10 Strategies to Increase Your Direct Bookings

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As a tour operator, you’re not just developing and curating unforgettable experiences—you’re also managing operations, marketing, and trying to stay ahead in an ever-evolving digital landscape. 

Despite the growing consumer preference for personalized travel experiences, online travel agencies (OTAs) have become the fastest-growing booking channel for tours and activities. And while OTA marketing remains essential, many operators are left wondering how to increase bookings through direct channels, and thus capture more revenue. 

The key is in understanding the digital marketing landscape in a way that empowers rather than overwhelms you. Read on for 10 strategies to get more direct bookings, drawn from the experiences of operators, tour guides, and digital marketers who are already making it happen.

1. Identify Your Ideal Guests 

Let’s start by stating the (fairly) obvious. Understanding demographics, preferences, and behaviors can help you design offerings that are more likely to appeal to customers, and learn how to get more bookings from these customers. 

However, there’s so much more to it. “Numbers only tell part of the story,” says Destiny Faith Nelson, an account manager at Blend Marketing, which focuses on growing tour and attraction brands. “You have to connect the data to what drives the behavior of that particular person, and cater the message to them.” 

Start by Analyzing Past Booking Data

One of the most effective ways to identify your ideal guests is by analyzing past booking data. Look at the demographics of your previous guests, such as age, income, and travel preferences. This data is a great starting point to understand who is already attracted to your offerings and tailor your marketing strategies to similar audiences.

For example, the largest segment of U.S. experience seekers are aged 35-54, representing 36% of the market, while affluent travelers (with household incomes of $150K+) account for a significant portion of tour spending, according to Arival’s 2024 U.S. Tour Taker report. Compare this data to your customer base and consider adjusting your marketing strategies accordingly.

Affluent travelers are just over one-fifth of all travelers, yet they account for nearly half of spending on travel experiences.
Affluent travelers are just over ⅕ of all travelers, however they account for nearly half of all spending on experiences.

Additionally, while more travelers take tours for international travel vs. domestic travel overall, the likelihood of taking a private tour for an international trip is greater, and private tours are rising in popularity, particularly among affluent travelers. If you don’t offer private tours, now is the time to consider adding them to your offerings.

Stay informed about trends to understand what types of experiences are in demand. In 2023, there was notable growth in shopping and market tours, special interest tours, culinary experiences, and adventure tours. If you offer these types of experiences, create unique content to strengthen your authority on these topics for search and social media.

Arival Insider Pro Access members can learn more about traveler insights with the on-demand video U.S. & Europe Traveler Trends: Insights for a Successful Summer featuring Anna Cashman, Brand Lead at GetYourGuide, and Douglas Quinby, CEO and Co-Founder of Arival. 

Look Ahead

Prepare for future demographic shifts. By 2030, all baby boomers will be at retirement age, meanwhile the foreign-born population will be growing, leading to a more diverse group of travelers. (For more, watch Elizabeth Furze, CEO of AKA NYC, talk about what’s next in experiences marketing and why audience diversification is more important than ever.)

Elizabeth Furze, CEO of marketing agency AKA NYC, speaks about the impact of audience diversification at Arival 360 | Orlando 2023

Target Niche Audiences

Focusing on niche audiences can help you stand out in a crowded market. Personalized and immersive experiences — immersive film experiences, for example — have become increasingly popular. By catering to specific interests and needs, such as offering special experiences for digital nomads or adventure seekers, you can attract a dedicated segment of travelers who are more likely to book directly with you.

Experiment with GenAI for Personalization

In a recent Tourpreneur episode, host Peter Syme discussed with Marius Nigond of Vidi Guides and iWander the impact of AI on personalized, self-guided tours. Nigond emphasized that AI is just a tool, not the whole solution. The key is understanding the user—where they are, what they’re looking for, and their interests. “If you get the content right in your data, you could have two people doing the same tour but receive different content to suit their perspectives,” summarized Syme.  

Operator Takeaways

  • Analyze past booking data and current market trends to identify your ideal guests for more efficient and impactful marketing efforts to get them to your site.
  • Conduct surveys and interviews to understand customer values, interests, and lifestyles.
  • Analyze social media and online reviews for insights into customer preferences and attitudes.
  • Use GenAI tools to help identify ways to deliver personalized content based on the user data that is available to you. Perfecting your prompts will increase efficiency when it comes to turning your data into effective messaging. 
  • If you offer niche experiences, be sure you are creating a stream of unique content on these topics to strengthen your authority and attract higher-quality leads on search engines.
  • Use traveler data reports and market research to reevaluate or optimize your offerings. As an example, private tour options should be part of your mix. 
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2. Offer a Unique Experience

In today’s competitive travel industry, tour operators must constantly innovate to stand out and attract direct bookings. By developing unique guest experiences through local partnerships, tour operators can provide offerings that differentiate them from competitors. 

The Power of Local Partnerships

Local partnerships can significantly enhance the guest experience by providing access to exclusive events, authentic local cuisine, and unique activities. For instance, partnering with local businesses to offer bespoke city tours or collaborating with nearby restaurants to create special dining experiences can add immense value to your tour. These partnerships not only enrich the guest experience but also support the local economy and foster community relationships.

Founder of Cork & Keg Tours, Renee Ventrice, discusses the importance of partnering with other businesses in your area. Watch the full interview here.

Tailor Your Experiences for Diverse Interests

Developing tours and activities that can also be customizable and private are great ways to drive more bookings. Affluent travelers in particular show a strong preference for exclusive, personalized experiences, Arival research has shown. 

Some companies, like TripGuru (pictured), are seeing success by offering service-level tiers, including an option for private and customizable tours | Photo: TripGuru

Customizable tours allow guests to tailor their itineraries to their specific interests and standards, enhancing their overall satisfaction and engagement. Offering private options not only meets the growing demand for personalized travel but also allows for premium pricing, boosting revenue. By catering to these preferences, operators can drive more direct bookings, particularly among high-spending travelers seeking unique and memorable experiences.

Find Demand in Your Market 

Consider the success story of Crawl Entertainment’s founder, Brian Cain. When he started his business in 2019, he saw an untapped opportunity in the nightlife tour market of New Orleans. “No one here was doing the nightlife-style thing,” he explained. Starting from scratch, he sold paper pub crawl tickets on the streets. By 2024, Crawl Entertainment had expanded to offer nightlife tours, ghost tours, and more in four markets.

Brian’s dedication to learning SEO and digital marketing played a crucial role in his expansion, he shared. This shift allowed him to grow his business despite setbacks like the pandemic. “For me, I just saw preemptively that this is moving into a digital space and started to learn as much as possible there.”

Arival Insider Pro Access members can learn more about the Crawl story in this on-demand video on Strategies to Scale Your Tour Operation

Continue to Experiment and Innovate

By continuously innovating and adapting to market trends, tour operators can create memorable experiences that encourage people to book direct. Whether it’s introducing new tour themes, enhancing guest interaction through technology, or offering exclusive access to events, staying ahead of the curve is key to success.

Operator Takeaways

  • Enhance guest experiences by partnering with local businesses to offer exclusive events, authentic cuisine, and unique activities, adding value and supporting the local economy.
  • Offer customizable and private tours for the growing demand for personalized travel by providing customizable itineraries and private tour options, attracting high-spending travelers and allowing for premium pricing.
  • Identify untapped markets and leverage SEO and digital marketing to test and learn.
  • Experiment with special offers, new tours and experiences, or trying new ways to communicate with your customers. Small tweaks to your format can go a long way when you are a lean team looking for insights. 

3. Optimize Your Website 

If only it was as easy as “if you build it, they will come.” A user-friendly, SEO-optimized website is essential for converting visitors into direct bookings. 

“You have to capture someone as soon as they arrive on your website,” said Robin Harnish, a strategic advisor to MintPass and former executive at Viator/Tripadvisor and Holibob. “Put the user of your product first, and that means investing in UX and content that gets them into the booking flow quickly.” 

Create a Seamless Booking Experience

Ensure your booking process is straightforward and intuitive. A seamless booking experience reduces friction and enhances user satisfaction. Use clear call-to-action buttons, minimal form fields, and provide instant booking confirmations. This not only improves user experience but also boosts conversion rates.

Prioritize Mobile Optimization

With 2 in 5 users booking on mobile devices, and upwards of 40% of travelers opting for smartphone tickets, it’s crucial that your website is fully responsive. Mobile optimization involves ensuring fast loading times, easy navigation, and readable content on smaller screens. Mobile-friendly sites are also a key element in search rankings.

Showcase Compelling Visuals

High-quality images and videos can significantly enhance user engagement. Use professional photos and videos that showcase your tours and activities vividly. Compelling visuals can make your offerings more appealing and help potential customers envision their experience, driving higher conversion rates.

Implement Schema Markup

Schema markup is a type of microdata that helps search engines better understand the content on your website. By implementing schema, you can increase the likelihood of your site appearing in search engine listings with enhanced features, known as rich results or rich snippets. These rich results make your listings more informative, relevant, and appealing, which can improve your website’s visibility and boost click-through rates. You can test one of your live pages to see if the structured data it contains generates rich results.

Include a Site Map

A site map is like the blueprint of your website. It’s where you list the web pages of your site to inform search engines about the organization of your content. It helps search engine crawlers navigate your website more efficiently, ensuring that all your important pages are indexed. A well-structured site map improves your website’s crawlability and ensures that even the deepest pages are found and indexed, enhancing your overall SEO performance.

Operator Takeaways

  • Make the booking process easy with clear call-to-action buttons and minimal form fields.
  • Ensure your site is fully responsive with fast loading times and easy navigation.
  • Use high-quality images and videos to engage users and showcase your offerings.
  • Highlight positive feedback to build trust and credibility.
  • Implement schema to enhance search listings with rich snippets.
  • Maintain a site map to help search engines index all your important pages efficiently.

For more detailed strategies on how to increase bookings on your website, check out our guide on how to optimize booking flow for your visitors.

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4. Create Engaging Content

Great content is the bridge between your customer and the brand. It’s time to get focused on what you are passionate about, and what you know your guests have loved about what you do. 

“Start by finding where your customer lives and just connect with them authentically,” TripSchool founder Mitch Bach explained. “Show up authentically— within the bounds of good design and good copywriting—but show up and be real and connect with your audience.”

Invest in Original Storytelling 

Unique tour descriptions, customer testimonials, blogs, and videos are always going to be important for attracting customers via organic and paid marketing, and even more important for conversion. 

Ensure that the writing and visuals on your site are original, not lifted from your OTA pages or stock photography. Leverage your story and perspective as you create landing pages on your site that showcase the unique benefits of your offering.

Engage with Your Audience

Quickly respond to comments, messages, and mentions on your social media platforms. Showing that you value and acknowledge your audience’s input builds trust and encourages further interaction.

Create Weekly, If Not Daily

Once you identify the channels that work for you, keep creating and sharing new stories and updates. Aim to capture a special moment from a tour or experience each week: embrace spontaneity by sharing moments like a surprise proposal or a guest trying a new food for the first time, highlighting the magic of these unexpected moments. 

Operator Takeaway

Stop focusing on generic content creation and start reclaiming your unique stories. It’s your stories and perspective on a topic or place that truly resonate and connect with your audience.

5. Leverage Email Marketing 

Email marketing is a powerful tool for reaching potential and returning guests. Create targeted email campaigns by segmenting your email list and personalizing content. 

Timely email marketing can also increase your chances of getting reviews. According to a 2023 Harvard Business Review report, sending an email on the first day after travel led to a 3% increase in reviews relative to an email on the ninth day after travel. 

Regular communication builds a relationship with your guests, increasing the likelihood of repeat bookings. Share updates, special offers, and personalized recommendations to keep your audience engaged.

6. Be Responsive 

Responding quickly and effectively to inquiries and feedback can significantly enhance your reputation and encourage direct bookings. Surprisingly, only 56% of travel brands respond to customer messages on social media, according to Sprout Social, and up to 79% of consumers expect a response in 24 hours.  

Manage responses across various platforms, including social media, email, and review sites. Prompt and helpful responses demonstrate your commitment to excellent guest service.

7. Utilize Guest Feedback and Reviews 

User reviews are essential for your business and an important way to get more bookings. Good reviews and testimonials build trust and credibility. In fact, 95% of travelers will read a review before booking, said TourReview CEO José Arozarena during his presentation at the Arival Experiences Innovation Showcase. Seven in 10 travelers will rely on reviews for booking travel activities, according to Arozarena.

Improve Your Product with Guest Feedback

Actively collecting and using guest feedback is crucial for improving services and getting more bookings. Encourage guests to leave reviews and respond to them effectively. Use feedback to make improvements: essentially, this lets your past customers tell you how to get more bookings.

Build Trust with Social Proof

“We live in a world where people care about what others think. If you’re just building your brand, then this is even more important to establish trust,” Nelson said. “Feedback and reviews are your social proof that what you’re selling appeals to others and give the potential buyer the confidence in trying you out.”

Showcase Positive Reviews

Highlighting positive reviews on your website and social media channels can significantly influence potential customers. Displaying real testimonials and ratings builds credibility and encourages more direct bookings.

8. Consider Dynamic Pricing  

Dynamic and variable pricing strategies have garnered significant attention in the tourism industry, particularly among attractions and large operators. These strategies, while often misunderstood, can offer substantial benefits by optimizing revenue and accommodating fluctuations in demand. Especially when you are dealing with customers who want to book direct.

Focus on the Messaging

During the Yielding Up: A Deep Dive on Dynamic Pricing & Revenue Management discussion at Arival 360 I Las Vegas, Digionex CEO Greg Loewen shared his thoughts on the unique opportunity attractions and operators have with using dynamic pricing. “Unlike perhaps your experience with booking an airline ticket or a hotel, where there’s a lot of opacity to how the system works, we believe that maximizing your transparency with your guest actually helps dynamic pricing work harder for you,” he said. 

It’s a tactic the Florida Aquarium in Tampa employed when they moved to dynamic pricing back in 2018. Messaging played a huge part in how they rolled out the ticket price increase. “When we launched, we wanted to stop talking about pricing,” COO Andy Wood explained. Instead the team reframed the message around accessibility with ‘Plan Ahead Pricing.’ Their customer support team encourages guests to determine the day and time that is going to work for their schedule and needs, and inform them that the price for that day will be displayed to reflect factors including weather, day of week, holidays, local events, and attendance patterns.

Florida Aquarium COO Andy Wood describes the aquarium’s journey with implementing dynamic pricing and the customer response in the Attractions Forum at Arival 360 | Orlando

Test and Learn

For Hudson Yards Experiences, the biggest challenge with dynamic pricing came down to maintaining their own site versus their distribution network. “We have hundreds, if not thousands of distributors at this point, and they have a little bit different tech,” explained Haley Ward, VP of Sales. Her top advice for an attraction thinking about moving to dynamic pricing is to go slow, and test and learn. Learn from every adjustment you make.  

Don’t Forget Customer Segmentation 

Judy Gauthier, CCO of Go City, believes “dynamic pricing is one tool.” For her, customer segmentation is an often overlooked strategy for creating the ticket or experience your customer wants to buy. Do the digging, look at who is buying and what your customers are looking for, and create the experience, and its pricing, around them. 

Operator Takeaways

  • Be upfront with your customers if you decide to go with dynamic pricing. Include messaging on your website that explains how your pricing works.
  • Expect that price parity won’t be a perfect strategy given the number of systems and channels you might use.
  • Consider working with a company that can provide dynamic pricing engines that exist on top of a res-tech, or in partnership with them.
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9. Automate Your Processes 

Automation is essential for improving efficiency and enhancing the guest experience. By automating booking processes, guest communication, and marketing efforts, you can save time and reduce errors, allowing your team to focus on providing exceptional service — and getting more bookings.

Conduct an Audit of Your Operations

Internal auditing of all processes—from inventory management to customer service—can identify inefficiencies and help choose the best tools for automation. For example, Curated Planet‘s guest communication platform, which won the top prize at Arival’s inaugural Experiences Innovation Showcase, addresses the challenge of keeping communication lines open with guests before, during, and after tours. The platform consolidates various communication channels, such as emails, WhatsApp, and SMS, into a single stream, adding automation to create custom communication flows and triggers that can upsell services, lead to more reviews, and even encourage tips for guides.

Turn to AI for Automating Your Comms

Similarly, TourConnect founder and president Michael Herrmann introduced several products using Generative AI to address common challenges in his own tour company, Bonza Bike Tours. These products include “Clever Compose,” which generates email responses to customer inquiries and marketing content, a booking automation tool that uses AI to automate manual reservation processes, and a revenue insights product to help operators predict future bookings.

Implement the Right Software

Integrating the right reservation and ticketing software streamlines operations and ensures a smooth booking and entry process. This reduces friction for customers, making them more likely to book directly through your website. Arival’s guide to choosing an online booking system provides insights into selecting the best tools to meet your business needs, ensuring a positive return on investment.

To explore the best reservation and ticketing software for your business, check out Arival’s guide to choosing a booking system. This resource provides valuable insights into how to get bookings online more consistently, by selecting the right tools to meet your unique business needs, ensuring a positive return on investment and positioning your attraction to thrive in a competitive market.

Operator Takeaways

  • Identify inefficiencies and choose the best automation tools through internal audits.
  • Utilize AI tools for generating email responses, automating reservations, and predicting future bookings.
  • Streamline operations with the right reservation and ticketing software.

10. Offer Flexible Cancellations 

Flexible cancellation policies can significantly influence guest booking decisions. Balance flexibility with your business needs and clearly communicate these policies to potential guests. Flexible policies can increase bookings by providing guests with peace of mind that they will be able to cancel if needed. “At this point, the customer expects the ability to change plans last minute,” Harnish points out. Consider options such as offering a “weather guarantee” like that provided by Sensible Weather that customers can add on during the booking flow.

Chart Your Path to Booking Success

By implementing these 10 strategies, you can significantly increase your direct bookings and transform your revenue. Arival is here to help you grow your tour business with expert insights and support. Start applying these strategies today and watch over time what they can do for you on the direct to consumer side. 

For more tips on how to get more bookings and optimize your marketing efforts, explore our detailed guides on OTA marketing and how to get more direct bookings. Let’s make 2024 your best year yet for direct bookings!

About the Author

Kate Cornell is an editorial and digital strategist with many years of experience in the experiences sector of travel, and has spoken at Arival on the topics of writing tour descriptions, and the “content conundrum.” She has led global editorial teams for travel brands including Viator and Tripadvisor, helped build startups such as TourismSolved, and worked behind the scenes as a content consultant for leading travel and luxury brands.

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