In this article, guest blogger Julia Barrero of Xola looks at the ecosystem of tourist-driven sales for tour operators with a special focus on hotel concierges.
But before asking whether you should be pursuing hotel concierges as a booking engine for your tour operator company, what can concierges offer in the first place?
What’s at Stake?
Concierges are ubiquitous figures in many tourists’ experiences. The biggest value an attendant can offer guests is his wealth of knowledge and sound intuition. Within minutes of checking in, the concierge has established his command as the go-to vacation planner. Front desks can be crucial business links to new customers, cutting through all the noise and telling anxious newlyweds or boisterous families where to eat, what to see, and–most importantly for tour operators–what to do. They can be that extra edge that your business needs in a competitive destination, giving your tour a face and a personality in front of visitors that might otherwise be overwhelmed with options. While many activity providers find this alliance indispensable, I’ve detailed a number of factors to consider before investing your time, money, and energy into nurturing this union.
Let’s break these parts down further:
Location, Location, Location
Before engaging with any hotels, it’s important to know how much of your business is generated from out-of-town guests. Is this an important segment of your clientele that you’re looking to maintain, or is it a group that you’d like to develop? Does your city attract many tourists, and will they want to experience your tour or activity? According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, concierges are on the rise. But unsurprisingly, this service is more often concentrated in luxury hotels found in urban or resort settings. In a place like Maui, for example, Erik Stein of Extended Horizons finds concierges absolutely essential. Stein is an experienced tour operator, who has been running a leading scuba outfit for three decades. “It’s rarely a bad idea to have a relationship with a concierge,” he says, “the guests see them as credible and what they say affects the reputation of the hotel as well.”
Cultivating a relationship with a concierge is no easy feat: it’s time and energy intensive. Your best bet is to market private tours or other premium offerings with concierges. Be careful pursuing a partnership if you’re not operating on very large profit margins. Some concierges will demand exorbitantly high commission rates. Though the rate varies with each activity sector and competitive landscape. In the most extreme cases, some hotels in Hawaii have taken upwards of 50%-60%, but the average is somewhere between 20%-25%. Companies that can afford this have very high customer volume and anticipate making up their losses by selling merchandise apart from the tour. Once that percentage commission is established, it can also be difficult to go back, Stein says. Instead, he advises starting low and staying low when negotiating commissions.
‘Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain’
In every bunch, there are always a few bad apples. While concierges can be trusted partners, look out for those that only respond to the best perks. What Stein notes is that with more established hotel brands, however, there’s a lower tolerance for a culture of accepting kick-backs. In these shady situations, the best remedy is to maintain a high caliber product. The most reputable concierges will want to work with the top tour providers out there because ultimately, their image is dependent on the services they suggest. Although it doesn’t always work this way in practice, the client, the concierge, and your company, are all chiefly served by quality.
Attracting the Wrong Crowd
Concierges aren’t only the people behind the hotel counter. There are other third-party sellers that will want to partner with you, but beware of getting in with the wrong crowd. For instance, in destination cities with a vibrant timeshare or vacation home market, salespeople might want to strike up a deal where they’ll highlight your skiing lessons or kayaking trip to entice others to attend their real estate presentation. In this case, you’ll be getting your tours out there, but in front of a potentially tangential audience that might not be principally interested in buying your activity. In short, always stay grounded to your target audience and seek out concierges with access to that network.
A Relationship is Not a 9 to 5 Job
If you’ve passed all the hurdles so far, be very honest with the amount of time and energy you have to foster a concierge partnership. Engaging a concierge can take weeks, even months. It can be frowned upon to cold call concierges or simply walk up to the front desk soliciting an appointment. Instead, be sure to connect with the lead concierge, who typically has a say in partnership matters. Pro tip from Erik Stein: Concierges are typically busiest in the morning hours from 8am-10am. Try to avoid calling or disrupting them during this window. He or she can introduce you to others within the hotel and can inform you of open meetings at the hotel. These periodic meetings give operators the chance to present their activities. Make sure to scope out the room before the presentation, provide your own audiovisual tools, and bring flyers or creative giveaways to leave with the hotel staff.
Once you pass this stage, keep fueling the relationship so that it doesn’t fizzle out. In order to become a mainstay tour at a prominent hotel, maintain a diverse portfolio of contacts and advocates. As concierges come and go, preferences might change, making it important to foster connections along all echelons of the hotel staff. The holiday season is a great time to recognize the concierges that have driven business your way, but remember to keep your appreciation to appropriate levels.
The last thing to remember about your relationship is that a concierge’s primary allegiance is to the guest. As in many service industries, the mantra holds among hotel staff as well: the customer is always right. This means that hard-won partnerships can be jeopardized if the client feels slighted. To protect yourself, ensure that you have clear and unequivocal cancellation policies, liability forms that the concierges acknowledge. Without these, it’s easy for the hotel to take the guest’s side, and you’ll not only lose the price of the tour, but you also might forfeit the concierge relationship if the guest complains enough.
It’s clear by now that making friends with the front desk is not a simple task, but if your company is poised for this partnership, all your efforts will be “totally worth it,” according to Stein. He follows these simple rules with his scuba outfit in Maui when working with concierges:
1. Balance your business–don’t rely solely on concierges to drive your operations. Front desks can be fickle. Instead, stay focused on perfecting your tour.
2. Do not be beholden to anyone but yourself–don’t sell your soul to a hotel asking outrageous commission rates, or compromise your values with under-the-table perks.
3. Pursue concierges that speak to your target audience.
4. Show your appreciation!