Farming and travel
So what on earth do farmers and tour operators have in common?
Surprisingly, there are more similarities than you might think, mainly in terms of the seasonal nature of key aspects of these very different sectors.
Having worked in the travel industry for over thirty years (while also being married to a farmer’s daughter over the same period), I’ve observed the parallels between the two many times over. And I’ve often tried to use the analogy to explain, to colleagues and clients, exactly what is going on at different times in the travel calendar, why there is sometimes more urgency or less urgency to do certain things at certain times of the year; why it is pointless trying to force an outcome at other times; and why sometimes the tour operators lock the Rottweiler gate-keepers away and open the doors to welcome in new ideas, new supplier and new products.
I’ll describe the seasonality of each one separately and then try to draw a few parallels and learnings.
Very simply, if we start with the planting of grain crops, like wheat or barley, this takes place a little while after the harvest when the land has been prepared (drilling, planting) and the farmers have had a bit of a break after the harvest. This is done in time before the winter comes. In the spring, new shoots start to develop from the seeds planted and the land and wheat plants are nurtured and developed over the course of the spring and early summer. There’s another lull in early summer, during which time everything is made ready for the harvest: machinery, manpower, sales negotiation, storage etc. And then finally, there‘s a huge flurry of activity as harvest time is approached and neighbouring farms agree the optimum moment. Then suddenly there’s intense activity and effort to bring the ripened crops out of the ground, to store them, get them to market etc. And then, after the briefest of pauses to gather breath and relax, the cycle starts all over again.
In tour operating, that same period of ‘harvesting’ can be likened to selling. This largely occurs in January and February when the general public are in holiday planning and buying mode (especially in Europe and North America due to long, wet, cold and dark winters). The products that have been nurtured by tour operators over the previous months are plentiful and travel companies become totally focused on converting enquiries, maximising sales and turning demand into cash. At this time, like in summer farmers are obsessed with combine harvesting and grain storage, the travel trade is obsessed with advertising, social media, direct mail campaigns, exhibitions, booking offers etc etc in a pretty intense two month period. In fact, at this time many tour operators even put an embargo on staff leave, a ban on training, a ban on internal meetings, a ban on Supplier visits selling product...
Once the sales harvest is over, usually around the time of ITB in Berlin (no coincidence on the timing of this in early March), tour operators begin to look ahead, to look at what has sold well, what hasn’t sold well, and where product needs to be cut, expanded, new destinations found etc etc. And for the next few months, operators start to plant those seeds, do a bit of pruning, buy new machinery etc etc. This is planting time and is usually the best time to approach operators.
I am of course simplifying things. The traditional cycle has been deliberately disrupted by some companies over recent years - especially with technological improvements, the ability to sell short haul, mid haul and long haul on a year-round basis, the ever changing whims of the general public who chop and change destinations much like the fashion industry moves from mini skirts to midis and beards or side burns come and go on the faces of the male population of the western world. Indeed some tour operators have very deliberately moved away from the traditional cycle, realising the importance of product innovation and ‘speed to market’.
This is a fascinating topic all to itself, but to give an example, in the last few weeks we’ve met with around ten tour operators - one of them told us their process takes around 18 months to bring a new product to market and that they were now looking at ideas for 2020; another told us it takes about THREE DAYS to get a product live on their system from the decision is made. And there’s everything in between this. The latter company incidentally is doing very well at the moment and speed to market keeps them lean, agile and able to react to the ‘fashion’ aspect of consumer demand.
The rest of the tour operator cycle goes something like this. Product review and ideas as mentioned March-May. Costing, dates and itineraries June and July. Marketing preparation, brochures (if produced), web development and product loading Jun-August. Brochure and promotional campaign launch for short selling season Sep-Nov. A bit of down time and marketing planning Nov-Dec. And then the big selling (harvesting season) again Jan/Feb (tailing off into March). And repeat...
So as a travel marketing company and U.K. representation company, The Adventure Connection is very conscious of this cycle; we gather information constantly about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each tour operator (and of specific niche companies - for Latin America specialists for instance, the cycle is sometimes completely reversed because of the importance of winter product).
We often stress the importance of particular times of year to overseas suppliers, the importance of doing ground work and preparation at certain times, the urgency at other times. And knowing when to back off, wait for the right moment and knock on the door again.
There are rarely quick fixes. If you’re a supplier of a great travel experience hoping to get noticed by a U.K. tour operator who will feature your product and start selling it quickly, you might get lucky and have it up and running in a few months. And we have many examples where we’ve done this. But more often, it will take 12 months to get noticed, have the conversations at the right time of the cycle and fit in with the plans of the tour operators (who are also fitting in with the cycles of the 60-plus million people living in the U.K. and spending £x billion on travel every year.
I hope you’ve found this useful. Please feel free to contact us and comment. We’d love to hear from you - especially if you have different thoughts and opinions on this cycle and analogy.
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