A Blog for Tour Leaders

5 Insider Secrets to Getting More For Your Students While Paying Less

Traveling teachers understand the valuable, life-changing experience of educational travel. Hopefully by now you have discovered that the job is too important and complex to plan it alone. Leaving the logistics to a professional tour operator gives you a valuable peace of mind and security. Most tour operators provide you a personal Tour Coordinator to plan your itinerary. You have probably built a positive rapport with this person and may even feel a sense of loyalty to them.

Your first priority, however, must always be your students and their families. They are placing just as much trust in you as you are placing in the tour company. You must always remember that you are not only their teacher but also their advocate. You are ultimately responsible for negotiating the best possible tour at a fair price.

The Emergence of the Corporate Tour Chains and Value Codes

If you are a veteran tour leader of more than 10 tours, you have likely seen a lot of change in the educational tour industry. Most notably, the emergence of huge tour chains like WorldStrides, BrightSpark and EF have replaced literally dozens of educator-owned independent companies.  While its possible you may still work with the same Coordinator you did prior to the name changes and mergers, the rules have all changed.  

The educational tour industry became corporatized. The pricing policies and tour costs are now controlled by very sophisticated accountants and bankers who answer to investors. While their pricing tactics will be the focus of another article, the purpose here is to explain how the quality of your tour experience has become fundamentally altered with the introduction of “value coding.” 

You have also heard the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” In the case of big tour companies, you will discover this adage trumps “you get what you pay for” every time.

What is a Value Code?

Everyone knows the adage “you get what you pay for.” It’s pretty much a universal assumption we make everyday but do you make that same assumption when your tour operator gives you a bid price? You assume the company has hard costs and must make a profit, but you must also consider that every resource is limited. Each time it uses those hotels, guides, airline seats, food, busses, etc. for your group, they cannot book those same resources for another client traveling at the same time.  Moreover, when the tour operator takes 250,000 students or more to one destination in a 5-month time span, they must make incredibly difficult choices with regards to which groups receive what limited resources.

You have also heard the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” In the case of big tour companies, you will discover this adage trumps “you get what you pay for” every time. That’s because the bankers and accountants at the big tour chains introduced ‘value coding’ to control the distribution of their resources in order to maximize profits.

While you will likely never hear the term “value code” or receive an acknowledgement of their existence, you can rest assured you and your account has one.  In a nutshell, your value code essentially represents the amount of money and resources your tour company is willing to spend on your tour and your own personal recruiting rewards and perks.

The importance of a value code

While the expert marketing firms give the appearance that all of their tours are created equally, this is an impossibility. While your students may pay the same price as a group of students a few blocks away, that does not mean the quality of what the two groups receive is equal. Even if your students pay more, they may be receiving less. There are literally hundreds of individual decisions the large tour chains will make at their own discretion, each representing a different cost to the company. Just a couple of the hundreds of examples include: airline flight schedules (direct v. layover), hotels (close –in vs. distant), guides (experienced, independent master guides vs. in-house, seasonal employee), meals (fast food v. dining), tour staff (ratios, experience level, use of interns), and the list goes on.

With several thousand groups all competing for their best guides, their close-in hotels, the unfortunate truth is they must prioritize their resources and the decision of whether or not your students will receive the close in hotel (adding hours on to their tour time), or receive the experienced, master guides with decades of experience (vs. someone hired through an internet ad and sent to a training seminar), will all depend on their value code. It can mean the difference in a full extra day of touring instead of driving two hours a day between the hotel and destination. It can mean arriving rested from a direct flight instead of hours of layover time at transfer airports. Most importantly, it can mean the priceless knowledge gained from touring with a captivating, historical storyteller instead of a recent grad reciting facts off an iPad. The value code of your group goes beyond dollars and cents, it goes to the core of gaining a travel experience that will change your students lives forever.

How the tour corporations "value code" their clients.

Contrary to the name, your value has nothing to do with how much you spend on your tour. Instead, the value code always comes down to a risk assessment of how likely they are to lose your business.

Clients who are value coded as "competitive" (those who demand accountability) receive the most teacher perks and the best tour value (closer hotels, better guides, better meals, etc.)

Loyalty is Punished!

You read that right. Sadly, perhaps the biggest change in the educational tour industry when the control of the industry went from actual educators to bankers was the change in values that loyalty is to be punished.

To further this risk assessment, the accountants rely on more than just their own intuition to determine if someone is loyal. They have devised a host of schemes and incentives to force loyalty. They began to condition all teacher rewards, perks and even scholarship monies to contractual commitments or contracts.

The factors the accountants look to in coding include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Did the group switch over from competition
  • Is the teacher under ‘contract’
  • If so, how many additional years is the commitment or contract
  • Has the teacher ever received a competitive bid
  • Does the teacher profess loyalty to the company or Coordinator

As the analysis focuses on a clients propensity and ability to leave, those teachers who the company views as contractually committed or extremely loyal will always receive the worst perks while their students pay more money and receive less value (distant hotels, lower-ranked guides, meals, bad flight schedules, etc). Clients who are value coded as "competitive" (those who demand accountability) receive the most teacher perks and the best tour value (closer hotels, better guides, better meals, etc.)

What Can You Do To Maximize Your Value Code?

The steps to raising your value code are simple. What may be troubling, however, is you will likely find you should have received the same quality of trip and better teacher incentives at a lower price to your students. I expect many of you will be shocked and upset at the difference. If so, this exercise probably begs the question: if you can’t trust the integrity of the company in the past after you had been so loyal, how can trust the company won’t revert to cutting corners again in the future? And do you want a relationship with a company you have to constantly monitor to ensure a fair deal for your students? Nevertheless, these 5 Rules will give you valuable insight to your past dealings and will raise your current value code.

    1. Never Accept a "Reward" Contingent On Future Travel

files/images/blog-images/future.jpgThese agreements come in many forms- airline tickets for a multi-year commitment, or $100 Visa cards for school supplies or scholarships. They may be presented to you as a ‘thank you reward’ and ask you to just “click a box.” There is, however, nothing more damaging to your value code than signing an agreement that requires you to promote or organize travel in the future. This type of agreement has been the plague of the tour industry for over 10 years and has caused hundreds of trusting and unsuspecting teachers a tremendous amount of stress.

This is not the same as negotiating a free trip for chaperones or a stipend for your current tour. The difference is that these agreements are seeking to make your rewards contingent upon a tour beyond the current trip. Additionally, some “Visa card click schemes” are offered as soon as you return from your trip in an attempt to commit you for an additional year. By doing so their marketing research has shown the teachers are less likely to negotiate terms of the next trip if they feel they have already made a binding commitment. In most cases, the tour company presenting the reward has not even given you the key terms- price, days, guides, hotel location etc. But since the teacher feels obligated, their value code is reduced to “under contract” and their students will suffer greatly in both price and tour quality.

The bottom line is never click the box or sign any agreement, contract or teacher reward that obligates you or your students to travel. While it may be presented as a benefit, there is never a benefit to such an arrangement. Let me repeat that, there is never a reason to do so. Your parents and students are the ones paying for the tour and entering into a complex agreement with the company, not you.

      • These “agreements” only benefit the tour company by ensuring they can raise prices on future trips.
      • The company will cut corners on the current trip - hotels, guides, meals, airlines, etc.
      • The top guides, hotels and teacher perks are only given to the teachers not under contract.
      • Teachers not under contract see their prices remain the same or decrease year to year, not increase.
      • The same teacher incentives (airline tickets, gift cards, etc) can be obtained every year if there is no contract.
      • The agreements are usually loaded with “start dates” that actually trigger an unforeseen, additional year.
      • The company places the risk of liability on the teacher, through legal disclaimers and a refusal to indemnify.

If you have signed one and accepted a reward, do not panic. While they are almost never legally enforceable, many state and educational authorities have raised significant questions regarding potential liabilities for the unsuspecting educators who were led to believe the practice was a benefit. The best course is to return the reward to the company and renounce your intention.
In all likelihood, the company will still give you the value of the reward and more without any strings attached as you will now be value coded as a competitive group.

    1. If you have never done so, seek an outside Tour Bid or Proposal

files/images/blog-images/proposal.jpgIf you have always traveled with one of the big tour chains or their predecessors and never sought an outside tour bid/proposal, you likely have the worst value codes possible- the ‘loyalty’ code. As sad as this sounds, even the clients under an unenforceable, exclusive contract see their value code rise in the last year of the contract. Clients coded as ‘loyal’, however, are the least likely to leave and thus the ultimate victims of big tour chain spending priorities.

In the last decade, I have witnessed thousands of teachers incredulously discover their tour company had been taking advantage of their loyalty by charging their students top end prices for lower end services. Frequently after a phone call with me their current tour operator has lowered their tour price between $200- $500, doubled their teacher rewards and committed to their most preferred hotels and guides.

While receiving a competitive bid certainly will not help your past students recover any refunds, it will insure you feel good about the integrity of the tour operator and the value your current and future students receive. Regardless of your satisfaction with the tour chains, if you have never taken a competitive proposal, you will never regret doing so.

    1. Talk to References Who Have Travelled With Multiple Companies

files/images/blog-images/references.jpgOnce you have received a proposal from another tour operator, don’t stop there. As you can see, the wording and tour claims are usually pretty broad and sound very similar. Take it one step farther and require your current tour operator to give you references from clients who used to travel with the competitor you get the proposal from and ask the competitor to provide references of clients who once traveled with your current tour operator.  If a reference has not travelled with the other companies you are considering, they are not qualified to offer objective comparisons in tour value.

There should be no hesitation in providing you such names. If there is hesitation that should be a red flag. Once you talk to the references, ask the tough questions about tour value- hotel locations, guides, flights, meals and get the scoop on why they switched. If you read the fine print in the terms and conditions you will realize that you are placing a lot of faith in the integrity and goodwill of your tour operator. Your best bet is to talk to the references who have traveled with the tour companies you are comparing.

    1. Speak with Current Clients of Your Tour Company and Compare

files/images/blog-images/compare.jpgThere is nothing that makes the big tour chains more uncomfortable than seeing their current clients speaking and comparing notes. In fact, the tour companies go to great lengths to hide the names and identities of their clients, even in their testimonials. Ask your Coordinator for the names of schools in your city they tour. Call those teachers and compare your itineraries, prices, hotel locations, guides, and overall experiences. Ask them if they have traveled with other companies, taken competing bids, etc. Ask them if they know the names of other tour leaders in the area of are traveling with your tour operator. Only by educating yourself of the value other groups are receiving can you truly learn your own value code. Also, feel free to share this article with them.

    1. Get all promises and representations in writing

files/images/blog-images/writing.jpgThis sounds obvious but you would be surprised at the reality. Most large tour chains train their sales staff to give as many verbal bids as possible. Even the reward schemes discussed above require a teacher commitment to travel but are nearly silent with respect to the obligations of the tour company. You are an advocate for your students, and it is always the best practice for clarity and certainty to get the details in writing. This is a business transaction- obtain in writing the guaranteed price, the fine-print contingencies, and any other verbal representations about your guide, hotel location and special requests.

FACT: When it comes to choosing a tour provider, cheapest is rarely the best, nor is choosing the biggest company. Large tour chains have discovered 101 ways to raise a price and even more ways to cut corners.

Do your homework, compare, interview clients and get it in writing. In the long run, you will be absolutely amazed at the difference these 5 steps make in providing a life-changing experience at a real value to your students.

To Top