Tour operators devise, arrange, and promote holidays and travel options, working with hotels, airlines and other transport companies for ground travel, in order to execute the arrangements. This promotion is either done through travel agencies or direct to the customer by means of brochures or websites.
They provide customers with advice about where to travel as well as the best means of reaching such destinations. If customers already know where they want to travel to, tour operators may suggest an escorted tour or can help to devise a complex tailor-made itinerary, which will allow the separate elements of their trip to fit together.
Most tour operators are employees although self-employment is also an option. There are about a thousand tour operators in the UK, some of which are large organisations selling over a million trips a year, whilst others are small niche operators giving a very specialised service.
As with many jobs in the travel industry, the gender ratio for the tour operator sector is fairly unbalanced. More women than men work as tour operators but there is no good reason why men should not apply for a position.
The typical salary earned by a tour operator varies drastically depending upon several different factors. The size and location of the company the tour operator works for, coupled with the individual’s experience and the range of responsibilities and duties will all impact upon the salaries provided. If the tour operator specialises in business travel rather than general tourism, employees are likely to earn more money.
As a general guide, tour operators who have just been employed can expect to earn approximately £13,000 to £20,000 whilst more experienced individuals can expect to earn between £25,000 and £40,000. Some sales positions offer commission on top of a basic salary.
The typical tasks carried out on a daily basis by a tour operator include:
- Providing general and specific advice about different travel destinations
- Drawing up complicated travel itineraries and ensuring that all the needs of the customers are met
- Making arrangements for transport, accommodation, tours, and activities
- Contacting airlines, hotels, and ground transport companies such as coach operators to make suitable arrangements
- Advising the customer about travel issues including required documentation and financial matters, such as appropriate exchange rates
- Using the computer database to research information about hotel accommodation fares and hotel ratings
- Dealing with payments
- Performing general administration tasks
- Dealing with and documenting complaints in an efficient and diplomatic manner
- Planning and advertising different promotions
- Making alternative arrangements for customers who have had their trips interrupted by unforeseen issues
- Evaluating customers’ holidays and issuing appropriate feedback forms
- Every now and then, tour operators travel abroad for research purposes
- Making presentations to travel groups
- Creating and putting up displays at trade shows
There are no specific requirements needed to become a tour operator. However, good GCSE or A level grades are likely to be viewed positively. More important though, if you do not have a degree or diploma, is work experience in the industry, good organisational skills, experience in a customer services role, and an interest in travel.
Many tour operators start out on Apprenticeships, which are provided by numerous outlets across the country but progression to management roles are unlikely by this route. Some individuals who are keen to become tour operators choose to complete a relevant degree or diploma course such as travel and tourism, hotel management, business studies, IT, marketing, or modern languages.
If graduates in other disciplines are keen to enter the industry they may be at an advantage if they take a pre-entry vocational qualification. One such qualification which is highly regarded in the industry is the Certificate in Travel (Tour Operators). Once in the industry, it is possible to study for the International Air Transportation Association exams.
Desirable skills for a potential tour operator include:
- Good interpersonal skills
- The ability to work well as part of a team
- The ability to cope under pressure
- Good IT skills
- Competent organisational skills
- Good sales skills, both over the telephone and face-to-face
- A competent grasp of geography
- Good oral and written skills
Tour operators usually work behind a desk in an open-plan office environment. As such, the conditions are likely to be comfortable. Opportunities to travel abroad are likely to arise at numerous points throughout a typical career as companies are keen for their employees to learn more about specific destinations.
Tour operators usually work between 35 and 40 hours per week (including weekends) but, for those who desire part-time work, more flexible hours can often be arranged. At peak times when the pressure is on, tour operators are often expected to work longer hours.
No formal experience is needed before an application to a tour operator is submitted. However, any experience in the retail sector will be viewed positively by employers. If you have completed a customer care course or hold any qualification relevant to sales, this will provide a further boost to your application.
If you are still at school or studying for a degree or diploma, you could try to organise work experience during the vacation period. Contact your local tour operator and ask if they accept individuals for work experience or simply ask for the opportunity to shadow an employee.
The four major tour operators in the UK are:
There is no formal career progression in this sector and indeed opportunities for progress in the smaller operators can be limited, meaning that it is often necessary to move to a different company to gain promotion. In a larger organisation there is often more opportunity to move from one department to another in order to progress.
Some employees set up their own businesses after gaining experience and developing a good network of contacts in the business.
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What’s it really like?
Denise Brotherwood, aged 55, has been working with Bales Worldwide since 1989.
Prior to that, she worked as a personal assistant to one of the editors at the Observer magazine but wanted to work closer to home so jumped at the chance of moving to Bales’ offices in Dorking, Surrey.
Denise started working with Bales as a secretary and moved into the Marketing Department as an assistant in 1994. She then made the move in 2002 to become an Operations Executive so has had a very wide experience of the various aspects of tour operating.
Denise’s prime objective on a day to day basis is to ensure that each and every booking allocated to her runs smoothly. She and the other four members of the Operations team are responsible for all operational procedures and administrative tasks such as producing all the final travel documents and tickets. She liaises with airlines, ground handlers and tour managers as well as with clients, right up to the time the client leaves the UK, to make sure that everything goes smoothly and that a truly personal service is provided.
She spends much of her day answering enquiries either by e-mail or on the telephone. These enquiries range from general queries from people considering taking a Bales holiday to detailed enquiries from clients about to leave the UK who perhaps want to arrange a hot-air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings whilst on their Nile cruise.
Denise enjoys the varied nature of her job and the fact that she and the other members of the team support one another so well. She likes working for a family run company – Bales was established by George Bales in 1947 and the current Chairwoman is his wife, whilst the MD of Bales is his daughter. The opportunity for travel is obviously another great perk of the job and Denise has travelled to India, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Lithuania.
When asked if there was anything that she disliked about the job, Denise had difficulty thinking of anything. The only downside that she could come up with is that troubles such as the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai can give her sleepless nights. However, with the support of all the team, travel arrangements will normally go ahead even if some aspects have to be rearranged.
To anyone thinking of entering the tour operator industry Denise would say that they must be accurate, organised, committed, and enjoy helping people and travelling the world. As far as getting a foothold in the industry is concerned, Denise said that some students do work placements whilst at university and then come back to work permanently at Bales after graduation. Her colleague Phil for instance worked at Bales from 2002 to 2003 as part of his business degree and returned a year later after completing his studies. Others have taken time out to travel widely before putting their practical experience to good use in the industry.
As far as career progression is concerned, Denise sees her next move as retirement! Colleagues have, however, moved from Bales to work for other tour operators in London, whilst others leave to travel the world.