Choosing the right travel provider for your group or organization
Whether you are a veteran travel planner or organizing your first group travel program, you’ve most likely been approached by multiple travel providers or “tour operators” to help you. Whom to choose? What criteria should you use to select a new travel provider?
A close relationship between a travel program and its travel partner is essential. “Our providers are truly our partners," says Karen Burns from Virginia Aquarium. “Each of us has much at stake to make sure everything goes smoothly.” Not unlike the relationship with your home builder, the right provider can make all the difference in the satisfaction of your travelers. Getting to know them well is an important process.
Why not "do it yourself?"
The internet has leveled the playing field for travel, and local information is readily available. While saving money is thought to be the biggest benefit from working directly in a country, you may not have the buying power to get good rates. Plus the amount of detailed work can be daunting. Finally, if something goes wrong, you have less leverage to attend to your group providers. Working with a U.S. travel provider is often just as economical and has the advantage of one easy point of contact if your staff resources are limited. Another important factor is liability insurance (see questions to ask below).
Compare the travel providers to competitors
It’s easy to research online and see what several providers offer to compare services and prices. But even if the itineraries look similar, there could be important differences that will impact the quality and value of your trip. The cheapest package may look very attractive until you realize that it does not include some essential features that you will end up paying for out of pocket. The quality of hotels or lodges can vary, and if their locations are too far from the places you want to visit, you’ll waste precious time traveling back and forth. Read the fine print!
How to evaluate their experience
A reliable travel provider should efficiently manage all reservations, ground transport, accommodations, meals, required permits and documentation, payments and so forth. But they should also have expert knowledge about the region you are visiting and its culture. Ideally, your group should benefit from the fact that your travel provider has extensive local contacts, and uses local guides who can share their insider knowledge with you. It’s often hard to get reliable online ratings of travel providers (on TripAdvisor or other sites), so take the time to get references and ask colleagues in your field.
Ask about your in-country guide
The most important element of a successful tour is the in-country guide who leads your trip. He or she will be responsible for every element of the tour, providing oversight of all travel logistics; and offering patient, good-natured care to all group members. This is all in addition to facilitating the experiential aspects of your itinerary. Ideally, your travel provider will use English-speaking in-country guides who are locals or residents of the region. They know the area like the backs of their hands, know where to find the birds, and are the ideal people to introduce you to the local culture. Having a capable in-country guide is what makes the difference between a good trip and a great one.
10 questions to evaluate a new travel provider:
How long have they been in business and how they get started?
Do they offer tours specifically for your audience, or only generalized tours?
How long have they been operating in your desired destination?
Is their in-country guide with your group from start to finish?
Do their guides have proper certification and training in your area of interest?
How small are their groups? What is their maximum group size?
Does the travel provider practice sustainable tourism?
Does the company offer comprehensive liability insurance ($5 million minimum recommended)?
Do they get good reviews from past customers?
Have they worked with other groups or organizations similar to yours?