Tour Operator & Wholesaler Programs

Empirical data about the U.S. tour operator industry is sparse, and in some cases conflicting.  Many industry observers peg total 2007 sales for the traditional package tour market at about $12 billion, though others suggest that it may be as large as $28 billion. The US Tour Operators Association (USTOA) stated in 2007 that its 130 plus members moved more than 10.7 million travelers in 2005.  The USTOA also estimates that approximately 82% of traditional tour packages are sold through the travel agency channel.

Today, the terms ‘tour operator’ and ‘tour wholesaler’ are often times used interchangeably to connote a travel company that assembles individual travel components – like airline flights, hotel rooms, ground transfers, local sightseeing tours, at-destination meal plans, etc – into a bundled package, which is then inclusively (and opaquely) priced.

Traditionally, there was a clear difference between these two business modelstour operators sold their products largely through travel agents, who then sold the same product at the same price to the end traveler, whereas tour wholesalers sold their product to other tour operators as well as travel agents at a deeply discounted ‘wholesale price’, which then could be marked-up for sale to the end-traveler at whatever price the tour operator or travel agent wanted – but this distinction for the most part is now blurred.

Regardless of the interchangeability of the words, the tour business represents a sizable sales opportunity for travel affiliates…here’s some of the key characteristics and players you need to be familiar with to be successful in the US and UK markets.

Market Characteristics

The U.S. tour operator / wholesaler industry is highly fragmented, regionally based and, in large part, still privately owned.

The four largest operators hold perhaps a 40% – 50% combined market share.

?   Mark Travel – Operates 14 brands, including Funjet, Adventure Tours, United Vacations, Southwest Vacations, and USAir Vacations, and has its own charter airline division

?   GoGo Worldwide Tours – A division of powerhouse Australian travel conglomerate Flight Centre Ltd, also own a captive travel agency network, Liberty Travel, with some 200 shops located on the East Coast. GoGo reported sales of approximately $668.5 million in 2007.

?   Apple Vacations – A large scheduled and charter tour operator which also owns a number of resort properties in many of the Caribbean and Mexican destinations it sells package tours to. Like Mark Travel, Apple Vacations also operates a charter airline and also owns a portfolio of resort hotels in many of the destinations it serves.

?   Travel Impressions – Owned by American Express, this leading tour operator works exclusively with travel agents and does not sell its products directly to the consumer.

About another 340 or so mid-tier operators account for a combined market share of about 30%, with the balance of market share (30% – 20%) attributed to about 2,000 ‘mom and pop’ operators, who sell tours primarily to travelers in their local market.

Few of the major U.S. tour operators distribute their product through affiliates, whereas European tour operators are big supporters of the affiliate channel.  In our overview below, we highlight some of the more notable players in each market that offer travel affiliate programs.

U.S. Tour Operators

?   Apple Vacations – One of the four largest U.S. tour operators, Apple Vacations has a terrific product line that features top resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico, Bahamas, Hawaii, Costa Rica, various destinations in Europe as well ski tours to destinations in the U.S. Additionally, Apple Vacations provides its branded tour product on its airline, sister company USA3000 Airlines, from more than 20 domestic airports.

One of Apple Vacations’ unique offerings is Square Deals, a ‘last minute vacation bargains’ program.  Square Deals allows the traveler to choose the destination and departure date for their trip, but Apple chooses the hotel.  The traveler learns of the hotel when he/she arrives at their departure airport to check-in for their flight.

Apple Vacations has won numerous travel trade awards, including the ‘Best Tour Operator to Mexico’ and ‘Best Tour Operator to the Caribbean’ for 4 years running by Travel Weekly, the leading U.S. travel agency news magazine.

You can begin your assessment of Apple Vacations U.S. travel affiliate program here.

For their UK program, click on BuyAt.com, Apple’s preferred affiliate network.

?   Funjet Vacations - As Mark Travel’s in-house tour operator brand, Funjet Vacations has been operating tours since 1974.  Their product line is extensive and travelers regardless of budget can find great vacation packages to many Caribbean islands, Bermuda, Mexico, Hawaii, dozens of cities in Europe, the U.S. and Canada; indeed, Funjet has packages to more than 360 worldwide destinations in all.  They also offer a wide range of family, group, wedding and other package deals.

On the affiliate marketing side, Funjet offers two options:

1. A self-branded program operated through Commission Junction
for publishers who have their own branded websites but want Funjet to provide full customer support.

2. A co-branded program which enables affiliates to feature Funjet as their partner on their website, but customer support in this program is the affiliate’s responsibility, not Funjet’s.

To assess whether Funjet’s self-branded program with CJ or Funjet’s Co-branded affiliate program is the best choice for you, click here.

  • Southwest Vacations – Southwest Airline’s tour product, which is actually run through a private label program with Mark TravelSouthwest Vacations offers vacation packages to most (but not all) of the destinations the airline flies in the U.S.   These packages are available from every scheduled Southwest Airlines departure city.  Just like its airline parent, Southwest Vacations sis known for quality and value.A sales advantage affiliate marketers who partner with Southwest Vacations enjoy is that, unlike most of the other tour operators who also use the affiliate marketing channel for product distribution, Southwest Vacations does not offer their product to online travel agencies (OTAs).Click here to learn more about Southwest Vacations.
  • Spirit Vacations – The tour operating division of Spirit Airlines, arguably the most Spartan of all the US low-cost carriers, Spirit Vacations offers a mix of all-inclusive packages, traditional tour programs and hotel-only inventory to most of the US and Caribbean destinations the airline serves, as well as programs in Cancun/ Riviera Maya and San Jose, Costa Rica.Like many of the other U.S. airline tour operator programs, Spirit Vacations is operated by Mark Travel under a private label agreement.Details about all of the features and benefits of Spirit Vacations’ travel affiliate program can be found here.
  • United Vacations – Another private-label tour program run by Mark Travel, United Vacations assembles and promotes vacation packages including air, hotel, rental car and attraction tickets to popular destinations that its parent, United Airlines, flies to including Mexico, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and other cities throughout the United States.As United Airlines remains the largest airline in terms of available seats from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii, travelers looking for Hawaiian packages will often be able to find availability at United Vacation’s when other tour programs will show sold-out.To assess whether United Vacations’ travel affiliate program fits with your travel product strategy, visit their affiliate homepage here.
  • Tours Gone Wild – OK, we admit, this tour operator’s target customer is bit outside of the mainstream, but unlike most other U.S. tour operators, Tours Gone Wild does offer a travel affiliate program, and they cater to a traveler niche, which although may not be large, certainly gets a fair amount of attention.Rather than us summarizing their product and business model, Travel Dividends thinks its best to let Tours Gone Wild describe what it does:”Tours Gone Wild is the ONLY company that offers personalized VIP party tours to such destinations as Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Spain and Argentina as well as access to each city’s local hotspots. We provide you a local guide who physically “shows you around” Rio de Janeiro, Punta del Este, Cartagena, Ibiza and Buenos Aires – VIP style!

    Tours Gone Wild provides you with a local guide who picks you up each night of your stay at your hotel, and takes you to the hottest spots that particular night. The guide stays with you all night and makes sure your stay is enjoyable, safe and hassle-free. Additionally you do not worry about waiting in line, having problems with your bill, etc.

    Tours Gone Wild prides itself in taking all of our clients to clubs and parties where only LOCALS frequent – not tourist traps.  These clubs range from huge clubs to special events, concerts, street parties, as well as upscale lounges and bars and other things that may be happening during your stay which you would otherwise probably not be aware of.”

    Does this program fit with your travel portfolio?  If so, check out Tours Gone Wild’s complete offering at ShareASale, their preferred affiliate network.

International Tour Operators

  • Kuoni - One of the oldest tour operators in the world (founded in 1906), this Swiss-based tour operator is known for both the quality of its tour product and the breadth of its offering. Kuoni literally offers packages to hundreds of destinations around the world, covering more than 100 countries and all seven continents.

    Moreover, Kuoni offers a multitude of brands and programs to meet the lifestyle or lifestage of just about any type of traveler, including specialty programs like exotic beach holidays, safaris, family holidays, spa holidays, wedding holidays, all inclusive, honeymoons…some 20 specialty niches in all.

    Kuoni operates their vast array of tour brands and programs in a number of countries around the world, including the UK, where they also offer a travel affiliate program.

    They have earned many distinguished travel awards over their history, including a record of being voted 26 years in a row as ‘The Best Longhaul Tour Operator in Britain’ by UK travel agents, and eleven years running as the ‘World’s Leading Tour Operator’ by the prestigious World Travel Awards.

    To join Kuoni’s UK travel affiliate program, go to their preferred affiliate network partner Affiliate Future.

  • STA TravelThe largest student travel organization in the world, STA Travel has a well deserved global reputation in the travel industry as one of the most innovative travel companies.  Truly global in scale and scope, STA has more than 350 retail locations on and near college campuses worldwide (17 within the US), and their website, Statravel.com (operating in local language in 16 countries around the world), receives 3.6 million page views and 620,000 unique visitors per month.As much a tour operator as a travel agency (offline and online), STA is the top choice for the 18 – 26 year old traveler, “…specializing in discounted student flights, accommodations, study abroad, spring break, summer vacation packages, and adventure travel across the globe.”STA Travel’s affiliate program pays commissions on flights, student ID cards, insurance, hotel bookings and even ‘Spring Break’ packages.

    For information about STA’s US affiliate program, click here.

  • StudentUniverse.com - Billing itself as “the largest online travel agency for students in the US,” StudentUniverse offers qualified students deep discounts on flights all over the world, many of which are consolidator fares they have negotiated with top airlines from around the world.Their travel affiliate program is exclusively focused on their airfare product.  Click here to sign-up for StudentUniverse’s affiliate program.
  • Thomas Cook - The second largest tour operator in Europe and one of the largest in the world, Thomas Cook Group plc’s (TCG) operating statistics are staggering by U.S. tour operator industry standards: Operating in 21 countries on five continents, in 2008 their core and secondary tour brands accommodated some 22.3 million customers on package holidays or flight- or hotel-only travel products and generated sales that surpassed £8.8 billion.  In addition, TCG has a fleet of 93 aircraft and a network of over 3,400 owned and franchised travel stores and interests in 86 hotels and resort properties.  A very impressive portfolio, indeed.TCG offers an affiliate program for its core brands including Thomas Cook, MyTravel, Direct Holidays, Going Places, Cresta and Neilson, however, it is limited to the UK and Ireland. The program is available from TradeDoubler, TCG’s preferred affiliate network.
  • Thomson Holidays – Part of the TUI AG conglomerate (the world’s largest travel and tourism company, employing more than 80,000 people in some500 companies around the world.), Thomson Holidays is the UK largest tour operator.

Thomson.co.uk “…offers access to great value holidays, hotels, villas and apartments direct to over 80 destinations around the world …from 24 UK airports…more than British Airways and easyJet combined.”   A force online and on the High Street, Thomson Holidays operates a large network of over 650 retail stores in the UK and Ireland, and sells approximately 5 million holidays and flights a year to British travelers.

The main Thomson brand also includes the following specialist holidays brands:  Simply Travel, Headwater Holidays, Crystal Holidays, Thomson Ski and Snowboarding, Thomson Lakes and Mountains, and Jetsave.

To explore all of aspects and benefits of Thomson Holidays’ travel affiliate program, click here.

?   Portland Holidays – Also part of the TUI empire, Portland Holidays states that they

“…provide great sun package holidays offering excellent value for money, because Portland Holidays can offer the lowest prices by cutting out travel agents costs.”

This proclamation is music to Travel Dividend’s ears, as it means that some of the savings Portland Holidays’ derives from bypassing travel agencies can be redirected to travel affiliates!

Portland Holidays further claims affiliates can earn “…high levels of commission due to our high online booking conversion, but you will add real value to your site by giving your users access to high quality, good value holidays direct from the UK’s No1 direct tour operator.”

To determine if Portland Holidays can earn you high commissions, check out their travel affiliate program at CJ, their preferred affiliate network.  

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