Skift Take

Tour operators need to be attentive to their customers' travel preferences, including favorite airlines. It's possible that many such companies squandered lucrative opportunities for years by not partnering with companies their guests love.

Numerous tour operators are successfully using strategic partnerships with entities such as cooking schools and healthcare companies to drive business since resuming their Covid-paused trips.

But operators also believe they’ve found new ways to partner with powerful corporations several have worked with for a long time — major airlines. Of course, the relationship between airlines and tour operators is not new, but some tour operators are highlighting issues they view are important to travelers in these new marketing alliances to attract customers for a post-pandemic era.

Those partnerships, which could boost many businesses in the two sectors still struggling to hit pre-Covid metrics, are also likely to increase in years to come as tour operators look to take advantage of many travelers’ loyalty toward certain airlines.

“We saw the value in a commercial airline partnership due to the importance of having our guests arrive well-rested, well-fed and having experienced the best flight of their lives,” said Amanda Wilson, vice president of partnerships at Wilderness Safaris, adding most of her company’s guests travel more than 20 hours to participate in its trips.

Wilderness also needed to find ways to attract travelers during the pandemic, so it sought the assistance in the summer of 2020 of an airline that has received high marks in recent years in the areas of business class and catering, Qatar Airways. The partnership, which includes $350 off business or first class tickets on flights to Qatar Airways’ routes to Africa originating from the U.S., Canada and Brazil, launched in September of the following year.

In addition, for each such ticket sold, Wilderness has committed to planting 40 trees in Rwanda. Wilson said that since the launch of the alliance, Qatar Airways has sold 50 business or first class tickets on its flights to Africa.

“Wilderness and Qatar Airways believed (the relaunch of travel) could be achieved by providing a truly valuable travel incentive that also supported a shared ethos of conservation and making a positive impact,” Wilson said.

But has the partnership with Qatar Airways contributed to an overall surge in bookings for Wilderness? Wilson declined to provide any figures for bookings in 2022 compared to previous years, but said the company was experiencing a surge compared to previous years. She also credited the alliance for increasing its brand awareness with Qatar Airways’ customers.

Meanwhile, the carrier — which launched routes to Zambia and Zimbabwe at the end of 2021 and now flies to all six African destinations where Wilderness owns and operates camps — has flown more than 170,000 passengers to Africa from March 2021 to this month. That figure, a Qatar Airways spokesperson said, is a threefold increase from the previous 12-month period.

Tour operators that are considering whether to enter into partnerships with airlines are taking note of such figures. “I think the biggest benefit of an airline marketing partnership would be the new audience they would introduce to our tours,” said smarTours CEO Christine Petersen. “Airlines have very loyal customers and we would love to be able to tap into that audience.”

When asked what factors her company would consider prior to committing to a partnership with an airline, Petersen emphasized one of them would be how popular the carrier is popular with smarTours travelers. Brand loyalty toward an airline played a significant role in spearheading the Qatar Airways-Wilderness partnership — a Qatar Airways spokesperson said that its top customers’ loyalty was a major reason Wilderness executives initiated discussions about a partnership.

Petersen answered that the other critical factor for any possible partnerships with airlines is whether they already serve smarTours’ most popular destinations. One flag carrier that has benefited from the pent-up demand in its home country is Icelandair. Although its North American Communications Manager Michael Raucheisen declined to state which tour operators the airline has partnered with, he said the company is working with numerous such companies to create itineraries taking travelers to Iceland.

“Since Iceland has been growing in popularity, many tour operators are eager to add (it) to their destinations list,” Raucheisen said, adding that Icelandair’s sales teams take the lead in initiating partnership discussions with North American-based tour operators. “Tour operators are always looking to grow (their) offerings and we determine if Iceland would be a mutually beneficial product to sell.”

How else do airlines benefit from partnering with tour operators? Petersen responded that tour operators would assume much of the heavy lifting in such alliances. “Planning a trip is time consuming and a lot of work,” she said.

“Tour operators take on the logistics of additional transportation, country entry guidelines, visiting sites off-peak for fewer crowds, booking Covid-19 tests for the return flight home, among many other components of an international trip.” 

That’s heavy work, indeed. But Petersen embraces the possibility of having to assume those duties as part of an alliance with an airline, especially considering the revenue it could provide her company.

“There’s a segment of travelers who love tours and a segment who are very loyal to their air carrier of choice,” she said. “Where they intersect could be the sweet spot.”

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Tags: airlines, icelandair, loyalty, marketing, partnerships, qatar airways, tour operators

Photo credit: Wilderness Safaris believe its partnership with Qatar Airways will help herbert2512 / Pixabay