How to Team Up With Local Tour Operators and Thrive

July 17, 2019, Kyla Steeves
Partnerships in travel and tourism. Silhouette of three scuba divers navigating ocean.

Sometimes, the best partnerships in travel and tourism are just around the corner. Who else has the destination down pat? Other local tour and activity operators, of course.

Like yourself, they know the backroads, watering holes, hidden attractions, and reputable businesses — which means their guests also look to them for advice on where to eat, sleep, and what to do and see.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they recommended your tours as a must-book and vice versa? That’s why we outline what you need to know about teaming up with them— including:

Benefits of collaborative marketing for tour operators

Benefits of collaborative marketing. Two travelers on motorbikes on the beach.

Online travel agents (OTAs) tend to get the most attention for partnership marketing — and rightfully so. Thanks to significant budget and resources, they dominate search rankings and online marketing campaigns. With them, it’s possible to promote your offerings on a mass scale.

But here’s the thing, your neighbours can be as good of partners — just in a different way. 

Unlike OTAs who are masters at digital marketing, your fellow tour operators are destination experts. That is to say — they’ve got the inside scoop over data. Naturally, travelers trust their suggestions because they know first-hand what a place uniquely offers. 

Plus, they have something OTAs don’t — in-person interaction. Their guides engage with the guests, getting to know them right down to likes and dislikes. If they bring you up, it’s likely because your tour matches a traveler’s interests. So although they don’t have the same reach, it’s made up ten-fold in credibility.

But there are other benefits of collaborative marketing beyond getting word-of-mouth referrals. Depending on the partnership, you can also:

  • Attract more visitors by banding together to promote your destination
  • Make bookings on behalf of each other with a low commission rate
  • Elevate offerings by pairing two complementary experiences
  • Save money on expenses — like sharing the cost of a shuttle service
  • Give and receive mentorship from being in the same industry
  • Boost your brand’s reputation through co-marketing and association 

Don’t get me wrong; you should still have an OTA marketing strategy. But in-destination bookings are rising, and we’re seeing offline partner bookings follow suit. So if you want to make it on last-minute bucket lists, it’s a good idea to build strong relationships in your tourism community as well. 

How to collaborate with other businesses in travel

How to partner with tour operators. Group of travelers riding in convertible in the desert.

Starting a partnership with a tour and activity operator is much different than listing on OTA sites. All you have to do is join Expedia Local Expert or TripAdvisor Experiences, whereas the other takes a bit longer to put into motion. An offline partnership requires an offline connection — laying the groundwork for the relationship first. 

In other words, it’s not something you can jump into on a trial basis. If you change your mind shortly after the handshake, you might come across as flaky, and potentially ruin your chance at future co-marketing opportunities within the community. So, you’ve got to be sure it’s a suitable partnership from the get-go. 

That said, let’s look at the steps for how to approach a business for collaboration, and how to partner with tour operators:

1. Figure out your goal

As you read earlier, there are plenty of ways you can benefit from local partnerships in travel and tourism. But covering everything right off the bat will only overwhelm both parties. So, it’s best to determine one thing to focus on before reaching out. 

Of course, that involves setting a goal — which is good practice for any marketing you do. Ask yourself, what do you hope to gain from this partnership? Is it brand awareness, positive publicity, new customers, unique offerings, or something else?

For whatever you come up with, outline your plan next. How are you going to reach that goal with another operator? Does it only need a few posters in their ticket office, or will it require you to set up a partner account

I suggest starting with small, achievable goals. That way, both of you will get a feel for working together, and if everything goes well, move onto bigger collaborations. And soon, a strategic partnership will be underway. 

2. Find common ground

Once you know what you want out of the partnership, you can figure out what you’re looking for in a partner. Just like dating, it’s best to be selective. Or else, there’s no point in going to all that effort if it’s only meant to be a short-term relationship.

To help you find a suitable match, make a list of deal-breakers and must-haves. The better you stick to this during the search phase, the more likely you’ll end up with a long-lasting partnership. 

Find common ground. That's a dealbreaker.

Not sure what to put down? Here are some ideas:

  • Same target audience: you want their customers to dig your tours and the other way around.
  • Similar core values: who you associate with reflects who you are as a business. Don’t ruin your reputation by working with a company that operates in a way you strongly disagree with, nor can get behind. 
  • Not a direct competitor: this is common sense unless you’re okay with taking this advice too far, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
  • Similar niche: the pairing should make sense. For example, a kayak tour company goes well with a SUP rental shop. Both are water-sports related. 
  • Positive reviews: if their guests are happy, you can be confident in referring your own to them. Plus, it shows they know how to provide a good experience, so their stamp of approval will mean a lot. 
  • High customer engagement: check out their social media profiles. Do they post frequently and get a bunch of likes and comments? If so, you’ll see better results from your social media co-marketing strategies.
  • Quality content: that said, make sure they do a good job marketing their tours and activities because your brand will be part of future campaigns. 
  • Good references: if possible, ask other businesses what it’s like to work with them. Do they follow through with promises? Do they often give pushback to new ideas? Can they be trusted overall?

3. Build a relationship

Not surprisingly, you might be acquainted with the tour and activity operator you want to team up with. After all, they’re in the same location, so you’ve probably run into them a couple a hundred times — whether you know it or not.

But even if you’re on a first-name basis, shared a few conversations, or played against each other in softball, you still need to work up to pitching a partnership agreement. Rather than sending a cold email, it’s better to build rapport over time. That way, they’ll be more comfortable saying yes because they already know and trust you. 

Of course, it can be intimidating to break the ice — especially if you’ve never met them. Luckily, there are easy ways to do this without awkwardly showing up to their ticket office, saying hi out of the blue, and leaving your business card. Although, that also works. 

Build a relationship. Business cards.

On LinkedIn, you can add them as a connection, and send a friendly message introducing yourself. If they don’t have a profile, see if they set up a booth at community events or trade shows, and pop over for a quick hello. Or if you really want to show interest, book one of their activities with your family, and tell them you had an amazing time. 

When they officially know who you are, and what your tour company does, ask to go for a coffee. Preface it as a chance to connect over your shared experience of running a tourism business. But for yourself, use it as an opportunity to find out whether they meet your guidelines for a potential partner. 

You might have to meet up for a few coffees, and occasional dinners, before bringing up a collaboration deal. You’ll know when the time is right. 

4. Know your value

Collaborative marketing is a two-way street. That means they have to get something out of it, too. So what do you bring to the table? Whatever you hope to gain from working with them, are you able to provide the same, or something else, in return?

It’s important to know this information beforehand since there’s a good chance they’ll ask. And if they don’t, still work it into the pitch because it will show you’re a valuable partner, and you want what’s best for them, too. But take it easy, you don’t have to spill your entire business plan to them. 

After a little back and forth, you’ll hopefully land on win-win strategy. Just be honest about what you’re looking for — don’t settle out of fear of losing them. Also, stay open to their ideas. Who knows, they might have something better in mind. 

Know your value. Sharing ideas.

And if you agree on including referral bookings as part of the plan, make sure to look up average tour operator commission rates. That should give you an idea for where to start the negotiation so you can still make a profit when rewarding them for new business. 

5. Nurture the relationship

Like any relationship, you have to put in the time and effort for it to last. So while you move forward with the co-marketing plan, here are some things you can do to keep the partnership alive and well:

  1. Hold monthly meetings: this allows you to check-in without bugging them daily. Here, you can talk about campaign metrics, what’s going well, and what else you can try together. 
  2. Keep your end up: if you want them to follow through with their promise, you have to be willing to do the same. Set an example by working hard to carry out what you said you would. 
  3. Stay in touch: it doesn’t always have to be about bookings. Make a habit of asking how business is going for them and offering advice as needed. 
  4. Show appreciation: small gestures go along way. Give their team a shareable gift on holidays — like chocolate or baking — and send a thank-you card. 

Ideas for local partnerships in travel and tourism

Brand collaboration examples. Two hikers at top of a cliff looking down at ocean.

There are many co-marketing tactics you can try with another tour and activity operator. Since you’re relatively nearby, it’s not too much trouble to quickly meet up, re-evaluate, and swap in something different if one doesn’t work out. So you can be as creative as you want, or keep it simple. It’s up to you.

But as I mentioned before, it’s best to start small and go from there. So if you’re struggling with where to begin, here are some easy-to-implement brand collaboration examples:

1. Host an event or contest

It’s likely you’ll have a couple of experiences that go hand in hand — especially if you fall into a similar category, or take guests to the same areas. Check what items go well together, and create a package anyone can win. Then share the contest on social media to generate buzz, and get access each other’s followers. 

For example, let’s say you offer a guided hike along a coastal trail and they provide an ocean kayaking adventure. Both are exciting on their own, but better if combined. The prize package would be something like kayaking to the trail, having a beach picnic, going on the hike, and kayaking back. 

Host a contest with a tour operator.

Another option is to host an event together. With the same example, it’s safe to assume both tour companies care about ocean conservation. As an event then, you could collectively round up the community for a beach clean-up. Not only would this get positive publicity, but it’d also boost brand awareness with the locals. 

2. Offer a special incentive

Most travelers love to save money on trips — hence all the online travel deals. As a co-marketing campaign, you can give guests a discount code to use when booking tours and activities with your partner. Since people are more likely to buy something with a coupon, this will be the extra boost they need to try a different experience. 

3. Display marketing materials

It’s never a bad idea to try out traditional advertising methods as well. By putting up posters on the front desk or keeping a pamphlet holder next to the debit machine, guests can get ideas for things to do while waiting in the lobby. Just make sure your website URL is easy to spot, so they know where to find more information if interested.

4. Let them go for free

If guides are going to promote another tour or activity, they’ll be more convincing if they had the experience themselves. That’s because they can go into detail about where they went, what they saw, what they did, and how they felt. Plus, stories are incredibly effective at persuading someone to make a booking — thanks to the fear of missing out (FOMO). 

Let their team try the experience for free.

To give their guides something to talk about, as well as your own, let each other’s employees go for free. So long as it’s last minute to ensure the tour doesn’t reach full capacity and they take the place of a paying guest. 

5. Mention in emails

With collaborative content marketing, you can go down many different routes — like guest posting, social media shout-outs, video promotions, and much more. But for starters, try signing off thank-you emails with a recommendation. 

Here’s an example: 

Thank you for booking our coastal hiking tour. We hope you had an amazing time and spotted a sea lion or two! If you want to see the cliffs from a different point of view — AKA the ocean — book a kayaking adventure with our friends over at White Caps Tours. 

You can customize and automate the message, so it sends with the right tour. Just remember to include a link or call-to-action button in the email body, and have your partner do the same. 

6. Start a collective

Why partner with one, when you can work with many? If there are plenty of tour and activity operators in the area, it might be smart to share a website. Of course, you should still keep your own, but doing this allows travelers to discover your business in another place. That’s because together, you can rank for more in-destination keywords. 

Start a collective with tour and activity operators.

Essentially, you’d get to scatter relevant keywords for every company on every page. So if someone finds the website using the search query kayaking in Newport, they might see your coastal hiking tour as well, and think, “I want to do that, too!” And then, make a booking right there.

7. Make bookings for each other

As you can see, there’s a lot you can do with your fellow tour and activity operators — we’ve barely scratched the surface. But the best idea yet is making it possible for either company to book on behalf of the other. 

With partner accounts, both teams can quickly go into a private dashboard and book for guests wanting another incredible experience. Might as well turn those co-marketing campaigns and collaborations into conversions.

Guest what — every Checkfront plan supports partner accounts and they’re easy to set up.

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Related Articles: Why Google is the Best Review Platform for Tour Operators | Are Your Guests Craving Hyper-Personalization? | Why Digital Waivers Are a Must-Have For Your Business | Is Your Booking Fee Leading to Cart Abandonment? | What Solo Travelers Want for In-Destination Experiences | A Tour and Activity Operator's Guide to Branding |

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