and even following up by trying to contact the reviewer to ensure accuracy is one of the best ways to get a clear picture of the company you are about to do business with. Most tour operators will collect reviews from past customers and make them available upon request.
Another way to research a company, according to Mancino, is to contact the tourism office of the country or countries you’re planning to visit and asking if they are familiar with an operator. Usually, tourism offices have records of operators that do business there and can provide information regarding their qualifications.
Bad Chemistry or Relationship
Even if your tour operator meets all the criteria of a good company, it still might not be right for you. Just because they have the experience, the services, the reputation and the coverage, the chemistry with your church may be missing.
“Look for somebody that has the experience in the faith travel niche and understands the marketplace and will sit down and listen to them as to what they want to get out of the tour,” says Larsen.
Every faith leader may want something different from the experience. Some really care about the historical perspective; others may want a mission component. It really can vary.
Make sure that the company you’re working with is a good match for you. If they don’t understand what you’re about, it’s hard for them to deliver the product that you want.
There is a certain sense of comfort and reassurance that should be felt when you work with a tour operator, especially since you have to trust them with your members on a trip. It’s important to look at all aspects of their business, from past experience and knowledge of the tourism industry to their services and benefits. And remember that what works for another group may not work for you. Your group is unique and there’s a tour operator out there that’s a match made in heaven.