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The Coronavirus Marketing Plan for Tour Operators

As you already know, we’re in unprecedented times. The travel sector online traffic is down about 45%, with conversion decline around 40%. Tourism in general is feeling the crunch, to say the least. Tour operators around the world can unfortunately relate to the current sentiments of our clients:

    • “Oh how 2 weeks can change your life.” –San Francisco Operator
    • “I’ve never seen anything like this.” – Hawaii Operator
    • “The next few months are going to be a struggle to keep the lights on while we head into a major cash crunch.” – NYC Operator
    • “I’m convinced I’m not going to make a dollar this year.” –Nashville, TN Operator
    • “I don’t see how we are going to make a single sale before September, if at all this year.” Rome, Italy Operator

By now you have begun to feel the effects of COVID-19 on your business. You are also probably tired of hearing how important it is to wash your hands and practice social distancing. 

We aren’t here to lump all of you together; we understand that each of your respective businesses is in a unique, nuanced position. Some of you see the majority of your guests come in from out of state, some focus on cruise ships or targeting the customer down the street. Some rely on rivers to make their revenue, others count on urban indoor spaces for their cash flow. We are here to genuinely express to you that we understand the gravity of the situation. This is the time to band together and help each other however we can. With 9 years of experience in this industry, we are fully aware that there is no silver bullet to catalyze consumer purchasing in the favor of operators right now. We wish we could expect that after reading this post you would magically be up 20% coming out of the COVID nightmare. 

But as with any nightmare, it comes to an end, and there are things you can do right now to bounce back faster.

Let’s start with some good news…

At least dogs cannot get coronavirus and they are certainly enjoying us working from home more right now. We’d like to think that if they could talk, they would poke a little fun at us, too.

Ok Fido, back to the marketing plan…

What should I be focused on as an operator?

Just as the transmission of the virus doesn’t discriminate, everyone is feeling the heat to some degree. For our clients, we are focusing on following the blueprint below. Our primary goal is to be in the best position possible coming out the other side. We firmly believe that there will be pent-up travel demand and budget (working from home with 3 young kids for 2 months = time for some activities, right?), fewer operators in respective markets (unfortunately) and potentially less OTA spend in PPC auction environments. Combining those external factors with the digital marketing strategies below is a recipe for not just expedited post-Coronavirus success, but also sustained revenue growth for years to come.

A lot of the attention relating to marketing for tour operators is on paid advertising. However, paid advertising is just one component of a strong integrated digital marketing strategy. Being successful online, especially during times like these, doesn’t mean you have to be spending on Facebook and Google. We encourage you to either reallocate or pause all spending on those platforms. Again, this is a fluid situation so this advice is subject to change accordingly. What will not change are our recommendations below to focus on during this outbreak (and beyond).

Each of the seven sections will have an introduction followed by actionable steps to follow!

the Coronavirus Marketing Blueprint for Tour Operators

1. Start with the Digital Foundation – the Plumbing of your Digital House

This is the first step we take with all new clients. You cannot make truly informed marketing decisions without clean, historical data. First, you want to make sure you are tracking all relevant conversion types, not just online bookings, but also events such as abandoned cart, contact form submissions, and phone calls. Next, you want to make sure all of your data is passing cleanly through your various platforms. 

Every platform on the list below is free, or at least has a free version! If you need help setting any of these up, feel free to reach out! While it is not listed, we highly recommend CallRail if you are looking for a call tracking solution. 

Conversion Tracking, Website Analytics, Tour Operator Marketing

2. Review Historical Data to get your Digital Ducks in a Row

To smoothly move forward, you need to have a solid understanding of the past. You don’t need to be a Data Scientist to glean actionable insights from your business’s marketing and sales data. We’ve provided a few examples below! 

Quantitative

  • Google Search Console
      • While search console is a great place to check in on your technical website health, you can also use it to find out what people are searching for to find you and other related queries.
        • Example: we found an old blog post for a client in LA that was not showing up at the top for searches relating to the best murals in Los Angeles. We optimized and promoted that post and now it is the featured snippet for that term. More on how to do this below.
      • You can also use the keyword data to inform new blog posts and content to add or update on your website!
Featured Snippet, SEO, Tour Operators
  • Google Analytics
    • Examine which locations and demographics drive more online bookings and leads broken out by peak, shoulder, and off-seasons to inform your target audiences.
      • Keep in mind that generally speaking, the older people get, the more likely they are to stay put in times of crisis like this.
    • Identify slow loading pages.
    • See which devices and internet browsers are not converting well.
    • Examine what channels have historically provided you with the most revenue and sessions. Perhaps you are not investing enough in certain referral channels, but you see that they’re generating revenue and leads. What could you do to better utilize these channels in the future?
  • Sales Data
    • What is your average booking lead time, again, broken out by season?
    • Examine your capacity utilization by tour, month of year, day of week and hour of day.
    • Make a list of your highest value and repeat customers for a customer loyalty campaign.
  • HotJar
    • Watch how visitors interact with your website, you are guaranteed to find actionable items to update on your website. 
    • Filter by device and browser to identify any potential rendering issues.
    • Examine the heatmaps for your top pages to inform content architecture.

Qualitative

  • Contact Forms / Email Inquiries 
    • Even if you think you have a good handle on your customer base, look again. 
    • Are there holes in your sales process? Is there a booking bottleneck potential customers hit because your tour-specific information is not as clear as it should be on the website?
    • Set up a contact form database if you do not have one! You want a historical record of these submissions. 
  • Online Reviews/Feedback Forms
    • Which guides are being mentioned most frequently and why?
    • Are there operational shortcomings you can identify and address right now? 
    • Create a plan to generate more online reviews going forward. Have you automated this process yet? Are you using SMS? 
  • Chat Transcripts / Bot Conversations 
    • If you use a live chat or a TOMIS ChatBot, review the conversational logs to understand what website visitors are asking. 
    • What are existing customers asking pre and post-trip, and why?
    • Create or update your communication processes. Again, more of this can be automated than you might think. Especially for operators who are having to layoff staff, can you help fill the void with automation going forward?

3. Website Conversion Rate Optimization

While the Digital Foundation is the plumbing of your digital house, your website is the foundation. Ok, so let’s talk about WHY we care about this so much. We want to make sure we insulate our home before turning on the heat, or fix the leaks in our bucket before filling it with water. When you think about ways to increase your business’s revenue, many of the options take more money or resources (20% increase in budget, marketing staff salary, product offerings, etc.) and still have unpredictable results. You don’t know if these strategies will work or how long it will take. The beautiful part of the conversion rate is that you just optimize what’s already there and thus create more profit from your existing customers and traffic. 

Think about it in terms of the next 50,000 website visitors you are going to get. If you currently have a 1.5% eCommerce conversion rate and an average booking value of $200, you’ll make $150,000. If you invest in getting the conversion rate up to 2%, that’s $200,000 to your business. Half of a percent increase in your eCommerce conversion rate results in $50,000 in additional revenue! 

Lead Capture

If you haven’t been putting the energy behind lead capture, now is the time! We’ve already seen an uptick in Private Tour search queries globally and expect to see the trend continue through 2020. You can use a platform like Optinmonster to create lead capture popups and send them to your email platform like Mailchimp or your CRM. When in doubt, Zapier can probably connect your different platforms! 

Conversion Rate Optimization, Tour Operator Websites
Mobile, Mobile, Mobile

If you’ve paid any attention to the trends online in 2019, you’ll know that as of July 1, 2019, Google took a mobile-first indexing policy. Online traffic had already trended towards mobile in previous years, but now search engines will give preference to sites optimized for mobile. To be optimized for mobile you should have at the minimum: Mobile-responsive pages and page elements; Mobile page load time of 6 seconds or less (depending on your site structure) — from Think with Google “milliseconds earns millions”.; Optimize site image sizes, minify code, leverage browser caching, and reduce redirects.

What’s more mobile than a static bar that has the four main CTAs a site visitor would need to convert, all at the touch of a finger? Part of having a website that is mobile-friendly is designing for the “fat finger”. Audit all CTAs on your mobile site and ensure buttons are easily clickable. During the audit, pretend you’re a new site visitor. Are the booking buttons easy to find on a page? Or do you have to scroll all the way to the top or to the bottom to book? Remember, online bookings are all about the ease and speed of the booking process. A static mobile bar moves as the user scrolls, always keeping that CTA top of mind and easily accessible.

Tour Operators, Mobile Website Optimization
Mobile Website Optimization, Tour Operators
Site Speed

Page speed has a large, measurable effect on conversion rates. Remember the $50,000 additional dollars we make by increasing our conversion rate from 1.5% to 2%? Going from 3.3 seconds to 2.4 seconds will get you most of the way there (based on research by Cloudflare).  Studies have consistently shown that the quicker a webpage loads, the more likely a user is to perform the targeted action on that webpage. 

Now – not all page speeds are made equal. Make sure you get expert advice on where it makes sense to sacrifice a little page speed for user experience and engagement tools like rich video. Everything is a tradeoff. BUT – know that site speed SERIOUSLY impacts conversions, and anything that slows it down needs to be strategic and be measurably adding an impact. And, really tailor it – i.e. maybe have your drone footage playing only on desktop but not mobile. 

Site Speed, SEO, Tour Operator Websites

4. SEO

Google has a powerful algorithm – essentially it’s job is to serve up the most relevant option for any customer query. And it’s very, very good at it. Because of this, you can’t cheat it or fake it. It is a long-term investment, but it is also the best driver of sustained growth over time. SEO can be compared to building a snowball, compounding interest, or pushing on a giant boulder. It can be quite difficult at first, but once you get things going you can start to pick up organic traffic and subsequently, revenue, very quickly. 

We couldn’t emphasize SEO more here at TOMIS, and for good reason. Look at the correlation between organic traffic and total revenue for our clients in the graph below. Organic traffic is the best proxy for a business’s revenue. The best part is there are no fees or commissions for it, meaning it gives your business strength and builds resiliency.

SEO, Organic Traffic, Tour Operator Websites
Keyword Research
  • Keyword research should be conducted for each page prior to creating the meta title and meta description. The keyword themes should be unique for each page (not much repetition in terms across pages), as well as narrow and specific.
  • The title tag is one of the single most important on-page ranking factors and is limited by character count. The title is strategically designed so that highly valuable keywords with high search volumes are prioritized, while still remaining highly relevant to the content on the page.
  • Work your way up the search volume pyramid. You don’t need to go after the highest searched terms first – you can start with the long tail, and then as you dominate those you’ll naturally start to rank better for the umbrella terms as well (i.e – Chicago Activities versus Best Family Activities in Chicago).
Blogging
  • Along with helping your brand establish itself as a voice of authority on all things related to your company’s services, blogging is one of the key factors to creating a long-term SEO strategy that will help you rank higher in search results for keywords related to your business. See section 5 below!
Structured Data
  • Structured data is a standardized format to mark up the information about your website. Structured data markup, also referred to as  “schema markup”, is code that tells search engines what the content on your web pages means. The better Google understands your business, the greater the likelihood you will rank higher for relevant searches about your business and offerings. You can trust Moz’s article here for how to implement. 
SEO, Featured Snippets, Tour Operators
Review Snippets in Search Results
  • Google released a major algorithm update in September 2019 that affected all rich review snippets in search results — you know the review star packs included in some search results, especially the OTA results? The dust has settled on this algorithm change and there are once again direct results with the proper review markup showing review snippets. With the proper implementation and support of structured data markup your search result pages may begin to show review snippets. 
  • If you attended the Arival Conference in October 2019, you’ll remember one of the top themes of the conference was how to get more direct bookings and rely less on the OTAs. This is a valuable step in helping achieve that goal! We used the WP Review Slider plugin to generate the snippets for the website below. 
Rich Reviews, Structured Data, Tour Operator Websites

5. Blogging: Understand Audience Segments to Double Down On

Some companies can feel like they write a hundred blog posts, spend a ton of money, and get nowhere. Others can write a single well-planned, researched, and executed blog post a month and make huge SEO and organic traffic gains. Be strategic with your blogging and determine a keyword and business objective strategy before you start writing! 

Be Agile and Keep Up With the Trends

With imminent airline travel coming to a screeching halt, driveable weekend getaways have stepped into the limelight. People still want to get out of the house; staycations and trips to remote areas are now the answer. Understand that your traditional customer base might be in flux. For example, early reports are showing that the less urban the surroundings, the less concerned people are with the current outbreak.

Example Blog Topics: 

  • Top 3 Drivable Getaways & Staycations Near San Francisco
  • When The Lockdown Lifts: Private Tours To Get You Outdoors
  • Best Family-Friendly Adventures Within 3 Hours of Atlanta 

Customers are also still planning trips more than 90 days out. This is an opportunity to emphasize and cater to visitors who will be celebrating milestone events – think anniversaries, birthdays, wedding groups and bachelor/bachelorette parties  – later this year. You’ll want to be prepared to capitalize when those events are booked. 

Example Blog Topics: 

  • Bourbon Trail Bachelor Party
  • Birthday Ideas in Nashville for Adults
  • Bachelorette Party Ideas for the Fall in Austin
Ultimate Blogging Prize: The Featured Snippet

You’ve probably seen countless featured snippets from Google when searching for information or answers to your questions. Featured snippets are often referenced as obtaining “position zero.” This is because featured snippets take up the most space on the top of a search results page. Featured Snippets have more than doubled in prevalence in the past year, and they’ve increased by a factor of roughly 5X since launch. HubSpot did a larger study of high-volume keywords showing that ranking #0 produced a 114% CTR boost, even when they already held the #1 organic position. While you cannot control whether you obtain this position zero, you can optimize for them. The best part is, they are free! You do not have to pay to be on top like you do with Google Ads.

Identify Featured Snippet Opportunities

  • Which existing blogs are getting the most traffic?
    • Google Analytics > Channels > Organic Search > Landing Pages
  • Which blogs are good candidates for the listicle featured snippet type?
    • See where the blog’s primary keywords are in search results

Featured Snippet Optimization Strategies

  • Put the list of items right at the top of the blog under the introduction
    • Google reads pages left to right and top to bottom (like humans) so put the list high on the page
  • Place the desired keyword (ex: 5 Best views in Banff National park) above the numbered list
  • Boost the blog post on Facebook to increase page views
  • Ensure the featured image includes the keyword in the image title and alt text
SEO, Featured Snippet, Tour Operator Marketing

6. Update Existing & Create New Content

Let’s face it, operators and content do not always go hand in hand. During peak season you are working around the clock to ensure operations go off without a hitch, sales are coming in, equipment is not breaking and oh, so much more that you’re juggling. This is a great time to step back and review your content, from website copy to confirmation emails, sales language to rich media assets, or brand identity to online reviews — it is all content!

  • Online Reviews – with more time on your hands, use it to respond to all those customer reveiws you have been meaning to! Why? 95% of travelers read reviews prior to booking and 89% of users read businesses’ responses to reviews.
  • FAQs – these could probably use an update, especially given our current state of affairs! Are they prominent enough on your website or in your pre-tour email reminder? 
  • Brand Guidelines – do you have a clear brand identity? Is it consistent across the board, online and off, between management and staff, customers and media?
  • Video – are you sitting on a stockpile of raw footage? Do you have a YouTube page? Can you create < 60-second video teasers for each tour? 
  • Social Media – think about your audience and how the outbreak is impacting them — people are reading more news online, watching more tv and cleaning their home more often. How can you leverage this in a witty way online? 

7. Try Something New

We are in uncharted waters right now. If ever before, this is the time to be agile and try something new. 

  • The empathy campaign – your loyal customer base has a heart and probably a higher disposable income than your average citizen. Tee up a campaign asking them to leave a review, buy a gift card or simply send a tip! If you’ve provided a memorable experience for someone in the past, they will remember that guide’s name or the look on their child’s face — sometimes you just need to ask for help!
  • Set up email automation workflows – sign up for Mailchimp and create an automated email series promoting your most relevant tour offering and highlight your risk-free rebooking policy. 
  • Sign up for a better reservation system – switching reservation systems is up there with cleaning the gutters on a rainy day in terms of priority and headache. But the right reservation system can make you more money (sometimes just by saving money or maybe by increasing your online conversion rate), save you and your staff time, improve operational efficiency or even just make bookkeeping that much easier. We highly recommend (in alphabetical order) the Flybook, Peek, Rezdy, Singenuity, and Xola. We’ve not worked as much with Checkfront but have only heard good things and are heaps of fun at industry conferences like Arival or ACCT
  • Other new technology – do you have a digital waiver? Have you thought about selling trip photos online? Leading platforms like Wherewolf (digital waivers) and PicThrive (online trip photos) can help make you more money when bookings pick back up as well as streamline operations. 

The biggest takeaway: put in the work now for added returns later. Even if we don’t know the exact timeline behind when travel demand will start to truly rebound, the strategies outlined in this article will only put you ahead of the curve when it does. Look at this challenging time as an opportunity to solidify your digital foundation, critically assess business operations, and architect a plan to capitalize once conditions improve. If you have any questions, please contact us. We are here to help and we will weather this storm together.

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