In my first travel agent diary entry, I described my business and especially my “Tasteful Travel Experiences” – food and wine themed group tours and cruises. While I’m committed to this focus, I have to admit my success has been unremarkable recently. In the past ten months, I’ve had to cancel two custom group wine tours for lack of participants. It’s now time to step back and assess the situation. What went wrong, and what went right? What could I have done differently, and what will I do better next time? While we often read about the great success stories from agents like how an affinity group resulted in a full ship charter, we don’t often hear about the setbacks. Well, since I don’t have any full ship charters to write about, maybe others can learn from my mistakes, so here goes.
What went right?
Starting with the positives is a good reminder that not all is lost. I can see three really good ideas that worked well for these two groups and have helped to make other endeavors successful as well. The first is the way I used principles from “Blue Ocean Strategies” (described in a series of articles in TRO in January). Although I had never specifically heard of Blue Ocean until a month ago, I am a student of travel agent and marketing classes; and as a result, I have been practicing some of the strategies without knowing it. In both of my wine tours (one to Oregon and the other Seattle), I eliminated competition by creating a unique package with distinctive hotels, included sightseeing and transportation along with hand-selected wine tastings, dinners and experiences. The inclusions added a new value to an otherwise ordinary five-day getaway. It turns out that creating new value and eliminating the competition are two of the four principles of Blue Ocean and I have used them successfully before. For a successful Mediterranean cruise group of 28 passengers in 2011, I selected a one-time sailing of a 7 night, wine friendly itinerary on the Ocean Princess, from Barcelona to Rome. The itinerary itself was unique (only offered one time) and the vessel was one of the small ships in the Princess fleet (also unique). After I packaged in the special wine tours and experiences in each of the ports, plus pre and post stays in the two cities, the trip became a value-added ‘Boutique Wine Cruise’ only available through Hallberg Travel & Tours.
Another success was my pricing mechanism. Using a group price calculator which I have developed, I am able to accurately set the pricing for my group tours which factors in all of the anticipated expenses (hotels, transportation, tours, insurance, meals) as well as the shared cost of a group leader or host, and it can be tweaked to easily change the number of passengers or the amount of commission desired. In order to create this, I modified a simple handout received at a CLIA group class several years ago. I added several more variables and created an Excel spreadsheet, which allows me to be confident in my pricing. For example, I know that if I don’t have x number of paying guests, I will not earn enough money to make the trip worthwhile. Although I have lost the time I spent on the trip planning, I was able to cancel the tour before losing money outside of advertising costs, and that is a plus.
Using Facebook to create interest in the trip is the third good idea and has been mildly successful in other situations. Although my simple Facebook posts did not directly lead to sales in the case of the two cancelled wine tours, recently I was able to sell cabins on a river cruise group by creating a sense of urgency with posts indicating a limited number of cabins are left. It seems social media is useful for announcing a trip and generating initial interest but might be even better for closing sales when I can demonstrate a need to take quick action.
What went wrong?
Getting down to business now on what went wrong means I have to examine what these two doomed trips had in common. It comes down to two things: each trip featured a local ‘expert’ who was meant to be the group leader, pied-piper, wine guru if you will; and secondly, they were both land tours, not cruises. Not willing to believe that wine drinkers only like cruises, I don’t blame the land tour. While the cruise itinerary offers a better price point with its included meals and transportation, the land tour offers the benefit of time to spend visiting many vineyards in an area and a chance to dig into the local cuisine. I thought this might be the differential that wine drinkers and foodies would enjoy, even at a higher price.
The experts, on the other hand, added to the cost of the trip and did not pull their weight by bringing on their peeps. One of the experts was a highly ranked sommelier with a large following that expected to fill 30 tour spots with no problem and even requested her daily service fee be built into the trip cost in addition to covering her expenses. It turned out the followers were not interested in following her out of the city for that price. The Washington wine trip was to be led by the owner of a local wine bar who also has a base of loyal customers. These customers enjoy schmoosing with him at the restaurant but are not inclined to travel with him. I had believed that enlisting experts would enhance the trip experience for my guests while expanding my services to a new market – their customers. I may have second-guessed my own expertise in thinking that I needed an expert to host the tours, as I could have arranged my own tastings and tours and hired local wine experts at the events, if needed.
Everything I’ve ever heard about groups says that you need a “pied-piper” who promotes the tour to their customer base, while I sit back, eat bon-bons and wait for bookings to come in. Well, not exactly. A pied-piper must have a group that wants to spend time together travelling, and they must have a marketing channel (newsletter, website or a gathering) to get the word out to their group. My restaurant owner used his newsletter to advertise the tour, but he did not communicate well. The promos frankly were bland, not descriptive and had no pictures to draw people in. My detailed trip flyer was not included in the actual newsletter. The sommelier handed out my flyer at cooking classes and wine tastings, but did not start soon enough to reach the critical number of people. Neither of my pied-pipers were piping loud enough. Unfortunately, I did not get actively involved in the marketing myself because I mistakenly thought it was their job. I could have done it better if I had gotten involved.
What will I do differently?
Here’s what I resolve to do differently in my next group endeavor:
- I will not second-guess my own expertise. I will not assume that the trip needs a group leader who’s an expert or celebrity and I will not leave all of the selling up to someone else who may not be good at it.
- Instead of relying on a pied-piper, I will seek out other ways to create a new market for the tours, like advertising through wine clubs, and will employ more traditional advertising techniques such as print ads and mailings.
- If I choose to work with pied-pipers in the future, I will qualify them. I will determine first if their followers want to travel together and if they have a good marketing channel in place for getting the word out.
After admitting mistakes and publically declaring my resolutions, I really hope to be able to write that piece on how to land a boat charter sometime in the future. There’s still much to learn and anything is possible, so stay tuned. What have you learned?
Pam Hallberg is a travel consultant who enjoys arranging food and wine themed tours and cruises. She owns her own home-based business, Hallberg Travel & Tours: Creating Tasteful Travel Experiences.