5 Things Tour Operators Get Wrong about Self-Guided

We may get into some hot water with this post, but there seems to be some widely held misconceptions in our industry about self-guided experiences. So we’re addressing them here.
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As the team at Arival has been preparing for our Self-Guided Tours Forum, March 2-3, I have been seeing – and receiving – plenty of critical comments and questioning from operators about self-guided tours. Several have asked me point blank why we are doing this. 

Here are the five most common criticisms I’ve heard from operators, plus three things to get you thinking about – or rethinking – what self-guided experiences could be. 

5 Misconceptions about Self-Guided

1) Travelers won’t do them 

Not true. One in 10 travelers and one in five tour takers did a self-guided tour in 2019. (See our research, Inside the Mind of the Modern Tour Taker. It’s free.).  Demand for self-guided tours has only grown since the pandemic’s onset, and it will continue to.

2) It’s a lousy experience 

Well, there are indeed many awful self-guided tours, but there are some terrible in-person tours too. I have been bored to tears by museum audio guides with a monotone narrator. But the platforms have improved, and there are several innovative, creative companies rethinking the self-guided experience. Imagine, for example, a terrific, location-aware podcast walking you through a city.

3) There’s no money to be made 

We’re not suggesting this is every tour operator’s panacea for the pandemic, far from it. But there is an ancillary revenue opportunity. Several platforms allow operators to build tours for free, provide help with production, and market and sell the tours for a commission. The operator only has to produce the tour once. So the revenue may be far less than an in-person tour, but the margins can be higher. 

4) “If I offer a $10 self-guided tour, then no one will buy my $100 tour”

Maybe, but several operators have told us that self-guided tours serve as lead-generation for in-person tours, as well as an upsell to in-person tour customers. More importantly, would you rather sell a $10 self-guided tour to your customer or have your competitor sell it instead?

“Customers are going to do this. If you don’t offer it, then somebody else will.”

– Lance Zaal, Founder & President, U.S. Ghost Adventures and WeJunket

5) “It’s just not the same as in-person.”

Very true, but that is also the point. Many travelers do not want to be in groups, but they want to have a more in-depth, more informed experience. While most of us will think about fitting an existing tour into a self-guided format, that’s probably not the best place to start. 

3 Ways to Think about Self-Guided Tours

Perhaps the best way to start is by letting go of the word “tour.”

Don’t think only in terms of “tours.”

It is human nature to try to understand something new by relating it to something we know. Every tour operator considering a self-guided tour will think about their existing products and how they would work in this new format. Instead, let’s just think about the self-guided experience and how our industry can make it better. For example, Alex Tourski, the founder of Izi.travel, one of the largest platforms, has a simple, yet big vision of a global, on-demand marketplace of stories. 

“Most travel is self-guided.”

Alex Govoreanu, the CEO and co-founder of Questo, which has now raised capital twice since last March, said this to me in a recent conversation. It’s stayed with me. So then the question is, how can we make that self-guided experience better? How can we make it more fun, more informed, or immersive? This leads me to the next point:

You are already providing a self-guided experience to your guests. 

Every time you make a recommendation to your tour guests to do something on their own after the tour, you are offering a self-guided experience. Perhaps self-guided can be more than just another product to sell or a low-cost version of your in-person tour. Instead, ask yourself what your guests want most when they are exploring your destination on their own. How can you leverage today’s self-guided technology to enhance your guests’ in-destination experience and increase your engagement with them? 

What do you think? What have I gotten wrong about self-guided? These experiences have been around for a while, but it’s still very early days. Join our upcoming Self-Guided Tours Forum, March 2-3, to explore the future of this emerging segment and provide practical, actionable guidance on how you can begin offering compelling and profitable self-guided experiences to your guests. 

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