Insider Exclusive: Group-Friendly Suppliers Can Make or Break a Tour

Insider Exclusive: Group-Friendly Suppliers Can Make or Break a Tour

By Shebby Lee

A lot of things have changed in group travel during my 40 years in the business. My role has evolved over the years from step-on guide, to personnel trainer and owner of a sightseeing company, to tour planner, tour director, and receptive operator. I left out chief cook and bottle washer. But all of these fall into the group travel sector, and that remains my perspective.

Yet as much change as I have seen in group travel, I am still amazed at the lack of understanding from suppliers about what it is we need from them. The example below shows the importance of having a knowledgeable hotel desk clerk for tour groups, but many of these issues apply to all suppliers who serve groups.        

Let’s start at the beginning: The group agreement made anywhere from six to 18 months prior to the group’s arrival. Agreements for conventions are less of a problem than they used to be (perhaps because I tend to shy away from hotels that specialize in conventions), but even a bona fide group contract can present problems. The hotel sales office usually understands the needs of a tour group and is usually flexible on deposit deadlines and other needs. (Hint: If a hotel has no regular baggage handlers or included breakfast, it’s time to move on to another property).

It’s the implementation of that contract once the group arrives that is crucial to a positive check-in experience. This past summer I arrived at a hotel prior to individual arrivals at the airport, checked in and double-checked that all of the arrangements for the following day (airport transfers, scheduled arrival times, baggage handling, hosted welcome reception, key packets, etc.) were in order. I had signed a credit card authorization months before the tour, but unfortunately the front desk personnel had either not been informed of this fact, or didn’t understand the reason for it.

The next day as my passengers began to arrive—unbeknownst to me—they were each instructed to fork over their credit cards, in spite of the fact that the room keys were already pre-keyed and packaged with the passenger names and arrival times on them. They also were obliged to carry their own bags.

When I arrived with a larger group later in the day, I soon put a stop to that, but what followed was at the same time not acceptable in our business: The front desk clerk started screaming! Insisting that she needed separate credit card imprints to cover “room damages” because “management demands it,” she ultimately extracted a “guarantee” that I would pay for “all the room damages” that she obviously expected my clients to inflict. Great first impression for my clients!

Somebody at that hotel originally understood what a group agreement is, but it certainly wasn’t the individual working the front desk. Fortunately, I’ve had a great deal of similar experiences (my favorite being the time we arrived exhausted at a hotel late in the evening with 40+ passengers, only to be ordered to line up at the desk to individually sign registrations, each with a credit card imprint. In that case, I confiscated all the papers—which I signed myself—distributed the keys, and sent everyone directly to their rooms.

But this was a first for me. Again, experience dictated that because the front desk clerk appeared to be close to a meltdown, the best course of action was the calm voice of reason. Her behavior speaks volumes about the necessity of having well-trained front desk and sales staff for groups.

We like to call ourselves the hospitality industry, yet there is little evidence that “hospitality” was this hotel’s focus. The problem here appears to be two-fold: lack of training (or incomplete training) and lack of communication between the sales staff and the front desk. Since the sales manager had negotiated the contract with the tour company, he or she is the most conversant about its terms, and therefore the most qualified to train the front desk staff—all of them. (There is no end of details about group inclusions which vanish between midnight and breakfast.) But where is the sales manager when a group checks in to the hotel after a great day of touring? Nine times out of 10, he or she has already gone home.

What can a tour operator do to facilitate the check-in process?

1. Get it in writing. Make sure the contract details include whether or not baggage handling is included and at what cost. If breakfast is included, make sure the contract says so. And make it clear that there will be just one folio paid by the company.

2. Send your rooming list, including the following requests, at least 30 days in advance:

  • If there is no elevator, request all first-floor rooms.
  • Ask to have keys individually packaged for each guest with his or her name and room number on the envelope.
  • Make sure all rooms will have two beds and are nonsmoking, unless otherwise noted.
  • Require baggage handling.

3. Have your tour director call the hotel 30 minutes before arrival time to reconfirm all of the above.

The sign of a truly great hotel welcome is not an electronic sign spelling out the group’s name (although that is nice, too), but a smiling front desk clerk holding your keys and a rooming list, baggage handlers at the ready, and the sales manager (or hotel manager) with a personal greeting for your group. Now that’s hospitality!

Historian and writer Shebby Lee owns Shebby Lee Tours Inc. of Rapid City, S.D. Her tours focus on the history and cultural heritage of the West. Lee also makes presentations at history conferences and industry meetings and writes the travel blog Trail Talk. To contact Lee, visit www.shebbyleetours.com.

About the American Bus Association

The American Bus Association (ABA) is the trade organization of the intercity bus industry, with more than 1,000 motorcoach and tour company members in the United States and Canada. Its members operate charter, tour, regular route, airport express, special operations and contract services. Another 2,800 members are travel and tourism organizations and suppliers of bus products and services who work in partnership with the North American motorcoach industry.

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