Working with and speaking to hundreds of tour operators over the last 10 years, I know first-hand that online marketing in this industry has always been ruthlessly competitive.
But more recently there’s a vibe that it’s becoming intolerably painful, particularly for SME operators who are finding it harder than ever to reach their customers online.
Due to the way that leisure travel works, selling big ticket, personalised, multi-day tour packages is exceptionally difficult. Most people are only infrequent travellers. They spend a lot of time dreaming, researching and communicating with different suppliers before they finally pull the trigger and book a big trip.
And so, the marketing funnel or ‘path to purchase’ is uniquely long, complex and leaky.
Historically, smaller tour operators have focused their resources towards the end of the journey, using SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) ads to reach people when they’re ready to book and leaving the “inspiration” to bigger brands with deeper pockets.
But over the years a relentless tightening of the SEO screws has forced massive numbers of companies out of the organic results and into the paid placements — driving up costs for everyone.
Smaller tour operators can easily spend in the region of $300 per day on Google Adwords. The cost-per-click on high competition travel keywords can hit $8+. Even with good conversion rates, many operators are spending $200 for a single enquiry.
The only winners in this race are Google and Facebook.
So businesses have tried to move their marketing further up the funnel, attempting to reach people where competition is lighter and costs are lower.
This transition was swept up with the entire content marketing zeitgeist. The era of ‘brands as publishers’ means every business, no matter how small, must invest in ‘’quality content” in order to “build audiences” (rather than sell to their customers.)
This approach can work, but it takes specialist expertise, money and time — three things that most SME tour operators don’t have in abundance.
Instead of content strategy we’ve got content chaos, with tour operators churning out blogs, emails, ebooks and video in a desperate struggle for eyeballs.
And if it doesn’t work for businesses, it certainly doesn’t work for consumers on the receiving end. Instead of clearly recognisable ads, we now subject people to an endless torrent of spam, low quality, branded content, “influencer marketing,” and other shoddy marketing tactics.
A new Horizon for tour operators
As a bridge between tour operators and travellers, Horizon Guides offers a welcome new solution.
The traveller gets free, professionally-produced travel planning information, while our partner tour operators get to reach their customers at a fraction of the usual ad costs.
With our guides we’re building large audiences of people seeking specific travel advice. And when they’re ready to book, we simply pass them over to our partners.
It works for two key reasons. Firstly, by separating the business from the content creation we can focus on producing genuinely objective, professional and credible travel guides. Zero sponsored content. No shady payments for positive coverage. No desk research.
Secondly, by aggregating the process across dozens (soon to be hundreds) of partners we allow smaller tour operators to compete with the major travel brands. We unlock massive economies of scale, achieving far lower costs than an individual tour operator trying to do it alone.
We’ve already helped reduce our partner ad costs by up to 80% — and we’re only just getting started.
Now we’re building new technology to deliver even more value for our partners and a better, personalised experience for our readers.
Ultimately we want to end the dependence on Google Adwords and desperate marketing tactics, while providing an infinitely better experience for the traveller.
The end result is a much-needed marketing solution for our partners, and a rare source of quality, no-nonsense travel planning information for our audiences.