When Holly Roberson, the co-founder of Sip Savor Explore Oregon, received an email about an educational program on how to work with the international tourism trade, she immediately signed up, interested in new ways to grow her business. “We found the workshop super illuminating because international travelers weren’t on our radar,” she says.
Hosted by Travel Oregon’s international team during the first week of February, Steps to Success, a program developed by the International Inbound Travel Association (IITA), was held in five regions over four days with a total of six workshops. Each 90-minute program served 25-30 participants, ranging from resort teams and boutique hotels to restaurants and tour operators.
One of Roberson’s key takeaways was learning how most international travelers plan. “We never knew they were using travel agencies to book packages,” she says. In markets from Europe to Japan, travelers can walk into a corner store and purchase a complete trip from a tour operator that includes hotel, transportation, and several attractions and activities or tours along the way.
“In the U.S., we don’t really think about using travel agents or third-party booking agencies,” said Laurel McMillan of Visit Central Oregon, who helped organize the workshop held in her region. “But in the UK or Australia it’s very common to buy a package holiday.”
How these packages are put together is a somewhat hidden aspect of the travel industry that Macmillan and other destination marketing organizations (DMOs) are helping local businesses decode. Travel Oregon’s recent workshop drew industry leaders such as ALON Marketing Group and America’s Hub World Tours to share their expertise in the process.
In the workshop, businesses were taught how to frame their hospitality offering as a marketable ‘product’, creating a focused one-page file, along with advice on how to pitch wholesalers (also called receptive operators). “When people think of online travel agents, it’s places like Expedia,” says McMillan. “But there is a network of wholesalers and hundreds of tour operators who buy from them.”
For example, Rocky Mountain Holiday Tours (RMHT), one of the largest regional operators, has significant access to the European market. RMHT is one of the many tour partners that Travel Oregon works with to showcase inspiring itineraries for the state that any tour operator can purchase. These bookable experiences range from cycling with Portland-based Pedal Bike Tours to caving with Bend’s Wanderlust Tours.
“One of our biggest takeaways from the workshop was the reminder of how beneficial it is to work with third-party booking agencies,” says Courtney Brown of Wanderlust Tours. “Even in the mix of busy season, when it can feel like too much work, the benefits are always worth the time investment.” Many tour operators create a catalog of curated activities and places to stay, making it easier for them to build a compelling package to sell to consumers – again and again.
State and regional DMOs are constantly building relationships with tour operators that focus on different markets – from Japan and China to India – when they attend trade shows, such as the recent Go West Summit. The receptive operators then sell the Oregon hotels, attractions and tours to hundreds of tour operators who then sell them to travel agents who sell them to consumers.
Leo Rosen-Fischer, the founder of Tree Climbing in Silver Falls, also attended the recent workshop and found the experience opened up a whole new market. “I never thought to contact my local DMOs,” he says. He quickly perfected single-sided printing for his business. “It really worked out,” he says. “After a few trade shows, I had people contact me directly. I think it’s because old tree climbing is so unique to Oregon.
Rosen-Fischer was so inspired that she booked a trip to Asia to meet with more travel agencies. In his research, he discovered that there was a direct flight from the Philippines to Seattle. “Portland makes sense as a side trip, and tree climbing is the perfect attraction,” he says. Another nice point that resonated with many participants is that international travelers are booking longer stays ranging from four to eight weeks at a time.
“With that longer commute, if someone is traveling to San Francisco and Seattle, we’re in the middle and we’re really well positioned to capture some of that traffic,” Roberson says.
“We also learned that 20 percent of visitors join guided tours.” Roberson and her husband offer tours primarily through wine-tasting experiences. But now she’s working with Travel Lane County to create more itineraries that include historic sites, museums and even the Cascade Raptor Center.
Whether a responsive tour operator works with a boutique business or a regional DMO, it’s a mutually beneficial partnership. Sunriver is a hot spot for summer and spring break and is prominent in the domestic market. “But we’re working hard to develop the global aspect and diversify our shoulder seasons,” says McMillan. And operators can aim to sell specifically in that time frame.
“I also thought it was interesting to learn from America’s Hub World Tours that we’re going to start seeing more inbound travel from India and Mexico,” says Roberson. She is already planning how this will affect some of their future initiatives. “It’s really important to me that people can see themselves reflected in the photos we share, so making sure our marketing includes a diverse range of people is a priority.”
Overall, many participants found that the workshop exceeded expectations in unexpected ways. Yes, there were invaluable insights into partnering with the international travel trade. But this first personal version revived the collective community. “It’s so helpful to meet face to face and brainstorm ideas for future projects. The energy that everyone came with is hard to capture through Zoom,” says Brown.
“We’ve been motivated by all the support that’s been out there. We’re a small business and we feel like we’re on a little island doing this little thing,” says Roberson. “It was exciting to discover that there are partners with great reach. It’s not just my Google ads and social media posts. We can tap into a much wider network.” For McMillan, the event reinforced the importance of the tourism ecosystem, from hotels and restaurants to activities that all come together to shape the visitor experience. “Often tour operators have their heads down, working in a silo and it’s easy to forget that there is a network of partners from the chamber to the DMO and RDMO,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”