Logic might suggest that technology has made it easier than ever for people to book their own travel experiences. But even if travelers skip over the middlemen and book directly with their desired tour operators, a vast majority of tour operators still rely on travel agents to close the deal. In fact, 87 percent of tour operators working in the adventure travel industry currently work with travel agents, according to the Travel Leaders Companion Survey Digest, a new research report published by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA).
Tour operators reported being primarily motivated to work with travel agents because they offer a new sales channel. Trevor Saxty, president of Explore, said the company began using travel agents more than 30 years ago to expand the company’s distribution efforts in order to reach the widest possible range of travelers. “Our primary interest in working with agents is to partner with them to grow their business and ours by connecting new travelers with the experiences we offer and then keep them coming back year after year,” he said.
Research findings support the importance these relationships have in promoting financial growth. Though less than 30 percent of sales come through agents, 63 percent of tour operators have experienced growth through the agent channel.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that well-established tour operators — those in business before online booking even existed — continue to tap into the expertise of travel agents. However, it’s not only seasoned tour operators utilizing travel agency services. “We partnered with STA Travel from the very beginning two years ago,” said Bruce Haxton, managing director of The Tuk Tuk Club, an operator based in Northern Thailand. “The simple reason is that it allows us to gain a reach for our adventures that would be incredibly difficult — and expensive — to do so under our own steam. A good travel agent, and a global one like STA, can get us in front of so many more eyes than we could directly.”
With access to this new channel comes credibility as well — another reason tour operators reported working with travel agents. Haxton noted the recognition of a travel agent like STA can boost customer confidence when booking with a new tour operator. Travel agents also add a personal touch both during the buying experience and during their travels. “We pride ourselves in personalized trips,” said Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland. “Having a good relationship with a travel agent means they can delve into the desires and ambitions of the guest before we get involved.”
Data for this research report, Travel Leaders Companion Survey Digest, was collected from ATTA tour operators about their experiences of working with travel agents in the winter of 2018. An earlier companion survey, Travel Leaders Survey of Travel Agents, was given to travel agents about their experiences working within the adventure travel industry in spring 2018. That survey was conducted by Travel Leaders, a travel agency network in the United States. Together, the Travel Leaders Survey of Travel Agents and the Travel Leaders Companion Survey Digest indicate that, though tour operators are interested in booking through travel agents, there is still a continued need for mutual education and understanding to address the complexity of these transactions.
“There is clearly a demand from adventure tour operators to work with specialist travel advisors,” said Russell Walters, the ATTA’s regional director for North America. “The findings in the report demonstrate areas where operators and travel agents can work together to develop relationships, leading to long-term business opportunities in this growing market segment.”
Yet, an established partnership between tour operators and travel agents offers a win-win situation for both parties willing and interested in working through the adventure travel industry’s complexities. “Once we have one successful trip with a travel agent, the relationship has been created. When we receive feedback from their customers that they had a wonderful time, we now have an advocate for our company, which can use their network to emulate future trips,” Connolly said. “And the more trips we run with them, the clearer an image they have on how we work and it can streamline the whole process.”
The Travel Leaders Companion Survey Digest was compiled based on an online survey sent to more than 1,000 adventure tour operators, with 170 respondents from all continents except Antarctica. Tour operators offered information on partnerships with travel agents, 2018 sales using travel agents, profiles of adventure travelers booking through travel agents, and recommendations for improving adventure trip sales through travel agent partners.
The 98-page Travel Leaders Companion Survey Digest is available for download.