When you’re in the business of selling travel experiences, everything hinges on your ability to create amazing memories for your customers. Looking for ways to up your game? We talked to some of the world’s top-selling tour operators to uncover their secrets to success. From hiring the right staff and differentiating your products, to embracing new technologies and distribution channels like Viator—they’ve learned a thing or two about growing an experience business. We hope their advice will inspire you to take your own business to the next level.
Operating In: USA
Secret Sauce: Customer Service, Reservation System
Since 1999, Empire Vacations has specialized in day trips and multi-day adventures for international travelers visiting major American cities, including New York City and Los Angeles.
They started offering tours in just three languages and weekly departures, and over the years have grown to nine languages, with unlimited tour availability. They now transport over 80,000 passengers a year. Their secret sauce? Consistency.
“Providing excellent customer service and memorable experiences to our customers each and every day is our main goal,” says Marko Manojlovic, Director of Tour Operations.
Another part of their growth is due to constantly trying to improve and invest in technology, specifically reservation systems. In fact, this alone has helped them grow their business 15% year-over-year!
Operating In: USA, Europe
Secret Sauce: Rockstar Local Teams
Launched in 2009 as Walks of Italy, this fast-growing international star now offers small-group sightseeing tours, day trips, food tours and cooking classes in New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, Barcelona and six destinations in Italy. Their mission is to provide unique, exceptional experiences, be it an official NBC Studios Tour or a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney on Broadway in New York City.
“We know our guests want to make the most of their vacation time, and this has set the tone for everything we do,” says Roisin O’Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer for Take Walks. Innovation has also been vital to their growth. For example, when they recognized that guests wanted greater flexibility and were interested in seeing more than just the major attractions, they added evening “dine-around” foodie experiences and their trademark Walk On Walk Off™ pass that gives customers unlimited access to tours without reserving in advance.
As for their secret to success, they praise the hard work and dedication of their locally based teams. “We’ve had the good fortune to find great people who give as much care and attention to our work as we do!”
Operating In: Latin America, USA, Europe
Secret Sauce: Last-Minute Bookability
Talk about ramping up big and fast. Amigo Tours started in 2005 as a small company in Mexico City operating only one tour per day with a small van. Last year, they hosted more than one million guests, and today they offer over 270 tours per day in more than 20 destinations, including New York, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, as well as the UK and Spain.
What allowed this spectacular growth? Early on, they were selling locally with hotels and concierges and didn’t see too much growth, but the game changer came in 2009 when they started selling through B2B channels. “We now reach every corner of the world because the distribution is so effective,” says Jose Arozarena, CEO for Amigo Tours. They’ve even since closed their B2C and local channels. “You have to be flexible and keep innovating,” he continues. “This industry is changing quickly, so you need to adapt.”
He stresses the importance of keeping your rates competitive, using online tools to manage your inventory, making sure your products are bookable up to the last minute, and using discounts to fill empty seats. “Those days of operating with minimum passenger requirements and 72 hour cut-off times are gone.”
How Amigo Tours Grew to Over 1 Million Customers Per Year
“TripAdvisor has been key to our company’s growth. Amigo Tours went from hosting 150,000 guests 7 years ago to more than 1 million in 2018. Such growth has been in large part thanks to the distribution the platform has given us and it has also been key to helping us scale from being a local business to a global company. TripAdvisor puts our products within reach of anyone in the world; we work hand-in-hand with OTAs in their growth and we know that in the near future, 90% of tours and activities will be sold online.”
CANTEBURY LEISURE TOURS
Operating In: New Zealand
Secret Sauce: Rockstar Local Teams
Canterbury Leisure Tours started with a limited number of day tours out of Christchurch, and over the years have grown to provide a wide range of day tours, multi-day tours and shore excursions to international visitors to New Zealand. The company credits its rockstar team and product development for its growth. But above all else, Canterbury deserves kudos for its resilience and adaptability in the market, as they demonstrated following a devastating earthquake in Christchurch in 2011.
“With most of the city’s hotels damaged,” says the company’s CEO, Kevin Edlin, “we refocused on the needs of cruise passengers, the only market segment unaffected by the earthquake.”
Since then, they went from shore excursions comprising less than 1% of their business in 2011 to 35% of their business in 2018. How’s that for making lemonade out of lemons?
Operating In: New Zealand
Secret Sauce: Eco-Friendliness, Passionate Staff
Promoting conservation since 1954, this award-winning eco-tour company provides nature cruises, overnight cruises, wildlife excursions, river rafting and other ways to experience New Zealand’s magnificent South Island, while always staying true to its Earth-friendly bona fides.
“Preserving New Zealand’s extraordinary natural heritage is at the heart of everything we do,” says Geraldine McMillan, Sales Manager for Real Journeys.
They’re also passionate about their people.
“Part of our secret to success is due to our entire team living and breathing our underlying core company values,” says McMillan.
Her advice: Look after your staff, and ensure they’re thriving in their working environment and have a passion for your product.
“Without our staff, we simply wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says. “Combining this with a key focus on our visitor experience is something we’re very proud of.”
Operating In: Greater London
Secret Sauce: Innovating New Tours
Launched in London in 2002, Premium Tours is now one of London’s biggest tour operators. A family-run sightseeing company, they specialize in upscale day trips within and outside of the British capital, including top-rated tours at attractions such as the Tower of London, Stonehenge, or the filming sets of Harry Potter at Warner Bros. Studio.
Since 2002, they’ve grown from just one tour to over 20 tours every day. What’s been key to their growth is creating new tours.
“We constantly seek new experiences to offer our customers,” says Phil Coulter, Commercial Director at Premium Tours. To get there, Coutler stresses the importance of understand who you’re marketing to, knowing how to work with distributors, and knowing how to promote your products effectively. “Having someone within your company who has a good understanding of technology helps a great deal.”
Operating In: Italy
Secret Sauce: Partnerships, Logistics
Since 1925, Carrani Tours has offered a variety of tours and experiences to independent travelers and groups throughout Italy with an emphasis on culture, history, food and wine, shopping, and other special interests.
Living up to its tagline, “I Love Rome!,” Carrani is one of only three tour operators with an exclusive partnership with the Vatican Museums to provide early admission, skip-the-line privileges and access to areas normally restricted to the public.
After almost a century in business, the company says its most important lessons are also the most basic: “Take care of your guests, be sure to control the logistical side of your tours, and give the best value-for-money experience,” says Sales Manager Zena Batocchi.
How the FC Porto Museum Adapts New Distribution Channels to Attract International Visitors
“In order to reach different kinds of public, and explore different markets, we had to expand our channels of communication and distribution to allow our product to grow. Considering we already had our listings on TripAdvisor, and good reviews by our visitors, we felt that enabling our product to be on sale on this platform would be a great step towards reaching our day-to-day goals, and to be closer to the international public. The Viator platform is very user friendly, and the impact was immediate, as we had received bookings straight away.”
BEST OF SWITZERLAND
Operating In: Switzerland
Secret Sauce: Passion, Quality
Believe it or not, the leading sightseeing operator in Switzerland has been in business less than a decade. Between 2010 and 2017, Best of Switzerland grew five fold, and just last year hosted over 100,000 guests.
The company is always striving for excellence. “Quality always wins in the long run,” says Christian Landis, General Manager for Best of Switzerland. Operating from three cities—Zürich, Lucerne and Interlaken—in the country’s German-speaking region, the company provides full-day and half-day tours to the country’s top attractions and off-the-beaten-path gems, as well as city sightseeing tours and tailor-made private services.
Their takeaway? “Be passionate and love what you do—don’t do it for money, do it because you love it. The money comes if you do it well!”
Operating In: United Kingdom
Secret Sauce: Adapting, Always Improving
Want to explore Britain? The name to know since 1930 is Evan Evans, provider of journeys and experiences to Britain’s most iconic locations. They offer tours of London, as well as rail tours to Stonehenge, Liverpool, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Brussels and Paris.
You don’t run a thriving business for close to 90 years without being able to adapt. Rather than relying on past successes, they continually look for ways to expand and improve their offerings—from launching new types of tours to cater to different demographics, to adding free Wi-Fi and providing high-quality headsets on board their vehicles, to replacing their vehicles every few years with the latest models. In doing so, they consistently provide outstanding experiences and stay ahead of the competition.
“We’re all about continued reinvention,” says Chris Pourgourides, Director of Sales and Marketing for Evan Evans. “We do this by putting the investment back into our business.” Ultimately, it comes down to providing a fantastic guest experience. “Keep close to your guests, gather feedback from every department, keep an eye on the market, and figure out what makes your offerings unique.”
Operating In: United Kingdom
Secret Sauce: Finding Hidden Gems
What started off in 2004 as a family business offering student tours has evolved into one of Britain’s top-selling travel companies. Today, International Friends offers a range of tours and shore excursions that take visitors to top British attractions such as Stonehenge, Downton Abbey’s manor and Harry Potter sets. But what’s really made them stand out is their ability to give their customers something extra—that hidden gem that they wouldn’t have found on their own. They do this by operating in small vehicles that the larger coach buses can’t access, and by having a team of expert guides that know all the secret spots not found on the typical tourist maps.
Their advice? Always be on the lookout for new possibilities and opportunities, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes—that’s how you learn and grow, and sometimes changing directions can lead to even greater success. At some point, you’ll get it just right. As Jimmy Greene, Owner/Director of International Friends, says, “There’s no better feeling than being told by customers you made their holiday, beat their expectations, and gave them a once in a lifetime trip.”
Operating In: Italy, Switzerland
Secret Sauce: Tweak & Refine Tours
The leading tour operator in Italy’s second largest city, Milan, Zani Viaggi started offering tours in 2002 and specializes in city tours and day trips to northern Italy and southern Switzerland. Like any great tour operator, the team finds joy in tweaking a tour until it’s just right. “Creating a tour takes time and constant refining. No tour is created perfect,” says Marcello Astori, Marketing Manager for Zani Viaggi. “But when you finally make it right, the positive feedback from your guests is the greatest reward.”
Of course, it helps when you’re absolutely in love with your destination. “When we started, Milan was considered just as a business destination. We wanted to change that idea because we love the city and know every little detail about it. We really believed in the potential of Milan as a tourist destination.” Their advice? “Take your time to develop your tours, always be professional and focus on quality, and have original ideas—just because some ideas worked for other businesses, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily work for you.”
Operating In: Peru
Secret Sauce: Embracing Online Distribution & Technology
One of Peru’s leading tour operators, Viajes Pacifico has been in the business for more than 40 years, and specializes in tours of Peru’s most alluring destinations, from Lima to Cusco and beyond. As the industry has evolved, so has the company, in more ways than one. The first is creativity and innovation in product development.
“We recognize that travel has become more about adventure, fulfillment, learning new skills and cultural exchange, so we’ve added new products and new destinations to provide unforgettable experiences for our customers, with a focus on high-quality service,” says Lucia Ugarteche, E-Commerce Manager for Viajes Pacifico. The second is keeping up with online distribution and technology development. “We offer our products through online channels like TripAdvisor, which helps us to enhance our products, attract more guests, and create opportunities for expansion,” Ugarteche says.
In addition, because of new consumer behaviors in today’s digital age, most of their products now have flexible policies and can be available up until the last minute—which has been key to growing their bookings.
Operating In: Italy
Secret Sauce: Be Different
Founded in 1999, this Anglo-Italian, Venice-based tour operator offers English-language private and small-group tours all over Italy. From the beginning, offering tours exclusively in English is what has set Avventure Bellissime apart.
“What’s made us so successful is finding our niche and offering something different from our competitors,” says the company’s owner, Monica Fachin. Another key to their success has been patience; the company perfected its offerings in Venice before exporting the winning formula to Rome, Florence, the Dolomites and other parts of Italy.
Along the way, it’s been necessary to build a fantastic team. “We’ve built an impressive network of guides, drivers and tour escorts and the majority of them have been working with us for over a decade.”