iQ magazine explores the reasons why tour managers should work with a specialist travel company
In a post-pandemic world of delays and increasing demand, opportunities for reliable, well-connected specialists have rarely been as prevalent
By Gordon Masson - 14 Jul 2023
The following article was originally published in iQ magazine: Travel and accommodation | IQ Magazine (iq-mag.net)
The rush back to business in 2022 highlighted the need for touring productions to have specialist travel experts on the team, as the scramble to find hotel accommodation and travel solutions became an ever more crucial aspect of life on the road.
Fast-forward 12 months and that situation shows no sign of abating, with many businesses predicting that 2023 will be another record-breaking year as countless acts and their crews pack their cases to fulfil international tour obligations.
“2022 was incredibly busy with both new business and business that had been postponed during the pandemic,” says The Tour Company’s managing director Tina Waters who has more than forty years’ experience booking travel and accommodation for artists on tour.
“On the touring travel front, many hotels, airlines, airports, etc, struggled to provide pre-pandemic levels of service, and although things have improved a lot, some of those issues are still present in 2023.”
In Germany, Dominik Aurich, managing director of IBERO Tour Service – a travel partner of Lufthansa – notes, “The amount of business is comparable to 2022, but [the difference in 2023 is that] our clients had much more time to prepare themselves, [so] business is not as last-minute as it was last year.”
“LOTS OF BANDS ARE NOW HITTING THE ROAD WITHOUT TOUR INSURANCE, WHICH IS REALLY RISKY”
York, UK-based Travel4Tours is run by husband-and-wife duo Ade and Claire Robinson who disclose that while a lot of work during the pandemic involved trying to get clients refunds on flights, etc, that unpaid labour strengthened certain relationships. “It generated a lot of loyalty with our buyers because sometimes it took a few months to get the money back,” says Claire Robinson. “When the refunds dropped in our clients’ accounts, I think they were appreciative of the effort that we’d been putting in to get the money back for them.”
Indeed, she reveals that Travel4Tours has never been so hectic. “Last year was our second busiest year since we formed, and this year is on track to be even busier,” she says, citing a client pool that includes DJs, orchestras, and numerous heritage acts. “We look after bands that we used to follow when we were in our 20s and younger. We also have quite a lot of American and Canadian clients – probably about 90% of our clients come from outside the UK.”
Challenges As with many sectors, the travel agency landscape endured an enforced period of transition in the wake of the pandemic. With airline fleets grounded for months on end and entire hotel chains shuttered, Covid decimated the travel industry globally. Coming out of that dire situation, many specialists decided to launch their own operations resulting in a crowded marketplace but one where the companies IQ spoke to for this report agree that there is more than enough business for everyone.
“INDUSTRIAL ACTION WORLDWIDE IS CAUSING DISRUPTION AND CANCELLATIONS, WHICH CAN PUT THE WHOLE ITINERARY FOR A TOUR OUT OF SYNC”
That scenario is primarily because so many bands are desperate to be back out on the road, piling on the pressure on a profession that is still not back to full speed in terms of personnel.
The Tour Company’s Waters notes that the sector has not been immune to the dilemma of retaining, hiring, and training new staff. “Fortunately, we have a great core team of knowledgeable travel agents,” she says, “but if anybody reading this knows of anybody with good experience in that area, then please point them our way!”
That drive to recruit is one that’s being felt around the world. IBERO’s Aurich lists his company’s main challenges for 2023 as being, “Staffing; increasing hotel rates and air fares; strict contract policies from hotels; communication with hotels; and diversification of booking channels and content for air and hotel.”
One specialist unfazed by staffing issues is Manchester, England-based Hannah Mursal who has been working solo for the past six years through her Murs Entertainment Travel operation, which counts everyone from DJs, indie bands, and oldschool R&B acts to corporate clients and NBA basketball superstars among its clients.
“Cost is the biggest challenge,” states Mursal. “Whereas last year it was trying to get buses and trying to get the tour dates into a decent routing, this year it’s all about cost. Again, buses are sold out, so people are having to try different ways of logistically moving from place to place.”
Alison Rodgers of London-based Detonate Travel highlights another potential obstacle. “Industrial action worldwide is causing disruption and cancellations, which can put the whole itinerary for a tour out of sync and in turn means we are sourcing last-minute alternatives,” she says.
“WE ARE DEFINITELY SEEING AN INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF CLIENTS THAT CONTACT US SOONER RATHER THAN LATER WITH THEIR TOURING PLANS”
Robinson, meanwhile, says the post-Covid landscape has eliminated some services that tour parties had become accustomed to. For instance, hotels that before allowed buses to use their electricity for power, etc, have withdrawn such offers.
“Or they’ll charge a silly fee – I’ve been quoted €400 a day just to connect to power,” reveals Robinson. “Also, multiuse dayrooms are becoming scarce because hotels are more wary of the costs in terms of laundry, people using the shower, charging devices, and things like that.”
She adds, “The price rises are a shock to the system for a lot of tours, but at the end of the day, hotels need to pay more for staff, they’ve got heating bills, the price of food has shot up… so there has been a shift. The £60-80 entry level of rooms is now £70-90, while the top end has gone even higher. It’s taking clients a bit of time to come around to the reality.”
Different paths While loyalty is a key component for travel specialists, Mursal tells IQ that more and more clients are now shopping around in an effort to minimise costs. “There are three or four different people who can book travel for artists,” she explains. “On Australian tours, for example, it’s mostly the promoter who books all the travel and hotels, while we might just book the international flights. Then you’ve got the management: if management has a travel agent, they’ll go with them. Then there’s the record label, who might book the travel when it’s a promotion tour. And then, obviously, you’ve got the tour manager. So, there are at least four different avenues for travel to actually be booked.”
Mursal continues, “I’ve got clients who represent five artists: four of them they’ll book with me, but the other one has a tour manager who likes to use their own travel agent. That works both ways, though, as I’ve recently taken on an act who had to book with me even though she’s got her own travel agent, just because her management want to book with me. So, it’s swings and roundabouts.”
“THE PRICE RISES ARE A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM FOR A LOT OF TOURS, BUT AT THE END OF THE DAY, HOTELS NEED TO PAY MORE FOR STAFF, THEY’VE GOT HEATING BILLS, THE PRICE OF FOOD HAS SHOT UP… SO THERE HAS BEEN A SHIFT”
Loyalty cuts both ways, according to Robinson, “Low-cost airlines are what they are, so we add a fee on to those that we book, but we’re quite upfront if a client comes to us with a really tight budget, and they need to keep travel as cheap as possible – we’ll advise them to book it direct,” she says.
And Detonate’s Rodgers observes, “Tour managers have a lot of work to do, and booking travel online can be very time consuming. We can take this job away from them, leaving them to do what they do best. We have access to the best fares and hotel rates at the touch of a button. We can take the headache out of navigating airlines’ rules and regulations and are responsive rather than reactive to any given situation.
“With our industry knowledge and expertise in itinerary planning, any tour manager can be sure that we offer the best option for the required routing whilst being aware of any budget constraints. When flights are delayed or cancelled, we have direct access to scheduled and low-cost flights so we can provide alternative travel options much faster and more effectively than someone on their mobile or laptop.”
Tightening the belt With prices of hotel rooms spiralling upward and flight expenses going in the same direction amidst a situation where every line item on a budget is increasing in cost, our travel agent confidantes disclose that clients are scrutinising their travel requirements like never before as they battle to keep touring financially viable.
“Travel is the first thing to get cut when budgets become tight,” states Mursal. Robinson agrees, reporting, “More people are sharing rooms. Another change is that instead of booking the high-end hotels in the middle of town, whose rates have all gone up, people might be happy now to go out of town to get the cheaper hotels. “We recently worked on a big tour around Europe – a party of 18 people – and we split them across three hotels to meet the overall budget. We had A, B, and C parties, which isn’t ideal because it can create a bit of a hierarchy, but it meant that the A party got the sweet five-stars, while the C party were in the Hampton-type places. It took a bit of creativity to get the variables, cost-wise.”
“TRAVEL IS THE FIRST THING TO GET CUT WHEN BUDGETS BECOME TIGHT”
Mursal opines that while people are aware that the cost of living has ballooned, that reality hasn’t fully been acknowledged by those planning international tours. “A lot of people haven’t changed their budgets even though inflation has gone up,” she says. “They might still want the four- or five-star hotels that were £150 per night, but those prices don’t exist anymore. But rather than downgrade or increase their budgets, they’re stripping back in terms of people or having people share twin rooms.
“I’ve noticed that lots of US artists are hiring locally – backing singers, trumpet players, and the likes if it’s a UK gig, which obviously cuts down the cost of the international flights. On my smaller tours, which were typically 15 people, they’ve been completely stripped back to maybe a DJ and the artist and then a core crew. So, they’re now maybe down to eight people. Also, we’re seeing people jumping on and off tour, so where you don’t need a creative director for the whole tour, they’ll maybe be present for the first three gigs and that’s it.”
That’s not the case everywhere. At The Tour Company, Waters says, “We can understand why people would consider slimming down on their travelling parties due to the rise in overall touring costs, however, we haven’t experienced that as yet, with the majority of our tours seemingly being fully staffed.”
That scenario is recognised by IBERO’s Aurich who doesn’t believe the rising costs have changed too many attitudes toward travel considerations. “It’s like before Covid,” he notes, “the clients that were well structured before are running like normal and start planning early, so large productions are usually earlier than smaller ones.”
Timely planning As artist management and their tour managers come to terms with spiralling travel and accommodation expenses, many are making that side of the tour budget a priority by engaging with their travel agents earlier than they would have three years ago.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in the number of clients that contact us sooner rather than later with their touring plans, and we are presently working on tours for 2024 and beyond,” says Glasgow-based Waters. “That said, we have also had some clients come in really close to their touring period as well. Either way, we just get on with it, but somewhat obviously, the more time we are given, the better it is from an availability and consequently budgetary point of view.”
“WE ARE SEEING A TREND OF CLIENTS BOOKING AIR TICKETS WITH A DEGREE OF FLEXIBILITY”
That advice is echoed by every travel company, and Robinson suggests that this is where the expertise of the agent comes into play. “Some people come to us almost too early – you don’t necessarily get the best rates when you’re super early because most hotels start their rates at a high price, just to see if they can get away with it.”
While recommending booking early for places that are hosting major festivals – “Primavera or something like that, for example, where you know the hotels in the city are going to be busy,” Robinson says in terms of a sweet spot in the timing of hotel bookings, specialist knowledge is again crucial, as different locations have certain quirks.
“A Saturday night in Dublin is going to sell out every week, so that’s never going to come down in price,” she says. “You only learn about each city and each hotel through experience, so that’s where a good travel agent will prove invaluable.” Despite the fact that early booking can result in savings, Mursal says many of her clients are still leaving things to the eleventh hour.
“It can be very short notice,” she says. “For instance, I got given a DJ tour on a Friday that was leaving for India three days later. And that’s not unusual, as I’ve had others that have contacted me with just two days’ notice. That’s fine when it’s a DJ and maybe one or two others in the touring party, but it can get complicated if there are multiple people involved.”
Sharing her observations, Detonate Travel’s Rodgers says, “The larger groups are sourcing accommodation earlier but are demanding more flexible cancellation policies. In 2022, a lot of flights sold out very quickly leaving artists with little or no choice and very high airfares. Therefore, this year, many are booking in advance, especially for the summer. We are seeing a trend of clients booking air tickets with a degree of flexibility.”
Robinson adds, “We’re already booking tours beyond August and September, which we wouldn’t probably have done on past tours. There also appear to be a lot more festivals, suddenly. I don’t know the stats but certainly there are festivals popping up all over the place that we’ve never covered before, and that’s going to generate shortages in terms of buses and hotel rooms.”
“THE IMPACTS OF BOTH THE PANDEMIC AND BREXIT ARE STILL ONGOING”
And the financial burden is leading to worrying scenarios, too, as Mursal reports, “Lots of bands are now hitting the road without tour insurance, which is really risky.”
Identifying the most special agents As travel is one of the cornerstone components to touring, the importance of aligning with experienced booking experts has become paramount. Specialists fiercely guard their client lists, but some research on websites can often hint at who certain companies work for, when artists are kind enough to offer testimonials about the service they receive. Highlighting the benefits for touring acts to find experienced travel experts, Aurich lists a number of positives: “It saves time and money; professional travel agents have access to various booking channels and content for air and hotel; centralised accounting; and statistics and reporting.”
Waters notes that it’s not just about finding rooms. “The impacts of both the pandemic and Brexit are still ongoing, so we are constantly dealing with changes in regulations and restrictions. There is also the need to adapt to the growing interest in more sustainable travel,” she says. “There are several benefits for using a travel specialist or a team of them, as we have in the office,” continues Waters. “We are dealing with hotels, airlines, and other travel suppliers every day and know which ones work for artists or their crew. Not only that but we have direct access to rates and deals not available anywhere else.”
“ANYONE WITH SKYSCANNER AND TRIVAGO THINKS THEY’RE A TRAVEL AGENT…BUT WE HAVE QUITE A DIFFERENT BUSINESS MODEL”
Tour-party needs are evolving, says Rodgers. “We are noticing that clients are turning to us to book more intricate components of the tour, as not only is it a more efficient process, but it is also a lot easier to reconcile a tour when all the components are booked in the same place, rather than having to collect invoices and receipts from various different companies and websites.” Robinson is pragmatic. “Let’s face it, anyone with Skyscanner and Trivago thinks they’re a travel agent, and there’s a presumption that travel agents cost money,” she says. “But we have quite a different business model: we take commission from the hotel, so we don’t charge the client a fee, whereas some of our competitors might charge a fee for the booking service.
Also, we provide the tour accountants with a full-priced itinerary for the tour, so they know exactly what all the costs are accommodation-wise.” Waters concludes, “We can understand the temptation to use online travel apps and booking platforms, but we’ve seen this to be a false economy where those doing the work could make far better use of their time dealing with the plethora of other tasks on their list – and when it comes to making changes with such things, good luck with that!