Why a Marketing Agency Can't Guarantee Bookings - The Digital Tourism Show #217

Chris debunks some myths and tells some home truths about working with a marketing agency.

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve written this article. As the owner of a tourism marketing agency, and as someone who has worked in the industry for 26 years, you may think this is business suicide. Personally, I think that what I am about to disclose needs to be said. There is often very little open discussion about using marketing agencies and many tour operators and suppliers are regularly misled about what they can expect when working with an agency. I want to cut through the silence and offer my [admittedly biased] perspective on the situation.

This blog is relevant to anyone working in the tour and activity industry, but it’s particularly relevant to anyone considering entering into a relationship with a new agency.

Why do tour companies approach tourism marketing agencies?

Many tour operators and suppliers will only actively approach an agency when they need to grow their business and sales quickly, filling up empty slots/seats on their tours. This typically happens in the middle or to the end of a company’s high season (planning should happen six months prior). While certain strategies can be quickly put in place to help at this stage — such as paid ads — last-minute gains in your high season should not be the reason you approach an agency. As with most things, good digital marketing takes time and only looking for shortcuts and “quick wins” is one of the many reasons the tour operator-agency relationships break down.

Around 80% of the businesses that approach us have had a ‘bad experience’ with an agency. Believe me, it can make my job difficult, because I’m trying to convince companies to work with my agency or to work with a digital marketing agency for the right reasons, with the right goals in mind.  I also have put ‘bad experience’ in quotes for a good reason. This perception sometimes comes down to how an agency educates its customers and clearly manages expectations. In some instances, it also comes down to out-and-out lying on the part of the agency. This is one of the reasons I started Tourism Marketing Agency, as I wanted to do things differently.

Now, my agency is not perfect. We have also gotten things wrong in the past, but we learned from our mistakes and adapted, making our service better. Some of the things we got wrong occured because we were willing to help as many tour operators as we can, which meant that we worked with anyone who wanted to work with us. We love this industry and want to see it thrive but we have now learned to be a little more selective in who we partner up with. My book, Lookers into Bookers, and all the free advice I put out there through The Digital Tourism Show, was a way to help plug that educational gap and to help tour operators we can’t work with directly.

So, why can’t a marketing agency guarantee you bookings?

Well, it’s simple… a marketing agency has no control over your sales team, which booking system you use, or how well you run and manage your tours. In some instances, a marketing agency has little to do with the purchase journey of your website. Even your marketing budget plays a part. But even with all this, agencies do get the flack when things go wrong and no bookings come in.

A marketing agency’s job is to help promote your business to the right audience, providing a tour company with more sales opportunities. Agencies like mine are there to provide you with leads… not sales. As a byproduct of these leads yes, you will of course gain sales and bookings from it, which is great, but that is ultimately up to your own sales processes. Although a marketing agency can help you create processes and materials to make your sales process better, ultimately it is down to how you interact with your customers.

There are many reasons why a visitor to your website might not convert: the booking platform you use may be slow, clunky or it may not work on mobile properly. You can’t expect to get many bookings if it is hard for your customers to buy from you. Reviews are also another huge factor. We have had businesses approach us looking for an increase in bookings but their reviews are so bad that no one would consider buying from them. What they really need is a brand reputation management strategy and a business coach to help them improve their customer service. A digital marketing agency can do its best SEO and PPC work on a company like this, but it’s unlikely to become truly successful without high-quality reviews — this is just the way tours and activities work. 

A real-world example 

A number of years ago we helped one multi-day operator generate over 800 qualified leads within six months through a promotion we created for them. This was their targeted customers actively reaching out to them as they were interested in their product. After a meeting with this operator, it became clear that their sales team did not follow up on any of the leads... The person in charge of this department was so happy with the leads the promotion was receiving that he forgot to let his sales team know about it and they all sat there doing nothing. 800 good leads, worth a potential £500k in sales, down the drain. Extreme but helps prove a point.

This is just one of the reasons why any marketing agency that says it can guarantee you bookings is lying… or perhaps they are just extremely naive. There are far too many factors in play. The only way an agency can guarantee you bookings is if they take control of every facet of your business and run it for you. Then and only then could they come close to making this claim.

What can a digital marketing agency guarantee?

What an agency SHOULD guarantee is qualified leads. An agency should provide you with as many targeted leads as your budget allows, giving you more opportunities to close more sales.

Think about how we all used to market our businesses 10+ years ago. Maybe some still do it now… Doing a huge flyer drop at key locations in the hope that someone passing by is interested in your product at that exact moment. You would be lucky if you get one new customer in every 100. Everyone did it, as it was the only viable option available to us, other than expensive press ads.

This principle is no different than promoting yourself online. The main difference is you can be extremely targeted so that more of the right people see you at the right time. However, these are only drivers for leads as you still need to close the sale after they see your flyer, ad, or blog.

Getting to a stage where you are receiving lots of leads will take many different strategies, time and money, but this is what any marketing agency should guarantee. If the agency feels they could not deliver that for you then they should be honest with you and tell you that you are not quite ready.

And don’t get me started on ‘guaranteed Google rankings’. I shall leave that for another time!

A marketing agency still adds real value

Now, before you all start tearing up your contracts with your current agency; I’d like to argue that we still add major value to your business!

An agency should help your business tell your stories, tell your potential customers you exist, build trust in your brand, and help you target those all-important customers more effectively during the four stages of their purchase journey:

  1. Dreaming– Grabbing their attention when they’re looking at destinations to visit
  2. Planning– Grabbing their attention with respect to what they’re planning to do in your destination 
  3. Booking– Persuading them to book with you and not a competitor
  4. Experiencing– Looking for more to do during their time in your destination (repeat business) and/or sharing their experience on social.

This will not happen overnight, however, and you should plan for long-term success, not just short-term gains. This is when a marketing agency like mine adds real value. We see the direction the industry is going, the changes to how customers are planning and buying your products. For my own agency, you are paying the equivalent of one staff member for a team of 10 experts who live and breathe this sector and will help your business grow in the long term.

You should see your agency as a business growth partner. A marketing coach that is there to build your customer base and sales potential. Give your tourism marketing agency time to grow and prosper and make sure all expectations are clearly defined from the start.

So, the next time an agency you’re talking to mentions guaranteed sales and bookings, without sounding like I have been persuaded by Obi-Wan Kenobi, please take my advice and move along… move along.

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