"A Good Decision is Based on Knowledge" - Plato

How can small Tour Operators compete with Big Brands online?

We live in a digital age, where having an online presence is everything. Billboards, flyers, magazine adverts and alike are extremely pricey and generally ineffective.

More than 90% of consumers do some sort of online research before making a purchase, be it looking at a brand’s website, looking at product reviews or following a company on social media.

57% of the purchase decision is already complete before the customer even calls the supplier – meaning that a weak online profile or inability to get discovered in a customer search will bear a significant impact on sales and margins.

As a result, new and existing businesses must establish and rapidly expand their online presence, and keep digital efforts at the forefront (or at least a focal point) in their growth and sales strategies. But sometimes it can seem like an impossible task.

Either you’re not sure where to begin in terms of gaining visibility and building brand engagement online, or you’re a small tour operator and you’re up against all the big companies that have dedicated digital teams and lots of money to invest into ads and SEO.

We’re here to deliver the good news that all is not lost. In fact, there’s a number of factors that you can play to your advantage.

 

What the big brands have got…

There are certainly some advantages that the big brands like Expedia will have.

The first is domain authority, a search engine ranking measuring the power of a domain name based on age, popularity and size. The second is trustworthiness and brand association in the space built up over time through advertising, scale and reputation which creates a consumer and search engine bias.

Quantity and diversity of back links (other sites that are linking to them) are also likely to be higher and this is something to bear in mind as you move forward – the more sites, blogs, etc. that you can have linking back to your site, the higher search engines will rank you as it shows that your site clearly has something to say that is relevant in your sphere.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, is their financial resources and ability to invest – international tour operators have millions of pounds funnelled into their web marketing and SEO efforts, designated digital teams and enough cash flow to try out a variety of different techniques and tactics all day long.

However, these are all things that can be worked on over time as your business develops and grows. In the meantime, you can capitalise on the advantages of being a small business or website – something that these mega corporations simply cannot do.

 

Perks of being a small brand online…

Being a smaller business allows you to be nimble, reacting quickly to consumer demands, market trends and changing your priorities overnight. Big companies lack this agility and are tied up in rules, processes and approvals from different departments – often with HQs or international marketing teams in different time zones around the world.

Small teams get remarkable amounts done versus larger teams that work in silos. If a topic, location or tour are hot right now, smaller tour operators can quickly turn content around, create visuals, take to social media and give the customer what they want.

They can get creative without being confined by rigid guidelines and tone of voice. Another benefit is the ability to focus on what works in terms of web marketing – whether that be SEO, email campaigns or PPC. You are able to concentrate your immediate efforts where opportunity lies and park other duties temporarily. This focus carries over in to what topics and destinations you want to focus on.

Small tour operators can have a niche appeal by choosing a small slice of the travel sector and working on being the authority in this space. This provides numerous advantages that we will go on to discuss below.

The final advantage is your brand authenticity. Ultimately, travel is still an emotional experience and people want a personal touch and knowing that they’re dealing with humans, rather than a corporate machine. A smaller brand can build strong positive associations, and although this may be with a smaller audience, you can build your brand appeal within a chosen niche and monetise them well.

 

So where do you begin?

To build a real digital presence and compete with the big brands online, there are four key areas to look at.

Choose your niche

Go for a specific niche in the market and work on targeting that particular segment and audience. Rather than covering every country, flight, hotel and activity on offer, become a specialist in a few areas. Over time you can build this out to a greater repertoire but a key benefit of being a small tour operator is being able to focus on city-specific itineraries or ranking travel destinations that bigger agencies aren’t in a position to do.

Use targeted keywords

By choosing a niche, you’ll be able to make your SEO efforts much more focused, rather than trying to rank for every word in the travel dictionary.

Carry out detailed keyword research and then draw up a list of the targeted keywords that you will focus on. This could be in a simple spreadsheet and you can chop and change them as needed. As tempting as it may be, using a scatter gun approach for SEO never works – trust us.

Google’s Keyword Planner is a great place to start and is useful for searching target word volumes and competitiveness, even if you don’t want to follow through to paying for adverts.

Start by searching words or phrases related to your products (trips, activities, etc) and services. Keyword Planner will then find the keywords most relevant to your business.

From here, you can incorporate these into your site, or pay for Google’s service by bidding for certain words and monitoring keyword trends to see how their search volume changes over time.

Choosing words with lower competition will cost you significantly less and allow you to rank higher when those specific terms are searched for by your customers.

Target keywords that big operators would be unwilling or unable to compete on. For example, they’re often unlikely to drill down into anything more specific than a country or city – so why not consider looking at things like ‘Best hikes and trails in Cusco Peru’, or ‘Best lakes for water-skiing in Southwest London’. These long-tail keywords help to reach the niche audiences we discussed above.

Google Keyword planner

Another option is comparison keywords, which the giants don’t do as they can’t go after competitor brand names, but as a small tour operator – you can. That’s a prime advantage that a small website is going to have over a larger one. On a similar note, due to business relationships with hotels and suppliers, they’re unlikely to create rankings or lists of options in a particular locale as it could reflect badly on them, but small operators can, and this can be a powerful way of showing up in relevant customer searches.

Break down keyword bidding by localisation. A geo-report allows you to adjust bids based on a shopper’s location. When the dimensions tab in AdWords is used, you can choose geo’s which are worth biding. Larger names may use one entire area as a target, this can be used to your advantage. You can target regions based on your site, customers, and goals you’ve set. If you know your niche audience mentioned in step one is based in a few certain areas, target them!

If you’ve not got the immediate funds to put money behind your keywords, you can still reap the rewards by using them carefully within your content. This ranges from scattering your targeted keywords and related phrases throughout your webpages, article and blog copy, image descriptions and metadata.

Remember that content is King

Dive deep into relevant topics and always offer valuable content.

Your website, ads and emails should not be sales pitch after sales pitch with claims of why you are the best. Customers won’t come to your site based purely on sales tactics.

Yes, the price of what you’re offering will play a part, but you also need to incorporate some degree of content marketing – both for SEO purposes and to engage your visitors which will ultimately reduce the bounce rates from your website and help you out with rankings too.

Create thought leadership pieces, cover travel trends and where might be an upcoming destination, as well as news items and generally get creative. Small operators can invest more in a single piece of content than a big brand ever could. Take your small niche and decide that it is your focus and the search intent is a priority. You can create 10 times as much content around it and be a go-to resource for that subject or destination, and as people stay on the page longer and share it with others, you will reap the rewards.

Hero images (the big shiny ones that make you really want to visit a destination or sign up for an activity) will be the cherry on top and should be used thoughtfully to draw readers in and really get them excited about a destination.

Build relationships

As well as trying to build relationships with your audience, work on creating solid relationships with local agencies and suppliers in target areas.

Big travel and tour operators have PR and marketing teams that manage relationships and conversations in a mundane and routine way, but you have the power to deal with those people directly.

Forging relationships will allow you to further improve the quality of your content by gaining expert local knowledge, will lead to back-linking as they link to your from their own site which will help your SEO massively, gain further exposure on supplier websites, create genuine conversations on social media and reinforce your authenticity and appeal.

This advantage mustn’t be overlooked as it amplifies the reach of your content and visibility on your targeted keywords that your competitors don’t have access to.

An added bonus here is that these sorts of relationships are likely to help you secure good rates and create a two-way business flow.

Big companies need to do all of these things at scale, and as multinational companies, they often can’t narrow down their focus in the same way, which is where your small website advantages come in to play.

It doesn’t end there either, there are plenty of other small actions you can take to put yourself on the map.

 

Expand your digital presence and reach your customers

Harness your competitor’s strengths and previous efforts

As mentioned above, big brands have the time and funds to invest into research and have teams dedicated to monitoring changes in the market and consumer demand.

So why not tap into this? Sign up to their newsletters and alerts, allowing you to stay on top of market trends and also take inspiration from what they’re doing well (or not so well) and utilising the best bits for your own site, content and outreach efforts.

It can also be useful to use an SEO tool such as SEM Rush or Ahrefs to see the links they have to their website and see whether there are any you could approach for a link to your website.

Engage with your audience

Be responsive on social media, listen to what your customers want and react accordingly.

Being small and agile means you can respond to customers with honest conversation, travel tips, feedback and rapid customer service, without being tied up in corporate red tape.

Keep your tone of voice friendly with a hint of humour and make sure you share videos and images regularly.

Keep your website simple

Create a website that is clean, clear, easy to use, and makes it obvious what you are selling.

Customers would rather have a site that is user-friendly, rather than full of slow-loading pictures, fancy features and hundreds of links and drop down options.

Web pages should have no less than 500 words to be favoured by search engines, but users also don’t want to be scrolling for hours just to get to the crux of the article or tour description. And don’t forget to make it mobile-friendly, so they can research and book trips on the move!

Keep up with SEO trends

This is always easier said than done as search engine algorithms change weekly, and there are no definitive rules or hints released by Google or anyone else.

Sign up to one or two SEO and SEM newsletters to make sure you’re staying on top of major changes in metadata, metatags, etc. Also, keep an eye on well-respected blogs, such as Moz.

Advertise on different platforms

Paying for ads will help you to gain visibility across different platforms and forums, but will require a budget and this will vary massively depending on what targeted keywords you have chosen.

When advertising on different platforms like Bing or Facebook you may be able to get cheaper keywords and you can target not most but all users.

You may also consider using ad extensions. When using ad extensions a person is given more info about your business and this can increase your click rate and attract a future customer.

Information such as locations, reviews, phone numbers and more can be included. When you’re on a tight budget, they can be a real help.

 

Summary

Building an online presence is not a quick and easy process or an overnight fix. You need to invest time, effort and a small amount of money into SEO and SEM to really reap the benefits.

Changes you make across your content and web pages may not take effect for weeks or even months, but you will slowly start to see your website climb through the Google rankings. Work on your website, build customer relationships on social media and win consumer loyalty and you’ll be on a path to success.

The big brands have staff, resources and budgets that small tour operators may only dream of in their early stages, but utilise the basic steps and top tips mentioned above and you will begin to level the playing field.

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