The average traveller books travel months in advance and typically spends ~five hours researching before booking a tour. (On average, they do about 35 separate searches before making their decision!) Most travellers are booking on OTAs, and the number of offline bookings tour operators receive is trending downwards.

That’s why most tour operators turn to digital marketing strategies to reach new travellers and max out their booking calendars. However, there are a plethora of strategies and online marketing channels to target potential customers — some free and some paid — and choosing the right strategies for your growth stage can be tough. This is especially true when everyone seems to repeat the same advice on the topic, like “use social media.”

We’re a tour operator software brand with 10+ years in the space, so we put together this guide to review the strategies we’ve found most effective for growing teams. We’ll discuss how to use free channels effectively and keep costs low as you grow.

1. List your tours on online travel agencies (OTAs) like Viator

The first place to start is online travel agencies (OTAs) like Viator, GetYourGuide, Expedia, Tiqets, Klook, Booking.com, and more. These are the websites people visit to research destinations and book things to do — and each one receives millions of monthly website visitors.

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and Partners: Viator, GetYourGuide, Expedia, Civitatis, Klook

This is where you want to be found to get in front of customers who are a) interested in tours and activities, and b) ready to shop and book. This is the fastest way to earn bookings without having to spend time learning Facebook or Google Ads or waiting for SEO changes to make impacts.

Don’t limit yourself to one OTA or another. It’s a common misconception that there’s one “best” site to be on — that Viator is better than GetYourGuide, or Expedia, or Booking.com. But each site serves the same purpose (to help travellers). So you should list your tours across multiple OTAs to give yourself more opportunities to get in front of potential customers.

Now, that’s not to say you should create accounts on every OTA at once, but you shouldn’t settle on one after you’re acclimated. Start with a major OTA like Viator and look for another tailored to your niche. Continue to grow your distribution network over time to stay booked and grow your business.

You can get started on these sites for free: Create a business profile and design engaging listings for each tour you offer. Then, customers can find your tours and availability, see your profile and reviews, and book with you online.

Create a new account on Viator

Read more : How to Sell Tours on Viator & Drive Bookings | Bókun Partners

That said, many of these platforms take a percentage of the sales when you earn bookings through their site (a.k.a., their commission). But the benefit of getting in front of new customers outweighs the booking fees.

Pro tip: Most tour providers “graduate” to booking software after they start selling on multiple OTAs and need a way to maintain a centralised calendar. Booking systems connect with OTAs so all reservations populate automatically in one calendar. You don’t have to check multiple sites to stay in the loop.

2. Create a booking website so customers can learn about your brand & experiences

Most customers like to verify businesses before making a purchase — check out their sites, look at pictures from past tours, and read customer testimonials.

It can be even more important for tour operators to have sites, as customers are visiting you from out of town and trusting your team to show them new experiences and navigate them through uncharted territory. (It’s a little different from booking a haircut or fitness class).

Creating a website should be one of the first things you do when establishing your business online and exploring digital marketing strategies. This way, anybody who finds you online can instantly and easily learn more about you — and even book tours on your site directly.

There are different ways to create branded sites; names like Wix or Squarespace may sound familiar as they’re general website builders. However, these solutions are not tailored for tour operators and lack features to manage (or even enable) online bookings.

Instead, you should look at tour operator software: These tailored booking management tools include solutions to create a branded, bookable website and manage reservations across OTAs, as mentioned in our tip above .

Select Website Template: Find a template that represents your business best.

You can learn more about these solutions and how to create a branded website in our guide below.

Read more: How to Create a Booking Website for Tour Operators

3. Create business profiles on Tripadvisor, Yelp & Google

In addition to OTAs, we also suggest listing your business on online directories like Tripadvisor, Yelp, and Google (My Business). Like OTAs, customers often turn to these sites to research travel, read reviews about companies, and plan holidays — so listing your name here is another way to get in front of new customers, show them your past experience, and influence the buying decision as early as possible.

  • Tripadvisor is the largest online travel directory, so many tour operators start here. (We suggest you do the same). But you shouldn’t overlook Yelp or Google.
  • Yelp is often used by customers (usually millennials in the US market) to look up last-minute things to do — people typically use it while they’re travelling and in new places, so it’s a good way to target people currently in your area and looking to fill their calendars.
  • Google doesn’t need much of an introduction. The Google My Business program allows you to appear as a verified business in search results and Google Maps. Google also offers the “Things to do” program — more on this in the next step.

You can create these profiles for free and add your basic business information (your website, phone number, hours of operation, pictures from your location and past tours, etc.). Then, customers can leave reviews on your profiles for other travellers.

4. Join Google Things to do

Google also offers its “Things to do” program for tour operators, attractions, and other activity-based businesses. This program makes it easy for people to find and book activities from Google’s search results page. We’ll show you how it works.

Let’s say we’re travelling to Philadelphia, PA and want to look up popular historical attractions, so we search “things to do in Philadelphia”.

Google search for things to do in Philadelphia

Google immediately shows us “Tickets & tours” with a few suggestions from Viator and Tripadvisor (other OTAs often appear here too).

We see a “Best of Philly” food tour, historical walking tours, a “Phantoms of Philadelphia” tour, a movie and TV tour, and more. When we select one of the tours, we’re immediately routed to the OTA to view the full listing, see availability, and book.

In addition, Google also has a feature to compare tours and ticket prices when searchers look up a specific location, attraction, or point of interest. For example, say we’re interested in visiting the Betsy Ross house.

Google search for Betsy Ross house

When we search that location, Google shows us ticket options:

Admission to Betsy Ross house results

We could book with the Betsy Ross House website, or we can explore tours from providers that could perhaps get us a discount or grant us access to other historical sites.

So we click on Trip.com because they have a few options:

Admission options to the Betsy Ross house

Now we can see tours that get us into Betsy Ross house and give us access to Philly’s other historical sites.

When we click on a tour we’re interested in, we’re directed to the OTA to book.

We see how easy that just made our research. Imagine if you could appear in front of this potential customer. This is why it’s important to get on OTAs and spread your distribution network; so you can reach travellers regardless of how they’re researching.

You can join Google’s Things to do program for free ; it’s easy to connect your booking management tool to the site and verify your business. Or, if you’re not on a booking site, you can review the requirements and submit Google’s application.

5. Partner with other businesses in the travel industry, like hotels, attractions & other tour operators

Another strategy we suggest is partnering with other businesses in the travel industry to sell each others’ experiences and services.

You could partner with tour operators who offer complementary experiences and offer tour packages or bundle deals, or you could reach out to hotels in your area and ask them to promote your tours to their customers. There’s no limit to how you can get creative here.

However, the idea of sourcing these partners can be daunting. How do you make the contact to start the conversation?

Fortunately, many tour operator software offer partner networks so you can make these connections and manage partnerships on the platform.

Our tour operator software, Bókun, offers a Marketplace with over 27K businesses in the travel and leisure industry. You can connect with resorts and hotel chains, travel agents, attractions (like theme parks or museums), and other tour guides and activity operators to reach customers during different stages of their research.

Discover partners: The Marketplace gives you access to resellers and suppliers.

You can join the Marketplace as a supplier (others resell your tours) and/or a reseller (you sell others’ tours for a commission). These partnerships can help fill up bookings or increase revenue when you’re already at max capacity — and are valuable to drive real business growth .

Our system automatically displays partners’ experiences on your site so customers can make those bookings (and set-up isn’t a hassle for you). You can establish and manage partner contracts through our system, and all communications are saved for easy organisation and reference.

Our average customer generated $42,000 worth of bookings via Marketplace resellers in 2023; if we include OTA’s, this figure jumps to $220,000.

6. Promote your brand on social media & partner with influencers

You’ve probably heard this tip time and time again, but there are so many social media platforms and “dos and don’ts” that it can be hard to keep up.

In our experience talking with tour operators, we’ve found many are hesitant to explore this realm because they’re “not tech savvy” or aren’t active on social media. This is understandable when you spend most days chartering boat tours and managing zip lines.

But you shouldn’t avoid these platforms just because they can be challenging to keep up with and learn about. Instead, dip your toes in and explore them at your own pace. You don’t need to produce a dozen reels a day to be relevant or start appearing on these platforms. It’s about building your presence and brand awareness.

On that note: These platforms offer unique ways for tour operators to shape their brand and create memorable customer experiences. It’s your way to show customers who you really are, share highlights from your tours, give them previews of experiences you plan to offer, and so on and so forth.

You can engage with customers on these platforms by actually commenting with them or by encouraging them to tag you in content or share your posts.

If you’re going to start anywhere, we suggest TikTok and Instagram.

TikTok is hugely popular with tour businesses and the tourism industry . Since 2021, the platform has seen a 410% increase in travel content views. Recent research shows that 83% of Spanish TikTok users, 76% of French users, and 71% of UK users discover new travel brands on the platform.

51% of Spanish TikTok users have also reported purchasing tours and travel-related activities on the platform.

Note: Now is the time to dive into TikTok, before it becomes overly saturated. We have several customers seeing success on the platform.

Instagram is also highly popular , with the hashtags #travel and #vacation used over 200 million times every month on the platform. (And there are ~70 million other travel-related hashtags.) Instagram lets you geotag locations and share engaging content to reach customers from around the world.

You can also explore Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter as you go down the line, but you may see less return for your marketing efforts here.

When starting out, remember the focus is to build your brand over time. Focus on one channel, try to post every day (or so), create different types of content, ask customers to follow your page, and link your socials on your website. The goal is to create watchable, shareable, and saveable content; you can begin to see what works and what doesn’t by testing different types of content.

Pro tip: For content ideas, think about the questions customers have about your community or experiences. For example, “How do I get to the airport from downtown London?” or “How to avoid pickpockets in Rome?”

It also helps to follow other people in your community, or that offer similar experiences, so you can reach people who share your same interests.

As you become more familiar with social strategies, you can explore partnering with travel influencers.

7. Encourage positive reviews & referrals from existing customers

This one is fairly straightforward (so we won’t belabour the obvious), but you should encourage customers to leave reviews after you create a website and get established on OTAs. This not only improves your credibility with other travellers, but can also improve your online visibility, as tours with high ratings are shown more often on OTAs and Google.

Tripadvisor reviews & recommended

If you have trouble encouraging reviews, you could offer incentives like a discount or free merch.

Some tips here — focus on the memorable moments of your tour and reference those when asking for reviews. For example, you could ask customers to share their thoughts on the views they saw, places they visited, food they tried, etc.

It could also help to give freebies during the tour, like photos; then you could ask customers to share their thoughts and any free photos they received during their tour. This reminds customers of the freebie and encourages them to share pictures in reviews.

Note: Don’t forget about good old fashioned word of mouth — you should also ask customers to refer you to their friends and offer referral incentives.

Our platform makes this easy by auto-sending review emails after customers’ tours; we also provide email templates you can customise for different types of tours.

8. Leverage email marketing to stay top of mind

Email marketing is a great way to encourage reviews and referrals. You don’t have to ask customers face-to-face or post flyers around check-in locations; email marketing campaigns let you stay top of mind with customers, share special discounts, and encourage customers to promote your tours and experiences.

You can also earn repeat bookings and target potential new customers this way.

For example, you could create an email with a “returning customer discount,” encouraging customers who booked with you to visit again. You could also send shareable promo codes for customers to post on their socials or share with friends.

Some tour operator software offer email marketing features so you can communicate with customers through the platform, but you might also consider marketing tools like MailChimp or HubSpot.

Our system, Bókun, includes a native CRM, customisable email templates, and an automated communications tool to support this.

Note: Our platform can also help with retargeting. For example, if somebody starts a booking but abandons mid-checkout, you could create an email that automatically gets sent encouraging them to finish booking their tour. (You could also design a follow-up offering a discount if they don’t complete checkout after email #1.)

9. Create blog content & content marketing

Another strategy to explore is content marketing. Adding a blog to your website and writing about events in your area, the types of experiences you offer, popular industry topics, or other general topics of interest can help you appear online when people look up these same things.

You could even get more strategic and create pages targeting keywords like “tours in [your location here]” so your website appears in Google’s organic search results (below the Tours & tickets feature) when people search for things to do.

Aside from online channels, you could also distribute your content in travel magazines to reach specific audiences.

If you’re not a writer, you can hire a content marketing agency or a blogger to help you determine what topics to talk about and produce content.

The website builder you use to design your site should enable you to create a blog section and add new content, but you can always reach out for help when tackling this task.

10. Try paid ad programs (on OTAs, social media, or Google)

We saved our paid strategies for last.

After exhausting free, organic strategies to market your tour company, you can also dip into paid online advertising programs. Cost-per-click (CPC) advertising (also called pay-per-click, PPC) are ad programs you can create where you only pay if somebody clicks on your ad. This is a great way to start into online advertising without hefty upfront costs.

OTAs, social media sites like Instagram, and search engines like Google all offer paid ad programs. When you opt into these programs, these platforms promote you at the top of pages so you’re easily found, or they show you more often.

For example, PPC Google ads place you at the top of search engine results with a “Sponsored” label, so searchers know you’re an ad. Social media sites will “boost” your content to target audiences, showing it to more people or more frequently, so you can capture more traffic there.

While you have to pay for online advertising, it can be a really effective way to drive bookings quickly. Start by setting small budgets on these platforms to test different strategies and find what works for you.

You can sign up for and manage these programs on your own — you don’t need an agency or rep from the platform to help — but if you’re unfamiliar with online advertising and want advice on determining budgets and choosing the best platforms to invest in, consult with an SEO or digital marketing agency.

Getting started with Bókun

Our tour operator software is designed with the features to establish your online presence and grow your tour company through digital strategies. We’re a Tripadvisor brand, and our platform connects with dozens of OTAs (we’re also a preferred partner with Viator). Our platform has an expansive Marketplace and provides additional features to create combo packages, offer upsells, and improve your customers’ experiences.

Our team can help you get started with the platform; we also work with growing businesses to help shape tour marketing strategies and reach new goals. We have experience with small one- or two-person teams and tour companies with teams worldwide.

You can get started on our platform for free to build your site, create tour listings, and connect with OTAs.

After the free 14-day trial period, our platform is available at a flat subscription fee of $49/month for all customers, and this grants full access to our booking platform. We charge the lowest booking fees across competitors (1.5%) — we waive Bókun booking fees on Viator reservations and never charge to manage offline bookings.

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