Tour Operator Software: Itinerary Creator, Booking Engine, and Other Handy Technologies
Thomas Cook, an iconic travel company from the UK, is believed to be the first tour operator. In 1841, its founder chartered a train to carry temperance supporters to a meeting 12 miles away – and that was the world’s first package tour. For the record, the business developed into a global company operating its own airline dealing with multimillion revenue streams, went through a compulsory liquidation in 2019, and was relaunched as an online-only travel agency in 2020.
Today, there are about 130,000 tour operators worldwide that offer all kinds of services and experiences, starting from classic guided city tours to Arctic photo shoots to Michelin chef cooking classes to feeding orangutans in Borneo… Whatever your specialization is, customer demand is out there.
But organizing people’s entertainment is not an easy gig; you have to connect a ton of dots to make everything go smoothly and have happy customers. In today’s digital world, it’s practically impossible without the right software. So, let’s talk about what to look for and how technology can help you with both your tasks at hand and strategic purposes.
Before diving in, watch how the tours and attractions market works
What is a tour operator: definition, types, and challenges
A tour operator is a travel company that devises the trip, books its components, markets it, and sells to travelers or travel agents. Typically, tour packages include such elements as transportation, accommodation, airport transfers, activities, tours, and so on.
Components of tour packages
Often, the tour operator functions as a wholesaler, buying tickets, hotel rooms, and other travel products in bulk at discounted rates, combining them, and selling those packages in significant quantities directly or indirectly. Besides all that, a tour operator can own some of the package components, for example, run an airline or hotel.
Depending on your business model, you probably fall into one of the main categories of tour operators.
Inbound tour operators handle travel arrangements in the host country for tourists coming from abroad.
Outbound tour operators organize trips for international destinations.
Domestic tour operators arrange tours within a country for domestic travelers.
Ground tour operators work with travelers coming to their country on behalf of foreign operators. Usually those are local companies that actually provide travel services.
Whichever category you belong to, there are several key aspects of your business that you have to take care of to be successful:
- making reservations for flights, hotels, and activities;
- devising itineraries and creating tour packages;
- processing bookings across various platforms and accepting payments;
- managing distribution;
- maintaining online presence to promote your services and receive more bookings;
- managing your relationships with customers and partners (travelers, OTAs, local tour guides, etc.);
- conducting marketing activities to find and retain consumers;
- handling bills, invoices, general ledgers, and other accounting witchcraft; and
- collecting and analyzing data for reporting and finding areas for improvement.
You know yourself how much needs to be done – and done well. In addition, the travel industry is complex and highly competitive, so to keep up with the market, you have to use the most efficient tools to support your back-end operations.
There’s a wide selection of software developed for tour operators, ranging from specialized tools focused on one aspect to full-blown, multi-featured platforms covering the entire workflow. What you choose – depends on your specific business needs and operational model (obviously, selling one-day domestic experiences is very different from offering multi-day international tour packages). Let’s take a look at the most common modules and integration options.
Tour operator technology solutions
Connecting to suppliers
In most cases, tour operators book travel services from external suppliers. Unless you run your own aircraft fleet and a chain of hotels or arrange walking tours with your employed guides, you probably buy inventory from
- hotels/lodges/alternative accommodation,
- bed banks,
- transfer providers/car rentals,
- activity suppliers/destination management companies, and so on.
To streamline your relationships with suppliers and automate reservation processes, you can connect your software to travel providers via APIs. You’ll be able to send booking requests and receive confirmations and other status updates through your own system interface. Another option is creating an extranet to give direct access to your software and allow suppliers to manage their allotments.
Read our article on AltexSoft experience with Sabre API integration to understand the process in more detail.
Itinerary creation, scheduling, and quoting
The inventory of a travel business isn’t the same as in manufacturing or sales companies and you don’t need a warehouse to store it. Here, the inventory we talk about is the tours, travel services, and packages that you sell. Basically, combining travel services in a bundle and developing a complete tour is the most important part of a tour operator’s job and that’s what distinguishes it from travel agents.
Specialized software solutions (TripCreator, Tourwriter, Travefy, and others) help develop, schedule, and customize such products. It’s not only about arranging the components, but also about “seeing” the up-to-date availability of separate elements, e.g., hotel beds, airplane/bus seats, and so on.
They usually have a drag-and-drop interface so that you can easily arrange tour elements in the optimal order and link them to the calendar. You can choose available inventory from your database (it can be your own inventory or services from suppliers) and automatically include all the related details, descriptions, imagery, and more.
Creating a tour package in Tourwriter
Some solutions also allow you to add city guides, optional things to do, and other destination content from their database. If you work with lengthy, multi-stop tours, an automatic map-routing generation feature would come in handy.
Another important part of tour package creation is pricing. You can quote your customers considering preset rules and margins. Some platforms also come with dynamic pricing capabilities so that you can adjust your rates for groups, seasons, and so on.
As you have your tour elements arranged, scheduled, and rated, you can easily create a proposal with a readable itinerary description using customizable templates.
Booking engine and payment processing
A booking engine lies at the core of any travel service provider software since that’s the part that receives and processes online reservation requests from both travelers and agents.
On one side, it must be connected to your inventory database (if you have your own travel services to offer or you have direct contracts for specified amounts of inventory) and/or your suppliers’ travel products. On the other side, a booking engine connects to B2B and/or B2C user interfaces that allow travelers and travel agents to send reservation requests.
To help users find what they need (even if they don’t know what exactly they’re looking for), a booking engine must have powerful search capabilities. Plus, it ususally has a lot of business rules inside such as calculating commissions for travel agents you work with or allowing users to customize their bookings.
Booking engine for tour operators
Here, we highlight the main aspects you’ll have to consider when choosing a booking engine.
Booking model: B2B, B2C, or combined
If you’re on the B2B model and sell your inventory through travel retailers, it’s worth building an API to integrate your content with OTAs or other travel agents software. You‘ll be able to send tour details as well as price and availability and receive requests that will be processed by your booking engine and automatically update your inventory levels.
Most providers of tour operator platforms have a list of approved partners they are preintegrated with, so if you plan to implement an off-the-shelf solution, check if your preferred sales channels are there.
If you want to sell online directly to individual travelers (B2C model), you’ll have to integrate your website with your booking engine to connect your customer-facing and back-end layers. It’s crucial to establish a user-friendly booking flow so that travelers can easily make reservations (check if it includes upselling opportunities, i.e., additional services, merchandise, etc.).
The Peek Pro online booking flow
In most cases, tour operators sell through a variety of channels (more about it in the next section). So, you need a super-smart combined booking engine that will be able to process both agents’ requests and website reservations.
Dynamic packaging capabilities
Some tour operators enable dynamic packaging – allowing customers to adjust their trips and change separate components instead of purchasing strictly predefined tours (for example, add an extra stop, choose another hotel, or change the flight date).
It’s a more complex workflow, but if that’s your case, make sure your booking engine will be able to handle such customizations. It’s the same story when selling tour vouchers with flexible dates – and booking the service whenever the customer is ready to redeem the voucher.
The indispensable part of the booking process is receiving payments. To securely process online transactions, your booking engine needs to have inbuilt integration with payment gateways. The biggest and most well-known ones are Stripe, PayPal, 2Checkout, and others. Consider reading our articles linked above for more details on how this whole payments universe works.
You should be able to handle multiple payment methods, including bank debit and credit cards, mobile payments, digital wallets, and even cryptocurrency. You might also want to add gift certificates, vouchers, deposits, and payment in installments.
Channel manager: handling diverse distribution flows
A channel manager is a piece of software that makes for smooth multi-channel distribution and efficient inventory management. As mentioned, you can sell your services in a variety of ways. Those include:
- on websites and marketplaces (like Musement or Ceetiz),
- through various online travel agencies (Booking.com, Expedia, GetYourGuide, Viator/TripAdvisor, etc.),
- via social media,
- in the office with the help of employees or self-service kiosks,
- through local resellers and affiliates, or even
- with the help of a network of street agents.
No matter what your distribution network is, a channel manager immediately updates your inventory levels across sales channels. This way, it doesn’t let you sell more tours, seats, or beds than you actually have.
Inbuilt integrations of TrekkSoft Channel Manager
Customer relationships management
To streamline relationships with your customers, you’ll need some sort of CRM solution. Not only should it automatically create profiles and store your partners’ information and interaction history, but also ideally have additional features to facilitate communication and support personalization. For example, you have to be able to easily create custom commercial documents like proposals and quotes.
Many tour operator platforms have a CRM module. If your system isn’t that multifunctional or maybe you want to enhance it with richer functionality, consider implementing a standalone CRM platform. Or you might already have a CRM and want to keep using it as a main database instead of transferring all the information to the new system. Whatever the case, you’ll have to integrate it with the rest of your software to establish a seamless information flow.
Marketing-related functionality is important to support activities aimed at tracking and increasing customer conversion. The range is wide: automated customized emails and notifications, discount and coupon generation, conversion analytics, ad campaigns tracking, and so on (consider visiting our post about OTA marketing as there are many similarities). By the way, many tour operator solutions come preintegrated with such tracking tools as Facebook Pixel or Google Analytics.
Travel marketing support be LeadSquared
Often, the marketing module comes together with a CRM. Connecting them is a good practice since the better you know your audience, the better you can segment it and the more personalized your offers and promotions can be.
Website builder and content management
The world keeps going online, and more and more travelers browse the internet when planning their trips. While the tours and attractions industry is traditionally lagging behind, having a user-friendly website with an intuitive search and booking flow is becoming a must, especially if you cater to individual travelers.
As we advised above, if you already have a webpage with no booking capabilities, consider integrating it with the booking engine (or with the tour operator software platform) and embedding a booking widget into your existing interface. Many tools today offer such functionality (as an example, check Bókun Booking Widgets or Rezdy’s Book Now button).
Some vendors go even further and provide a set of templates, technical resources, and inbuilt content management and SEO capabilities to help you create a website, fill it up, and connect to your booking engine to support online sales. So, if your website is archaic or you don’t have one, you can take advantage of that kind of website builder. You’ll be able to publish tour information, share updated calendars and availability, receive online reservations and payments, etc.
One-click website creator in Rezdy
As for your content, you can partner with a destination content provider like ArrivalGuides to get licensed descriptions for thousands of accommodations, places of interest, and so on. Or, you can make your own content. Implementing a focused content management system (CMS) will support these activities. You’ll be able to create, manage, and share your descriptions, images, policies, and other pieces of digital content on your website and across distribution channels.
Accounting is an integral part of any business operations. You need to handle billing and invoicing, manage refunds, maintain a general ledger, and perform other bookkeeping activities. Here, again, you’ve got two options.
You can use an out-of-the-box accounting module of a comprehensive tour operator system. Yet, its functionality can be limited, not covering your specific workflow. So, if it isn’t enough for your needs you may prefer a standalone, feature-rich solution. Make sure that it’s compatible with your booking and payment processing software.
Reporting and analytics
We’ve talked many times about the importance of data collection and analytics to support business decision-making. You can’t control what you don’t measure. So it’s crucial to have a powerful analytics module that will allow you to create customized reports and view digestible dashboards.
FareHarbor’s Bookings dashboard
In this way, you’ll see the full picture of your company’s performance, its strengths and weaknesses, expenses and revenue, employee activities and customer preferences – enabling informed decisions about further operations.
Again, many tour operator solutions have an inbuilt reporting module. But if you want to have access to a wider range of reports and conduct deeper analytics, you’ll have to get a separate business intelligence (BI) tool and integrate it into the rest of your IT infrastructure to enable a seamless information flow. Check our post about analytics for OTAs for some ideas on what you can track.
Other tour operator software integrations
We’ve already discussed some of the possible integrations you might need to build to establish smooth data exchange and streamline your operations. Here are other connections for you to consider.
Integration with review platforms (TripAdvisor, Yelp, TrustYou) allows your customers to see not only reviews on your company’s products but also feedback about the components of your packages: hotels, restaurants, activities, destinations, etc.
Integration with a point of sale (POS) system is necessary if you operate a brick-and-mortar travel agency (or maybe sell tours right out there on the busy street) – to consolidate payments from several sources.
Integration with customer support software arms your call center staff with all the tour, booking, and customer details to be able to quickly solve any issues and close tickets.
It’s convenient to see all the information about the caller. Source: LeadSquared
What else to consider: localization capabilities, support, security, free trial, etc.
We’ve got several more recommendations worth considering when choosing tour operator software.
Localization. If you deal with multinational travelers, you’ll need to localize your content, offer versions in different languages, and provide a variety of payment options (check our localization article for tips). Popular tools such as TRYTN offer multilingual and multi currency support.
Customer support. Next, when evaluating software vendor, check whether it offers comprehensive customer support services and will assist you with system implementation, staff training, and further maintenance.
Security. Another important aspect is security. Since you deal with a lot of personal and sensitive data (such as credit card details and customer information), make sure your software provider is compliant with data protection legislation such as GDPR.
Free trial. Also, check if there’s a free trial available. Having a chance to test software before committing will let you understand how well it fits your workflow and how user-friendly its interface is for your staff.
Scalability. If you are just starting off as a small company with big plans, it’s worth determining if your software provider supports scalability, what the customization options are, and if flexible pricing plans are available.
What else to pay attention to when choosing software? You might need to think about the following:
- setting up diverse access permissions (agents, guides, administrators, management, etc.),
- team management (like it’s important to keep your guides in the loop with your tour schedule or accurately assign inquiries to sales agents),
- mobile-friendliness (by the way, if you think of creating an app, check our T&A app best practices post),
- inbuilt communication channels (e.g., chatbots), and so on.
To buy or build?
Many companies face a dilemma: Is it better to buy an off-the-shelf solution or build a custom system? The pros and cons are obvious. It’s pretty much about the balance of price, time, and customization.
Even though there is no universal piece of advice, as a rule of thumb, we recommend developing your own proprietary software if you run a big enterprise (or have ambitious development plans) or have a unique workflow that can’t be covered by existing tools. In that case, you’ll have a system perfectly tailored to fit your specific business requirements.
If you have legacy software and want to modernize it or replace it completely, you have to realize that it’s going to be a huge, lengthy, and resource-consuming project. So, it makes sense to do one thing at a time and implement gradual changes instead of biting off more than you can chew.
On the other hand, if the functionality of the ready-made platforms is enough to cover the majority of your needs – go with it, especially if you’re a small or middle-sized company. You can start with acquiring one or two modules/tools that you need the most. Remember that you can always fine-tune their functionality on the fly to meet your requirements and add other modules in due course, integrating them with existing systems.
One more option is combining ready-made solutions with custom software. If, for example, you have a complex booking flow with multiple bespoke integrations, consider building your own booking engine (check out the booking platform we created at AltexSoft). At the same time, you can implement, for example, an off-the-shelf accounting and CRM products. In this way, you’ll save time and money and don’t have to develop the entire system from scratch – but still have your operations automated and your principal business needs covered.