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ZOZI Advance is the fastest growing web-based reservation, payment, and customer management platform used by thousands of activity, tour, and event merchants.

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Sabah Karimi

Gone are the days of relying on just one distribution channel to drive the bulk of customers to your tours and activities company. Online travel agencies: they may not be as effective as they used to be. The hot-streaking daily deal sites: they're beginning to frost over. Social media sites: they'll require a well-executed strategy to be worth the time.

So to attract today's tech-savvy customers who are using a number of methods to research their travel options, make reservations, and share feedback about their experience, you'll have to explore all possible distribution channels out there so you can position yourself in just the right markets—and invest your marketing dollars and resources wisely.

Here is a closer look at the distribution landscape and what this means for your tours and activities business:

Online Travel Agencies (OTAs)

Though the well for third-party travel booking sites hasn't dried up, it sure is beginning to evaporate. While many travelers still turn to these sites for their next adventure, as Tnooz reports, OTAs are facing fierce competition by metasearch and media channels that attract the target market with low prices and a streamlined search experience. Since travelers are realizing they can find some amazing deals on travel packages on their own, they are becoming far less dependent on third-party booking sites to take the guesswork out of booking online for them.

What this means for you:

While OTAs have been a great source of revenue for tour and activity operators for years, today they may not bring you the most high-quality traffic you need each season. Don't overlook sites that offer last-minute packages and bidding sites that offer deeper discounts on various types of bookings if you really want to stay ahead of the game. Alternatively, online consumer marketplaces, like ZOZI, with an existing customer base of millions of active customers who are ready to book, bring all of the benefits of an OTA but with higher quality. 

Daily Deal Sites

Some of the biggest daily deal sites introduced travel and activities to their daily lineup of deals several years ago, capturing a highly active market of hungry buyers looking for deep discounts on things to do and places to go. However, research shows that daily deal sites have been on a cold streak for a few years. Some of the biggest players in the industry are facing significant profit losses and having a hard time keeping up with the competition, Adweek reports. More companies are cropping up to link customers with local merchants, making many of the previously sought-after offers on the bigger daily deal sites less attractive.

What this means for you:

Don't rely solely on daily deal sites to generate most of your customers during a slow season—especially if you are paying high fees for the service. Explore smaller, local sites and opportunities such as daily deals listings with your local newspaper or a city magazine.

For example, Creative Loafing Tampa in Tampa, Florida has its own buy local-half off deals site where it partners with local businesses to offer 50-percent off deals on events, activities, restaurants, and even goods from local stores. These are targeted to the local market and may be a better option for locals interested in staycation activities. Smaller local merchant listing sites that offer merchants the option of posting deals—enhanced listings sites or sites that give customers a chance to post reviews and ratings—can also be valuable distribution channels for are tours and activities operators.

Online Marketing Partners

Partnering with an online marketplace already attracting high-quality customers interested in booking tours and activities can help you build your business—fast. Marketplaces like ZOZI gives you access to a highly active distribution channel that reaches more than millions of passionate customers who are searching for experiences to book. ZOZI Advance merchants have access to the ZOZI Boost program, which guarantees an increase in sales from new customers each year.

What this means for you:

Tapping in to an online marketing partner's tools and resources can make the process of customer acquisition that much easier. Working with a company like ZOZI can help you tap into an existing targeted-pool of customers to grow your customer base.

Mobile-Optimized Websites

Growing in effectiveness: mobile websites, as more travelers turn to their mobile device to conduct research and work through the reservations process. ICE Portal reports that more than 40 percent of online traffic inquiries related to travel come from mobile devices—smartphones and tablets—and that mobile is used through every stage of travel; 26% of consumers use smartphones when planning a vacation.

In addition, results of a Phocuswright study found that mobile travel bookings were expected to reach $39.5 million by this year, accounting for an increase of three times the number of travel bookings compared to just two years ago.

What this means for you:

Mobile adoption continues to grow at a steady rate, which means your tours and activities business could be missing out on a valuable opportunity if your site is not mobile-ready. HubSpot reports on recent Google data that finds 67 percent of users are more likely to purchase a product or service from a mobile-friendly site.

Make sure you have a mobile-optimized version of your site online and take all design elements into consideration. In a recent webinar with ZOZI, a senior designer at Apple shared some valuable tips for designing a regular and mobile site for maximum customer engagement. Invest in a high-quality mobile version of your site to ensure an optimal user experience and a streamlined booking experience.

Local Travel Organizations and Visitor Information Offices

Many travelers heading to your destination may be turning to the local chamber of commerce, visitor's bureau, or other local travel organizations for last-minute ideas on activities and experiences in the area. Summer is also "staycation" season in many parts of the country, which means more locals will be seeking out vacation opportunities in their own backyard. The latest Google Trends data from Think Google reports that searches for staycation are up 10 percent year over year as of 2014. While local travel organizations and visitor information offices may not be a primary distribution channel for the typical tour and activity operator, they can still be a valuable outlet for businesses that want to expand their reach.

What this means for you:

Get listed on all major local organizations and visitors' centers so that travelers can find out more about you instantly. Make sure you have brochures and business cards available for distribution at these outlets. Don't overlook the opportunity to get listed or set up a featured listing on the merchants section of these organizations' websites and mobile sites so that visitors have one-click access to your website during their trip planing process.

You can also turn to local travel sites for valuable statistics and data about traveler behavior. For example, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority publishes a comprehensive visitor profile study each year with an assessment of Las Vegas visitor and trends in visitor behavior—including how much is spent on shows, sightseeing, and other activities outside of heading to the casinos. This type of information can help you learn more about the typical visitor to the area (your ideal customer) so you can create attractive packages and listings geared towards this particular market.

Social Media Sites

Facebook and Twitter are valuable outlets for tours and activities operators to build their online brand, interact and engage with customers, and execute a multifaceted online marketing strategy. But no matter how much time you spend nurturing customers and posting content on these sites, the ROI on social media marketing is still fairly low. In a ZOZI Whitepaper, Daniel Logtenberg, director of Maui Marketing, a company that provides marketing services to tour operators in Hawaii, explains that customers “don't want to be sold on Facebook, they want to be social." Attempting to drive bookings through social media may not necessarily be the most valuable use of your resources but it still pays to maintain a strong social media presence.

What this means for you:

Facebook and Twitter may help to get the attention of your customers but you will need a well-executed strategy to convert that attention into a booking. We recommended strengthening your Facebook presence in a previous post and shared examples of how tour and activity operators are maximizing Facebook features to drive bookings. Keep in mind, though, that social networking sites may not be your most valuable distribution channel since the majority of your customers log on to these sites for entertainment and socializing—not specifically to make a purchase.

Final Thoughts

Positioning your business in the right market may involve going beyond traditional distribution channels. Explore the distribution channels listed above to capture even more of the market share for your niche business and ensure more customers can find you online and offline with ease. Which outlets have you found most useful? Share in the comments below.