Tour Operator 2015 Report Card: Which Companies Earned High Honors?
Trying to pick the biggest players in the tour operator market is itself virtually impossible with any kind of rigor.
The tour operator industry is hard to rate because it is so diverse and fragmented. Tour operators are hard to compare because there is no common standard. They are all so different from each other they each create their own standard. There are hundreds of tour operators offering a wide variety of different kinds of products and services, each presenting its own unique company culture.
The best-known tour operator may not be the biggest. The one who sells the most packages may not be the one with the highest prestige. The one who moves the most passengers may not make the most money. Some are highly respected not for the amount of money they make but for being leaders of the industry and creating innovative examples that others follow.
As for comparing them by business volume, most tour operators are privately held and do not disclose their financials. So it’s impossible to definitively compare and determine who is biggest. There are many submarkets within the tour operator segment. Different tour operators dominate different market segments.
So picking the top five players in the tour operator segment is a somewhat arbitrary exercise at best. However, humans are list makers. It’s what we do. So here goes. As a small handful of operators representing an industry segment of hundreds, these are all Grade A.
Here is a stab at five of the top players in the tour industry who are representative of various market segments. Surely many others deserve as much attention as these. These are examples, and for every one of them five others would compete for the top slot in their market segment. But even in the age of cyberspace, there is only so much space and time. For those worthy tour operators who deserve to appear here but don’t, there’s always next year.
Apple Leisure Group
Apple Leisure Group continues its upward trajectory in 2015. It was a big year for ALG. Only two years after its acquisition by Bain Capital, the company seems to be perched on the launching pad for a take off into the upper reaches, perhaps into territory into which no tour operator has gone before.
Apple’s selection by Bain Capital for investment for growth was no doubt based on its broad stance as America’s only truly vertically integrated tour operator. With its large portfolio of hotels under its AMResorts brand as well as high-volume vacation packaging brands Apple Vacations and Travel Impressions, ALG has a strong foundation upon which to build. And build it will.
In 2015 ALG’s resort subsidiary AMResorts signed 17 new resort management contracts. It plans to have nearly 60 resorts in 26 destinations with more than 20,000 rooms by the end of 2018.
Almost three years since its acquisition by ALG, Travel Impressions is firmly positioned to launch into its new phase, with a new logo, a new travel agent rewards program and in the works a brand new information system and booking interface.
ALG remains a company to watch in 2016.
Avanti Destinations, the independent travel specialist, is suddenly in its 35th year going through a rapid expansion. It has greatly increased its offerings in Europe and Latin America, and is launching into Asia for the first time in its history.
In Europe the company rolled out 62 new customizable core itineraries, 124 new hotels and resorts and 74 new activities. The company added Croatia as a new destination as well as 13 European river cruise programs from CroisiEurope and 17 escorted tours from Back-Roads Touring. Avanti expanded its offerings in countries it has offered for a long time, including England, Iceland and France.
The company also added two new countries to its Latin American lineup: Honduras and El Salvador.
Avanti’s president Harry Dalgaard has assembled a Dream Team of wholesale travel. He enlisted the talents of John Hanratty, a wholesale wizard with experience as a top executive with Certified Vacations, Travel Impressions and the Mark Travel Corp., with extensive experience operating private label brands such as Delta Vacations, Continental Airlines Vacations and United Vacations. Hanratty is Avanti’s chief marketing officer.
Dalgaard also tapped Mark Grundy to be its managing director for Asia. Grundy was most recently president of Wendy Wu Tours. Grundy entered the tour business in 1982 as an intern for inbound US tour operator American Tours International. In 1990, Grundy started his own company, Destination America, which became a market leader in the inbound US market. Grundy sold the company to The Travel Corporation in 1996, then went into the travel technology field. In 2011 he joined Wendy Wu Tours as senior vice president and a year later was appointed president.
South African Airways Vacations
South African Airways Vacations, like all other operators of tours to Africa, took a body blow in 2014 when the Ebola scare on the extreme western edge of the African continent devastated the tourism industry throughout the entire continent.
It didn’t matter that there was more Ebola in the U.S. than in most of the countries in Africa and that the West African outbreak was closer to Paris than to east or southern Africa. The Ebola scare was irrational, based on blind fear.
But though the dangers of Ebola throughout most of Africa were imaginary, the actual cost of the scare to tourism were very real and devastating. It forced tour operators to fight for their lives. And they found out, once again, how difficult it is to mount a defense against irrational fear.
The same challenge affected all African tour operators, and all of them put their ingenuity to the task and did their best to weather the storm and promote travel to Africa. But South African Airways Vacations is in a special class. As the tour packaging unit for the national carrier of South Africa it shares the airline’s mission, which is not only to turn a profit but to support business and the economy of South Africa.
South African Airways had a double reason and double motivation for trying to rekindle tourism to South Africa, both its own business and the government mandate to help support South African business. As a result, SAAV took the challenge and came up with prices that have not been seen in many years. The company broke the $2,000 price barrier with a Cape Town and Safari package priced from $1,899 per person.
This is about a thousand dollars less than what has become the standard price for such a package. Hard to believe it could be done, but it just goes to show … when the chips are down, there’s no limit to what resourceful people can come up with.
South African Airways Vacations continues to make strides with its innovative and creative ways to market travel to Southern African.
Tauck is a tour operator that is of vital importance to the tour industry not for the amount of volume it pushes or for the amount of money it makes, but for just being who it is and what it is. It is the quintessential tour operator of America. It was one of the earliest tour operators, dating back to 1925, and it was one of the operators that defined what tour operation is and what tour operators do.
Tauck has been at the forefront of every major step in evolution of the tour operator industry. It was Tauck, led by its founder Arthur Tauck Sr, that brought the case the the Supreme Court to defeat a ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission that said that the whole business of taking travelers across state lines on tours was illegal. What was called “The Tauck Case” kept the industry alive, kept it from being defeated and destroyed in the early post-World War II period when tour operators were just starting up again after being forced to lay off during the war.
As part of the battle against the ICC’s decision to outlaw the industry, Arthur Tauck joined with other tour operators at the time and formed the National Tour Brokers Association, which is today known as the National Tour Association and is one of the major trade organization in the travel industry.
Tauck was also one of the handful of tour operators who joined together to form the U.S. Tour Operators Association in 1972. USTOA survives today as one of the leading travel associations in the world, relevant to far more than just tour operators.
Tauck has continued to stay in the forefront of the industry, always innovating, always on top of the trends, whether they be river cruising, family travel, cultural tourism or environmental protection. Tauck is always there, and the company exemplifies the best values of American business, succeeding by innovating, always offering good value and integrity. Through maintaining its high standards the company has continued to build its loyal and ever-expanding customer base.
The year 2015 was a particularly important one for Tauck, its 90th anniversary. On that occasion, one that few companies ever observe, the company moved its headquarters to a new location in a pastoral setting on a 66-acre wood in Connecticut. It was in part a recognition of how important happy, healthy employees are to the success of any company. Tauck designed its new workplace to be the most productive environment based on its immersion in nature.
In February, the company gathered nearly 500 Tauck employees, board members and business partners for a celebration of its 90th anniversary at Chateau Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. Addressing the group were Arthur Tauck Jr., who took over the company from his father in the 1950s when he was in his 20s, and Dan Mahar, Arthur’s son in law and the current CEO of Tauck.
Tauck talked of how adversity and problems had always turned into opportunity and innovation for the company from its beginning when Arthur Tauck Sr. was fired from a bank for spilling a load of coins down a dumbwaiter. It led to his designing a new coin tray for banks, taking it on the road to sell it (successfully by the way), which led to the idea to take fellow travelers with him on his trips.
Dan Mahar outlined four beliefs that “are integral to why we are here today.” They are: sense of purpose; put people first; do things right; and keep moving forward. And that is why Tauck is in this list of winners for 2015.
Abercrombie & Kent
Abercrombie & Kent was founded in 1962 in Nairobi, Kenya, by Geoffrey Kent and his parents as a safari outfitter. As the possibilities of travel expanded, A&K evolved into one of the most luxurious tour operators, with a name almost synonymous with luxury, as well as a forerunner of today’s adventure travel industry.
A&K was way ahead of its time in 1962, and has stayed at the head of its industry through all the decades since. Although it is known as perhaps the top luxury tour operator, A&K is one of the leaders in the evolution of luxury travel from a style of travel focused primarily on creature comforts to a much broader definition of luxury for a more evolved high-end client.
Today’s luxury clients still want comforts, physical luxuries, high-quality furnishings and amenities and finely honed service practices. But today’s affluent travelers want much more. They want the freedom of choice and flexibility to tailor their trips to their own needs. They want to travel safely and comfortably to the most exotic regions in the world. They want to eliminate wasted time. They see luxury as the privilege of having things just the way they want them.
But they also want to travel with companies that they know are responsible and have a broader vision than just to make money. They want to know they are traveling sustainably and that their travel will help the people at the destinations they visit. They want to contribute to environmental protection and philanthropy.
A&K has always led the charge on these fronts, and continues to do so today. This year was a particularly special year for A&K. It’s founder and chairman Geoffrey Kent became a bestselling author with his book “Safari: A Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer,” which was favorably received by reviewers and readers.
A&K is in a class by itself and will no doubt continue to be. The year 2015 looked more like a beginning than a culmination of more than 50 years of evolution.
More by David Cogswell
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