How to start a Tour Operator business in 2024: A step-by-step guide

By Brieanne Biblow

Business TipsBusiness Tips

There are so many benefits of being a tour operator, but taking the first step to start your own tour company? That can feel daunting. Like any start-up business, there are lots of pieces that need to come together before you welcome your first customers. With countless resources out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’ve asked yourself “How do I start an online tour operator business?” We’re here to give you more than just a few tips on starting a travel and tour company. Dive into our practical step-by-step guide on how to start your own tour company.

Choose a business niche

Find your passion

The first step to becoming a tour operator is to know what you’re passionate about. If you survey a handful of happy tour guests, do you know the number one thing they’ll say makes a difference between a good tour and a tour they’ll recommend to all their friends? A passionate tour guide.

Your passion for cooking could translate into delicious food tours, or your love of the outdoors could turn into hiking tours, even a passion for all things spooky could transform into starting a ghost tour business. So, take some time to find your passion that you can’t wait to share with others every day.

Evaluate your city

Once you have your passion in mind, it’s time to take a look at your city. Is it a popular tourist destination? Is there anything that’s not being explored? While passion is key, it’s equally important to identify if there’s an opportunity. Passion without opportunity is just a hobby. Check in with your local tourism board to see if they have any market research reports that outline the opportunities and challenges in the industry.

The travel and tourism industry, like any industry, can see larger trends in pop culture trickle down and open up entirely new business opportunities. Your potential customers are being influenced by trends, so why not do some research, incorporate ones that feel like a fit for you, and watch more bookings roll in.

Some 2024 tourism trends that will be influencing travelers:

  • Multi-generational tours: Post-retirement boomers will be looking to travel with their entire families. So creating a tour offering that has something for the whole family could be a great idea.
  • Cultural connection: More and more, savvy travelers are always looking for something truly authentic to the destination they’ve traveled to. That doesn’t mean you have to be the authentic expert. Instead, think about exploring opportunities to partner with other start-up businesses in your community that could add this element to your tour offering.
  • From screens to reality: Keeping a pulse on popular TV shows and movies can be a great way to come up with unique tour ideas that can target new customers for your business.

Identify your target market

Now that you have innovative tourism ideas, you need to map out what your ideal potential customer looks like. Think about the types of people that will be attracted to your tour.

  • What’s their age demographic?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What language(s) do they speak?
  • What interests do they have?

Who your customers are will determine many of the decisions you make later. This information will also be crucial when you create your marketing strategy. So, take the time to get to know your target market.

Research your competitors

Having found your tour idea and evaluated the market in the previous section, you’re almost ready to register your tour company. But first, you’ll need to research your competition, so you know what you’re up against. Head to Google and search simple like “tour operators near me” and ask yourself:

  • What are they doing well?
  • Where are their gaps?
  • What are their price points like?

Then, find ways to differentiate yourself and stand out.

Register your tour company

With your research complete, now is a good time to consider your options for registering your business. Go to your local tourism board and find out the requirements for starting a tour company in your area. Here are some of the legalities you might have to go through.

Name your tour business

The first thing you need to do is name your business. Your tour name will be used in all of your documentation. Make sure your name is both memorable and descriptive. The most important is if the website domain is available. If your name checks all the boxes, go to your local Registrar of Companies to get it approved and then purchase your domain.

Register your business

Now that you have a name you’re ready to make things official by registering your business. There are different options for how you register— sole proprietorship, partnerships, corporations. Speaking to a small business accountant is a great idea to understand the tax implications of each option. Then, evaluate the pros and cons of each before you make your decision.

Get your business license and permits

Once you’ve registered your business, you’ll need to get a local business license. Check in with your local municipality to do this. You might need to obtain additional permits and licensing based on where you are operating and if you have any vehicles.

Purchase liability insurance

Protect your business, yourself, and your guests by getting liability insurance. Accidents happen, that’s a given. But to ensure that you aren’t held personally liable, you’ll want to meet with an insurance company to learn about what coverage your business needs. Some commonly required in the tourism industry are:

  • Commercial General Liability (CGL)
  • Property Insurance
  • Accounts Receivable Insurance

Register as a tour guide

If you are guiding, you might need to complete a course to become a licensed tourist guide. This allows you to take tourists around a designated geographical area. To find out if you need to register as a guide, check in with your local tourism board.

Open a business bank account

Now that you have a business license, you’ll want to open a corporate bank account. This will help you keep track of all your expenses and revenue and make accounting a lot easier.

Design your tour 

Write your business plan

With all the legalities taken care of, it’s time to write your business plan.

A business plan is a document that holds all of your ideas. It’s your roadmap that helps you determine how you’ll move forward. Include your company description, market analysis, partnership opportunities, and small business goals. It should also include your marketing plan, operations plan, and a list of your vendors, products, and services. It should also contain a variety of financial projections for your first 1-5 years of business. Remember: it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers right away, but it’s good to know what to focus on as you grow.

Side note: once you get up and running, you should learn how to develop a strategic plan to help you reach your ultimate vision for your tour operator business.

Create your Unique Selling Proposition

With your business plan in hand, it’s time to lock down your unique selling proposition.  This explains what makes your tour better than the competition. It’s the benefit that travelers can only get by booking with you — like that you provide ethical travels & tours.  You should be able to define this in one sentence.

Set your tour pricing

Now that you’ve evaluated your market it’s time to determine the value of your tour and choose what you will charge. It’s important to consider your operating costs and market value as well as what you think customers are willing to pay. This part often feels overwhelming for a lot of start-up businesses, which is why we’ve created our free Tour Operator Costing Sheet.

Craft your brand story

Now comes the fun part—it’s time to create a compelling story for your tour. Make sure it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. Find themes that you can carry through the entire experience. A clear narrative makes your tour more memorable.  The goal is to have your guests telling their friends all the neat things they learned in the weeks that follow.

Once you’ve created a story for your tour, it’s time to design your brand around it. The first step is to create a logo. Your logo is the visual representation of your business. It will be used in all of your marketing collateral. You can choose to work with a graphic designer, or give free tools like Canva a try. Lookin for some inspiration? Check out more ideas for branding your business.

Build a travel website

Alright! You’re finally ready to create an online presence for your business. This is how many travelers will find you when researching their trips. If you don’t know how to build a website you have a few options; you could hire a contractor, or try your hand with tools like: Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress. Whatever you choose, make sure your website works with online booking system (like Checkfront 😉).

Set up an online booking system

You don’t just want travelers to find you online; you want them to make, and pay, for reservations right on your website. To do this, you need an online booking system. Your booking system can also be used to process your in-person and over the phone reservations. Here are a few links that will help you find the platform that’s right for you.

Build Relationships 

Talk to other tour guides

When starting a business, many entrepreneurs think they need to do everything on their own. This can lead to loneliness and frustration. But, you don’t have to do it alone. Many guides would be happy to share their knowledge with you. Go out and build relationships with other operators in your city, who aren’t direct competitors. Online communities like Tourpreneur are an invaluable resource for tour operators at any stage of their business.

Connect with the local tourism community

Take any opportunity you have to build relationships with local business. While it’s difficult to walk into a room full of strangers and feel like an outsider, you won’t regret pushing yourself to meet other business owners. You’ll feel connected to people in the same boat as you and get a lot from the relationships you make. Just don’t forget to give back. Here are a few key relationships you should build locally:

  • With your local city council
  • Your local tourism or destination management organization (DMO)
  • Your local tourist information office
  • Hotel front desks and tour desks

Market Your Tour

With your target market defined and your marketing strategy ready to go, it’s time to get the word out about your amazing business! From online travel agents to social media to email marketing, we’ll cover it all:

List your tours on OTAs

Make it easy for travelers to find you by listing your tour on online travel agents (OTAs). OTA’s like Viator, Expedia Local Expert, Google Things To Do and GetYourGuide already have experience in digital advertising and have built up a mass following. While they will take a commission from your sales, they also have a significant amount of marketing spend at their disposal that your business can benefit from.

Think about it like selling vegetables — while you could set up a booth at a local farmer’s market, you’ll probably get far more customers by selling in a grocery store.

Implement SEO best practices

Now that you’re tour is listed with a couple online travel agents, it’s time to start driving traffic to your website. The best long-term strategy to do so is through search engine optimization (SEO). You can use SEO best practices to optimize your site for Google and other search engines. One of the best things to do is to SEO optimize your product descriptions. That way when someone searches for something related to your tour, your website shows up in search results.

Buy Google Adwords

While SEO is great, it’s a long-term strategy and can takee time to crawl up Google or Bing’s search rankings. To get immediate results you can buy AdWords. Instead of waiting for Google’s algorithm to show your website on the results page, you bid on specific keywords related to your business so your site shows up on top of the page.

Start email marketing

With steady visitor traffic coming to your website, you’ll want to capture their emails so you can stay in touch with them. Email marketing is a powerful tool when done right but it will take some work to stand out in your customers’ inboxes. Our Complete Guide to Email Marketing for Tourism Operators is a great place to start.

Get on Facebook and Instagram

Social media is where your customers are likely spending most of their time online, so you should be there, too. Creating a Facebook page and Instagram account will let you connect to your customers, post pictures of your tours, and make your company information easy to share and recommend. Plus, you can use Facebook Messenger or Instagram’s Direct Messages to answer questions and use the ad network on both platforms to help more people discover your tour.

Launch Your Tour

Host Your Friends and Family

As you prepare for a successful business launch, you’ll want to do a few test runs. We recommend a pre-launch buzz campaign or hosting a few friends and family first. Think of it as your dress rehearsal. Go through the tour from start to finish and collect as much feedback as you can. Once you feel confident that you’ve worked out the kinks, you’re ready to launch! 

Final thoughts

Building your own tour business is no easy feat. From designing a tour and evaluating your market, to building relationships, your brand, your online presence, and getting those first customers through the door. There’s a lot of pieces to put together. However, following this step-by-step guide and your intuition you’ll have a successful tour operator business in no time.

Want to get your tour business off to a running start?

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