When you transition to online bookings, the offline world of tour distribution starts to look a little dull in comparison. After all, you have a website, you’ve optimized your tours for search, you’re active on social media, and most travelers are booking online. So why bother with local distribution centers at all?
But when you abandon or ignore visitor information centers (VICs), activity desks, concierges and other local distributors, you miss out on a huge source of local business. Not only do these channels drive bookings, they also get your tours in view of thousands of travelers at minimum. Prague’s Visitor Centres saw more than 2.2 million visitors in 2016 (Source: Prague City Tourism). Rather than decreasing with the rise of online bookings, those visits have increased sharply in the past few years.
Similarly, during peak season, the U.S. Capitol visitor center sees 15,000 – 20,000 visitors per day. For many travelers, the rise of online bookings hasn’t diminished the need for these local experts at all.
Last year, Tourism Research Australia looked at the use of VICs in New South Wales. They talked to tourists both at VICs and at major attractions. Their findings may surprise you:
- 42 percent of visitors used VICs as a major information source when planning their visit.
- 55 percent of the visitors who used VICs were looking for information on what to see and do.
- Of visitors who pre-sourced information, only 32% looked for information on tours, attractions and activities.
- 14 percent of VIC visitors booked during their visit to the VIC. Only 1% booked through the VIC before their trip.
- 27 percent of VIC visitors wound up visiting more attractions and events than they had intended
- 71 percent of non-VIC visitors had used a VIC elsewhere in the past three years.
Clearly, VICs are still a vital part of the tour marketing equation, just like destination activity desks, concierges and other local experts. So how does your tour or activity company take advantage of that?
When Tourism Research Australia was looking into VIC users, they also surveyed useful demographic data:
Based on their findings, visitor information centers users are most likely to be travelling as a couple, new to the area, and staying at least one night. That’s information you can use when planning your approach.
For example, any marketing material you distribute through a VIC should include clear directions, because visitors won’t know the area. And if you’ve ever considered marketing your tours or activities as being good for couples, a VIC is a great place to do that.
There’s no substitute for legwork when it comes to building relationships with concierges, VIC staff and other local influencers in the travel industry. Most of the advice in our article on working with concierges applies here: research the expected approach, build relationships, and offer appropriate commissions when necessary.
As VICs are part of Government destination marketing organization programs (DMOs), they generally have set standards for handling recommendations. Follow those standards to the letter as you would any other advertising opportunity. While you’re at it, treat regular VIC employees as you would any other influencer. While brochure placement and signage might not be in their hands, they still help visitors decide what to book.
A note about commissions: While some concierges and activity desk staff are free to negotiate their own commissions, many are not, and VIC staff generally aren’t, either. That’s not to say commissions won’t be expected, though. Often they’re negotiated at a standard rate if they’re going to book your experiences directly.
Rezgo makes commission tracking easy, and offers third-party agents a simple, straightforward booking experience. That’s a huge selling point of your business for third-party agents, who don’t want to have to fuss with arcane booking systems.
Before printing or designing anything, contact the activity desk, visit the DMO website, or make a call to find out what their requirements and rates are. Some DMOs handle printing and distribution of brochures themselves, some expect you to send bundles of brochures to central locations, and some want you to deliver brochures by hand. If you’re only looking at a handful of local distributors, hope for the latter — it allows you the chance to educate employees about your experiences.
Along with brochure distribution, many DMOs offer marketing opportunities through their websites and on digital screens or banners at their location. Before buying space on a DMO web service, ensure you’re clear about the ROI you can expect. Many DMOs are far more successful at in-person marketing than they are at web marketing.
Most destinations offer these services in piecemeal, but some offer full membership for local tourism businesses, much like a chamber of commerce membership. For example, Visit York lets tourism businesses in York sign up as members for a host of benefits. These include free leaflet distribution, access to marketing and advertising opportunities, discounts at other member businesses, training opportunities and more.
Visit York’s pitch:
If your location offers a service like this, you may need to join to take part in their distribution network, so make sure to take full advantage of the perks.
Along with being powerful distribution partners, VICs and DMOs often have access to massive amounts of information about the local tourism. The best DMOs use that opportunity to research the tourism climate, challenges and opportunities for local businesses, and more.
For example, Tourism Whistler releases an annual report addressing major successes and challenges, visitor statistics, and highlights of all their endeavors. Its research team also compiles reports for members throughout the year.
In the world of data-driven marketing, this information is invaluable. Look into whether your DMO offers similar research. If it does, use it for all it’s worth!