How to Steer Your Tour Business With Strategic Planning

Remember the days when first starting your own tour company? When you had to come up with a business plan that included a market analysis, financial projections, partnership opportunities, and more? Well, this type of strategic planning should be an annual exercise.

I’m not saying you have to write another 20-50 page document — that would be excessive. But it’s a good idea to re-evaluate your tour business, like where it’s at, and where it’s going. And the end of the year is the best time for the strategic planning process. 

That’s because there are 365 days of data, experience, and insight behind you. You have all the information you need to develop a plan of attack for next year — which is 100% necessary considering everything that’s happening in the tour and activity industry.

This year alone, Thomas Cook collapsed, Airbnb invested in Tiqets, and Google Maps released feature after feature. On top of that, tour operators everywhere addressed overtourism and climate change concerns while navigating changes in distribution channels, booking software, and digital marketing. 

The winds are constantly shifting in this industry, but you can safely sail through the storm with a strategic plan. Just think of it as your rudder. It will help you take control of where you’re heading, make the most of new opportunities, and thrive in challenging times. 

So if you’ve never done strategic planning before, or need a refresher, this article is perfect for you, as I’ll dig into:

What is strategic planning, exactly?

As I said, a yearly strategic plan is not your business plan. However, there are similarities in that it’s more big-picture than day-to-day, no matter how enticing the topic of ways to save time. That’s a time-consuming meeting for another day. 

Instead, strategic planning is about reflection and adaptation. It’s for pinpointing what went well and what didn’t over the past year. While, at the same time, thinking about the future regarding your current position and other influencing business factors — both internal and external. 

For example, Google taking over online travel is an external factor. You don’t have control over this, but you can plan how your business reacts to its impact. Whereas raising new capital is internal. You get to choose the best way to use the extra funds, like build a better brand, expand your team, or open another location.  

Overall, the process allows you to step back and examine everything with a fine-tooth comb. Afterwards, you’ll benefit from knowing how to take action, change course if necessary, give your team direction, and prioritize projects in the upcoming year. 

As might be expected, strategic planning isn’t a one-person job. It’s a team effort, which means enlisting the help of key stakeholders. Whether that requires actively involving them in the process or keeping them in the loop with purposeful and consistent communication. 

How to develop a strategic plan

Before you jump into strategic planning, you should know what you’ll be covering. In other words, it’s best to have a plan for your plan. If you skip this step, especially the first time, you might miss something important and fail to make the most of your efforts.

That said, there are generally eight elements included in every strategic plan. Of course, you can go more in-depth, but this is an excellent place to start. So, let’s quickly go over what they are:

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1. Vision statement

A vision statement is your chance to dream big. It’s what you hope your tour company will eventually become. Of course, you would’ve crafted a vision statement initially with your business plan, but it doesn’t hurt to review and make sure you’re still on the same page. Plus, it will set the tone and provide a foundation for your strategic planning.

2. Mission statement

Again, you’re probably already familiar with this part. If not, your mission statement describes what your tour company does and identifies why you do what you do. Since your mission drives your business, it’s a good idea to start the strategic planning process by reminding everyone of the primary objective. 

3. Core values

Everything you do should align with your core values — they’re the building blocks of your tour brand. If you steer away from them, both your guests and team will likely get confused. When developing a strategic plan, you can use your core values to determine whether to pursue a specific tactic or not. 

4. Market analysis

The best strategies are research-based; that’s where a market analysis comes into play. Using quantitative and qualitative data, you can get a high-level perspective on your business environment — including the competitor landscape, your target customer’s behaviour, tourism industry trends, and potential disruptors. 

5. SWOT analysis

Following your market analysis, you should have a good jumping-off point for your SWOT. As an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, a SWOT analysis helps you get into the nitty-gritty. Here, you’ll go over what you do well, what you can do better, what might give you a boost, and what is standing in your way. 

Woman in red coat sitting at the peak of a mountain looking at the northern lights above

6. Long-term goals

With targets to work toward, your team can better stay on track. In your plan, strategic goals start 3-5 years down the road and should line up with your vision. But you can break them up into yearly objectives and short-term goals — as long as they’re SMART and not arbitrary, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. 

7. Action plan

A strategic plan is nothing without an action plan. To turn your vision into reality, you need to plot out how your team will achieve the goals. Your plan can be as detailed or as flexible as you like. But it should clearly communicate the steps involved and who will be responsible for doing what by when, while reflecting the current workload and workflow. 

8. Executive summary

The Executive Summary is the last thing you complete in your strategic plan. As you can tell by the name, it merely summarises the above sections so that your key stakeholders have a solid overview they can quickly understand and get behind. 

5 Steps in creating a strategic plan

Now that you know what makes up a strategic plan, it’s time to get the ball rolling before the end of the year. Of course, you can execute the process as early as you like and as often as you like. Either way, you can go about it using the same procedure:

Two male hikers walking on dirt road towards the mountains while the sun is rising

1. Conduct market research

Where did you think you’d get the data for the market analysis in the strategic plan? Studying up beforehand ensures that you and your team come prepared with answers to the tough questions, saving you tons of time and doubt. You can find this information by reading the latest tourism news, downloading niche reports, joining relevant webinars, and sifting through your booking data.

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2. Ask your team for feedback

Who knows your operation better than your team — especially your tour guides who interact one-on-one with your guests daily? You might be surprised by what they have to say and how much their feedback will help in the strategic planning process. The easiest way to do this is by sending out a survey and asking open-ended questions, such as, What makes our tour company an ethical tourism example?

3. Host a Start, Stop, Continue session

For your SWOT analysis, you’ll need to know what your tour company does well and what it doesn’t. Again, you can prepare for this ahead of time with a Start, Stop, Continue session. As the title suggests, the exercise is simply a brainstorm of what your business should start, stop and continue doing. Depending on the size of your staff, you can drill-down on these points department-wide or an individual basis. 

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4. Get everyone together in the same room

Once you have a strategic plan outline and resource materials, you can gather those you want to be involved. Just remember, strategic planning is often a tedious process; the meeting will take more than an hour. So make a full day out of it, break out the refreshments, and get your team comfortable. Or consider booking a weekend retreat that’s centered around strategic planning, team building, and fun activities. 

5. Put your strategic plan into practice

It’s one thing to write a strategic plan, and another to take action. But a good place to start is by generating buzz with your staff. Send out an internal memo or go over it in a town hall meeting; this will give everyone a sense of direction and purpose for the new year. 

Next, you’ll want to share your strategic plan with board members, partners, and other interested parties. How you go about communicating with them is up to you and your unique business dynamics. Once everyone is up to date — internally and externally — you can allocate resources for the action plan and launch your strategy

Final thoughts

Developing a strategic plan takes time and effort, but you’ll quickly see the benefits as a result. Going forward, your team will have something to reference in their decision-making, and every project will bring you one step closer to your ultimate goal, especially if you execute the right tactics at the right time. 

Don’t forget to review your strategic plan with your team on a monthly or quarterly basis. Regular check-ins will give you a chance to see your progress and make adjustments due to current events. Best of luck!

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