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Collette's Dan Sullivan Talks Touring

Tour Operator | Collette | David Cogswell | July 06, 2015

Collette's Dan Sullivan Talks Touring

PHOTO: Dan Sullivan Jr. In Cuba. (Photo courtesy Collette)

Anyone who wants to learn how the tour operator business works or what tour operators actually do had the opportunity to get a solid basic introduction on June 28 when Fox 12 WPRI in Providence, R.I., interviewed the president and CEO of America’s oldest tour operator.

Dan Sullivan Jr., president and CEO of the 97-year old Collette, the Pawtucket, R.I.-based tour operator, was interviewed by Ted Nesi on “Executive Suite,” which airs an interview with a different chief executive every week.

“Executive Suite” targets a mainstream business-oriented audience, so the interview was tailored to a general audience with no particular familiarity with the travel industry.

Skillfully led by Nesi, who asked the right questions, Sullivan was able to give the general audience a quick summary and explanation of how the tour business, and Collette in particular, work. He also gave some good tips for market watchers on what is happening in the industry and particularly in Cuba.

Collette: From World War I to Today

Sullivan grew up in a family-owned tour company. He has lived the tour business all his life.

He took over the leadership of the company from his father Dan Sullivan in 1999. The senior Sullivan had purchased the company from its founder Jack Collette in 1962. Collette himself had founded Collette Tours in 1918 at the end of World War I.

During the period Dan Sullivan Jr. has presided over the company, it has grown from a primarily domestic operator of motorcoach tours to an international operator of air tours on seven continents. No one is a better source on the tour business than Dan Sullivan Jr.

For the mainstream TV audience, Nesi and Sullivan started with the basics. He gave a thumbnail description of Collette’s history, described in essence how the tour industry works, the relationship of tour operators to travel agents and the advantages of traveling with tour operators over traveling with no assistance.

The hour-long interview then opened up into a broad range of subjects. No quick news story with two-second soundbites, it was a chance to stretch out and launch a freewheeling exploration of the service that modern tour operators offer, which is something still poorly understood in the mainstream marketplace.

The Most Popular Destinations

Out of all the seven continents in which Collette operates tours, Sullivan said its biggest destination is Italy. Collette offers 23 packages for Italy, and the most popular are the ones that include Italy’s Big Three: Rome, Florence and Venice. Collette offers the big three with a variety of other Italian destinations, such as the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre.

Ireland is Collette’s second most popular destination.

“The National Parks have long been among our most popular destinations,” said Sullivan. “Every year they are one of our top five tours.”

The most popular national park is Grand Canyon National Park. Also popular are Yellowstone and Yosemite. Other perennial favorite destinations are the Canadian Rockies, Alaska, Antarctica and Egypt.

Tours? Vacations? Experiences?

Asked why Collette decided to part with the word “vacations” in its brand, Sullivan explained: “’Vacations’ might mean more sun and fun. On our programs in every destination, whether it’s New York City or Australia or South America, you do touring. ‘Vacations’” is a little different.  

The meaning of the word “touring” has also changed, said Sullivan, as has virtually everything in the travel industry.

“Customers are different,” he said. “The travel experience is different. Now they want to fly to the destination, then be immersive into the culture of the destination, whether it’s the national parks or China. People want to meet the locals, do more immersive things. So it’s really changed.”

Why go with a tour operator instead of on your own?

“It’s a better value in the sense that we buy in bulk,” said Sullivan. “And if you go on your own you may not get into some of the destinations. If we’re doing a backstage tour in New York or London, you may not get in because the show is sold out. Or the unique experiences we do, you just can’t get in. If you have a cooking class in Italy, you might go out there and it might be a month wait.”

All of those things are taken care of on a tour, said Sullivan.

“And it’s fun,” said Sullivan. “It’s a great experience. Even if people like exploring on their own, if you’re going around on your own through the National Parks or the Canadian Rockies and you want to know what geological formation that is, or what that mountain is, and you have to stop and look it up. You’re not going to see as much and you’re not going to be sure what you saw sometimes, unless you’re really an expert on that area.”  

No getting around it, on tours you learn more. “It’s a great learning experience,” said Sullivan, “and you go to places you wouldn’t even know on your own.”

How did you recover after the crash of 2008?

“We bounced back quickly,” said Sullivan. “2009 was a challenging year, but 2010 was a record year. We’ve had continued growth of about 15 percent a year, last year 22 percent.”

Why does Collette do so well even during a recession?

It’s simple.

“People want to travel,” said Sullivan. “At some point they want to take those discretionary dollars and go some place in the world. Maybe they won’t go to Australia on a three-week program and spend six or seven thousand dollars. They might do an Italy or Ireland tour where they are going to spend $2,500 or $3,500 a person including air fare.

“People want to travel and they’re going to go.”

The market is also growing for demographic reasons. Baby boomers are retiring every day, said Sullivan. At the same time, people are starting travel earlier than ever before.

“In some areas they want the comfort of a group,” he said. “Others just want to see things. Now we have people traveling longer in life and starting out younger.”

How Does Collette Sell Its Product?

Collette has a veritable army of 85 sales people in the field all over the U.S. as well as in Canada, Great Britain and Australia.

“We are on the road all the time selling to our partner agents and their customers and working with them to really grow the market,” said Sullivan.

Why Do Collette’s Products Sell In All Those Markets?

“They like our tours because of the experiences they get and the great value for the money,” said Sullivan.  

Nesi spoke about how people talk about travel agents as representing an industry that is “disappearing,” because “they say everybody goes on line, they go to a website and do their own travel agent thing.”

Sullivan clarifies to the audience that Collette is a tour operator that sells through travel agents to the travel agents’ customers.

And perhaps in contradiction to conventional wisdom, Sullivan explained, “The agency business is stronger than ever. It’s come back.”

“So [the retail travel agent business] is in better shape than people might think maybe?” asks Nesi.  

“There may be less travel agent locations,” explains Sullivan, “because there are at-home agents. But the agents that survived are the strongest, and they are a great resource because there are so many destinations in the world, so many tour companies you can’t know them all.

“So agents are a great resource,” said Sullivan, “because they can say, ‘Hey, here’s where you should go and here’s why,’ based on what the customer wants, because there is independent touring, or they may want a guided tour or a cruise, so many different things. I give the travel agents a lot of credit. It’s a lot of skill and a lot of work to know how to advise a client because there are so many destinations and places in the world.”  

Why did Collette decide not to let online retailers discount their tours?

“My son Dan headed that up,” said Sullivan. “He did a really great job and did it really to protect the integrity of the travel agent. Why devalue or discount your product and take away commissions from the travel agency? We did that to protect them because we respect the agents’ time and their ability to sell any product. … Bottom line we just don’t allow discounting.”

“We’re not going to discount, we’re going to enhance, because we’re top of the line touring,” said Sullivan. “We are four and a half star touring at reasonable prices.”

What are some of the most challenging destinations?

Cuba is certainly one of the most challenging, said Sullivan, but not because of the destination itself.

“Yes, it is challenging because of the U.S. government and the Cuban government, really the alignment,” said Sullivan.  

Nesi pointed out that Collette had already been in Cuba for several years, and asked how it was going.

“Yes, we’ve been there under the people-to-people travel,” said Sullivan. “It’s very popular and has done very well. But because of the regulations….”

“Opening up travel there would be great,” said Sullivan. “We’re the only country that doesn’t allow open travel to Cuba. And it’s a great destination. I’ve been there three times myself and people love it. The people are great. They love Americans. And the Americans are going to love it. It’s just more of a political football in the U.S.”

Sullivan explained that since Obama relaxed the rules you no longer need a license to travel but you are still required to adhere to the regulations of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“You do have to run with those guidelines of people to people, which is immersive into the Cuban culture,” said Sullivan. “So it could be music, education, healthcare, you could take them to a cigar factory, things that Cuba is known for, and you do things like that that are a lot of fun. You take them to a school, see the kids. They’ve got a great educational system. It’s an impressive country to visit. I really enjoy it.”

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