Choosing the right tour operator is crucial for ensuring a great travel experience. Nearly every seasoned leader has an abundance of rave reviews for those important travel partners and perhaps a few assessments they would rather not discuss.
The criteria travel leaders use when making that important decision vary. But all those interviewed for this story agreed: It is important to network with colleagues and benefit from their experience; read the fine print on the travel and legal documents as well as the itineraries; and investigate the quality and knowledge of the operator’s tour directors who will be on the ground leading your group.
Excellent Customer Service
Planning approximately 30 trips a year that include travels by motorcoach, riverboats and large ships, Marguerite Jones is the travel program director for alumni services at Johns Hopkins University. The veteran travel planner is an authority on the subject of choosing tour operators.
“We have worked with many tour operators over the years,” Jones said. “For us, they have to have a solid record for successful travel programs, be U.S.-based and be insured. Our legal department gets involved to ensure there is adequate insurance and that we are named on their policy that covers accidents, lawsuits and trip cancellations. It’s imperative that we feel secure with our position, as I’ve known other schools that have had companies go under before a trip — what a nightmare.
“Besides that, they have to have a good product and itinerary. They have to have a level of guides that our alumni appreciate. And as our alumni are calling them with questions that range from costs to mobility issues, a tour operator has to have outstanding customer service. While we have a layer of service with faculty members, tour operators need to be accommodating to us if there is a problem.”
Though Jones usually deals with tour operators that sell only to alumni groups, her priorities are similar to those in other group travel arenas.
“The stability of a company is as important to me as the quality and price of a tour,” said Chris Harris, travel leader at Central Bank Classic at Central Bank in Jefferson City, Missouri. “If I was left hanging on a hook after the final payment is made, it would be a reflection on me, even though I had no idea [that the company was in financial trouble].”
Although Harris has had excellent experiences with the tour operators that his group has used for years, he has discovered that it is important to look closely at what each offers.
“I weed out what I want and what I don’t want,” he said. “What hotels do they use? What is the twist I want on this trip? Maybe there is an unusual or intriguing option or activity that is important to me and makes one company stand out from the others. As a matter of fact, when planning our upcoming trip to Ireland, I realized most of the operators’ itineraries were much the same. I found one who was doing something different, and we are using them.
“As a newcomer in the planning process, I’m looking at this from a different perspective, as I am doing my best to attract younger bank travelers. I’m often hoping for some adventure, like zip lining and experiences that are attractive to baby boomers.
“Keeping that in mind, choosing a tour operator goes hand in hand with the question, Who are we targeting for the trip? When we went to Washington, D.C., we probably walked 30 miles. It was a great trip but certainly not for all of our potential travelers.”