Are small tourism businesses lacking in best practice when it comes to the web?

Ask anyone who has worked with a variety of tour and activity operators and they will probably tell you that there are as many ways of doing business as there are operators.

But why is this and why should it be considered status quo?

  • It’s true that the majority of operators working in this sector are small businesses.
  • It’s true that many built their businesses around a love for what they do, rather than based on business fundamentals.

That’s part of the beauty and charm of the tourism industry.  Entrepreneurs can find something they love to do and build a business around it.

As charming as this is, however, it does make it particularly hard to ensure consistency and quality in the development and delivery of products and services.

Tourism boards around the globe are recognizing that there needs to be quality standards in place for tourism businesses and they are starting to develop best practices programs for their stakeholders.

Many of these programs, like the one developed by the Australian Tourism Data Warehouse are focused on providing guidelines for marketing, sales, customer service, and technology.

Consulting companies targeting small business have also popped up building on the quality standards and online booking best practices.

These consulting companies, like UntangleMyWeb for example, are helping small businesses restructure their processes around best practices.

“What I find in the small tour business industry is that very few have anything different than a diary. The Ekit has raised awareness about online booking systems for tours and provided a solution that doesn’t only offer online bookings but also back-end bookings to replace the diary.

“I also believe that there are many more affordable accommodation booking systems than there are affordable tour booking systems.

“Thanks to the Ekit and the industry training that UntangleMyWeb provides I feel that operators are now aware of alternatives to the legacy systems. Such alternatives offer excellent value for money and a very simple DIY interface.”

The challenge is that there are simply too many small businesses out there that require best practices but don’t know it.  The question then becomes, how do we as technologists and innovators help small businesses adopt best practices?

Understanding tourism best practices

It’s not enough to build solutions for an industry without understanding the requirements of that industry.  Just as applications like Quickbooks were developed to serve accounting needs and are built off of decades of accounting best practices, so too should reservation and distribution systems.

Defining best practices is not an easy thing to do and it cannot be done solely by industry, especially industry providers like reservation system developers.

Why? Because there are too many conflicting interests.

The best practices are best defined by organizations like the tourism boards who work for the whole industry or in the case of data and messaging standards, associations like the OpenTravel Alliance.

Before developing, or in some cases re-developing, a system for the tourism space, consider whether or not the system is supporting business best practices or perpetuating the status quo.

Built-in best practices

Once an understanding of tourism best practices is reached, the systems need to be built to enforce best practices.  A good example of enforcing best practices is PCI compliance and support for payment systems.

Whether the business is selling tickets, t-shirts, or shoes, if they are selling and taking payment online, they are considered an ecommerce merchant and should be following PCI (Payment Card Industry) best practices.

The challenge of course is that many small businesses don’t understand or abide by PCI as a natural course of business.  Building PCI best practices into systems makes it easier for small businesses to follow best practices because they will do so by default.

The same could be said for product, distribution, accounting, and even customer management.

Best practices and innovation

I can imagine that many would see best practices as a limiting factor or a constraint, much the same as the argument that standards are a constraint.  But I disagree.

I see best practices as an opportunity to level the playing field in terms of HOW rather than WHAT products and services are developed and delivered.  The tools and processes that go into the development and delivery of the product or service are different from the product itself.

What innovators need to understand is that constraints are good, they feed creativity and foster out of the box thinking.  It’s hard to think out of the box, if the box is not defined.

Small tourism businesses make up the vast majority of businesses that deliver services to tourists in any destination.  Across the board, 90% of businesses are small (US Stat), so extrapolating that to include the tourism sector is not a stretch.

What is concerning is that the turnover of these companies is very high, as high as 50% after five years.

Although there are numerous factors that could lead to the failure of a business, a lack of available best practices should not be one of them. As the recent level of technical innovation in the in-destination tour and activity segment has shown, there is a thriving opportunity within the sector.

The question is whether or not those of us who build systems for the sector will help lead these businesses with best practices or cater to the status quo.

NB: Web practices and via Shutterstock.

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Stephen Joyce

About the Writer :: Stephen Joyce

Stephen Joyce has been a contributor to tnooz since 2009 and has been working in travel and tourism technology since 1995. Stephen is the CEO of, a cloud based software as a service reservation and booking platform for tour and activity providers.

Stephen is the Past Board Chair of the OpenTravel Alliance and currently sits on the Education Advisory Group for the National Tour Association (NTA).

Stephen is a graduate of Capilano University, a certified commercial pilot, and holds a certificate in IT Management.



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  1. Peter Syme

    Great vision Stephen but I strongly suspect it will be a bit like herding cats, a interesting challenge but always the same result. I also struggle to see why small operators do not get their act together? Never before have we had so much information and computing power at our finger tips. Operators tend to be good at looking after customers which is the way it should be, but when they have that nailed it is business processes and systems that need nailing and it is all available for those that look. As we are all in the travel business and travel a lot we need flexible mobile solutions that can run businesses from anywhere.

    As I type this from a remote corner of the Hymalayas all business processes can be handled via a iPhone and iPad and the guides in various countries work on the same cloud systems. A bit like getting a website in the 90’s eventually all business’s will follow or will suffer pain if they do not. Cannot speak for all countries but national tourist boards and DMO’s are most certainly not the people to lead on this in my part of the world , business process and systems best practise is far from their experience.

  2. amit

    As shared with @HappyHotelier over twitter, my above comment is observations from my convincing tour biz the great uses of www. Reading more comments I want to add in no set order:

    1. Expecting web-tech to do magic is not fair of a small tour/biz operator. But who positions web-tech this way in the first place? The tech solution providers. And this alienates.

    2. Small tour operators are small for a reason, three of which can be choice, or inertia or expecting amazing returns on very low efforts/money

    3. Those who embrace both channels – human & technology – will be darWINNERS!

    4. Four, Rezgo or the likes being a day dream? Yes, but one that’s sweet and sensible.
    In its full potential, it addresses point #1. It promises to keep small tour operator focused more on tours. Will test that soon when I side-venture. however, when biz grows I may find 5% commission model too high with declining margins the other factor. Or if rezgo is only targeted towards the small tour operators? Do we have some great rewards above $10000USD transaction? Will test. Wishing Joyce win over my above comment and that of happyhotelier. That’s happiness all over!

    5. @Liz Ward cheers and claps for mentioning how Lee-&-Gilly’s country took to challenges and charms of tourism. Great! (Ironically, couldn’t go through the e-kit videos on youtube for it is banned in our travel agency. :-x)

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      @Amit, here are my responses:

      1. It’s true, I think a lot of tech providers focus too much on technology and their features rather than focusing on what is actually important for operators. That said, if the tech provider works with operators and can develop tools that are designed to be of benefit, then that is a clear win for both the tech provider and the operator.

      2. I don’t think size matters. Regardless of choice, small is small. But size shouldn’t limit the opportunity to make small more efficient or more profitable for the operator. The tour and activity segment is primarily small business and that’s what makes it so interesting.

      3. Agree with you there.

      4. More of a sales discussion, so feel free to email me directly and we can discuss. But, for the record, the rates are negotiable as sales volumes increase.

  3. Liz Ward

    Continue your dreaming Stephen – vision is what’s needed to inspire DMOs and industry leaders to collaborate on programs that will support SMEs to develop the knowledge and skills required to reach a 21st century standard of doing business, let alone best practice.

    In Australia, education and knowledge sharing have been identified as two strategic platforms to achieve industry enablement and we can see the gradual benefits of this approach.

    It takes continued commitment to the vision and commitment to collaboration from the people who sign the cheques for the projects to maintain momentum. I think Australia is very fortunate that we have the culture to facilitate a whole of country collaborative model around projects like the Tourism e-kit and the Australian Tourism Data Warehouse.

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      I hope other regions take your lead. Tourism is one of the only industries that brings new money into an economy from the grassroots up. So the overall economic benefits of empowering SMEs in the tourism sector have a tremendous effect on the lives of everyday folks in these markets.

  4. Happy Hotelier

    “with continuous disruption+introduction+revamp of services and web standards…”.
    Are words from my heart.

    The once initiator of Booking(s).com, now Expedia subsidiary, started a site to standardize info of accommodation with the aim of selling the info across the board to those in the accommodating selling business after he had sold Booking(s).com…….. I believe he ditched the project after 6 or 9 months…came to the conclusion that it would not work…

    So I believe Stephen is daydreaming, because there won’t be one answer to the question what is a good standard or what is a good practise….

    my 2 cents

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      I can always count on you for your honest opinion 🙂

      I don’t think I’m day dreaming though. I think I’m envisioning a time when small businesses have access to resources that provide them with operating guidelines, best practices documents, and templates that help them take care of the day to day stuff. This is a process of education and demonstrating success. When small businesses see their competitors having success by doing things a particular way, they tend to try the same things.

      My hope is that one day, all the day dreaming I am doing now will make an operator’s life easier and more profitable.

    • richard

      @Happy Hotelier,

      What is the name of that ‘once initiator of’?

      • Happy Hotelier


        Sorry I forgot. I also forgot the name of the initiative. It existed roughly one year after was sold by its initiators.

  5. amit

    One barrier to entry is a doubt that the technology may take the better of a tour operator – one living his/her romance of the field & experiences. Understandable!

    A veteran tour operator brief/grief over the last 10 years …

    “problem with www and tech is that they are too dynamic to keep pace with”

    “looks like i was taken for a ride through …static websites.. keywords/meta.. linkbuildings.. adwords.. content.. blogs.. forums.. social.. cms.. dbms.. crm.. orm.. mobile.. responsive.. realtime bookings in between (am I missing something? must be!) with continuous disruption+introduction+revamp of services and web standards…”.

    This topped with words of sarcasm from a webmaster “Sir, your Website would have been awesome, had the year been 2000!”

    I couldn’t make anything great of www so i stick with B2B and B2C as B2B’s trickle down, that is, foreign travel agent business for my inbound market. Website, Emails and Enquiry and commission model. Simple. no frill. that’s best practice for my business. which i understand and which i can sustain.”

    As for Rezgo or TourCMS or Ckeckfront (???), we have to see what the veteran thinks. Though he had a website made 10 years back, he took these many years to consider it as a best practice.

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      I think we are actually talking about the same thing… I’m not just referring to technology, I’m referring to business processes, operations, accounting, insurance, and all the other things that make up best practices. There is no one-stop solution to providing this, but I think vertically specific technology providers have to take a step back and decide whether or not customizing to one operator’s requirements is in the best interests of all operators? My long term dream is that operators will have a standard operating procedure for daily operations that would allow them to focus on making their customer’s happy and delivering a great experience.

  6. Adrian Measures

    I couldn’t agree more with your article Stephen.

    We work with small businesses in France. In tourism they got used to doing very little to promote themselves. Tourism boards, yellow pages and a good local network did the promotion work for them. So getting them online (not even speaking of taking bookings…) means pushing good practices for the web and good business practices as a whole. I’ve heard several times of tourism boards which would organize a tour with a provider and not have the provider show up the morning of the tour… I’ll admit the example is extreme but it shows how unprofessionally some small businesses are. The road ahead is long, there is a lot of education to do, we are pushing the best practices 🙂

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      Education is key. That’s why I think (as you do) that the tourism boards have to be the ones to do it. Operators don’t tend to listen to software vendors as much as their local tourism partners. 😉

  7. Kunal Kalro

    Great article Stephen, and oh sooooo true!

    “there are as many ways of doing business as there are operators” – Is the nicest way to put it, I’d say!

    Hostels I feel like, were similarly disorganized, but their space was sorted out really well by companies like HostelWorld but I think that no one has still been able to do that for the tours and activities space. Admittedly they did have the hotel industry to benchmark and adapt to fit their needs best, where as the tours and activities space is pretty much a “clusterf**k,” for the lack of a better word.

    I feel that the low barriers to entry and the romanticism related to starting a tour company create a sheer number of players in the space that makes it so difficult to organize. I think that if we want a set of best practices to be adopted, we need champions and success stories. Due to the quantity and non-internet savvy nature of so many of these tour operators, they only thing to convince them that they need to get organized and adapt any of these practices if their neighbors/friends/colleagues are being very successful by using these practices.

    So then the question is can reservation/booking systems start creating a handful of successes and champions for the cause and hope the rest follow suit?

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      I think you are right. The leaders will lead and the others will follow. It takes time but peers are the most powerful force in getting the momentum.

  8. Daniel Edward Craig

    Well said, Stephen. I’ve worked with several destination marketing organizations in the area of online reputation management, an emerging and important new function.

    Here best practices are critical, because of interdependence: the ability of a tourism operator to attract visitors depends not only on its reputation – largely defined by traveler reviews these days – but on the reputation of the businesses around it and of the destination as a whole.

    I’ve found Tourism British Columbia and Tourism Intelligence Scotland to be particularly “on it” when it comes to providing support and best practices to tourism operators, regional DMOs and other stakeholders.

    • Stephen Joyce

      Stephen Joyce

      Great point Daniel. Tourism is a collective and operators do not work in silos. I think one BIG issue is that there is no one organization that speaks for the tour and activity sector, like VRMA does for vacation rentals or the Golf Owners Association does for Golf course owners.


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