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Free Travel For Tour Organizers: Worth the Hassle?

Organize a group of 10 or more travelers and you travel “free.” That’s a pitch you might hear from a tour operator these days. And although that proposition can work well, as the old cliche says, there’s no such thing as “free” travel—you just pay in a currency different than dollars. You can arrange such a trip either by assembling a group for a complete package tour or build your own tour.

Package Tours. The organized tour option is certainly the simplest. Anyone who can round up the requisite number of travelers can earn a “free” tour for a couple. The minimum number is usually 10 travelers—five couples or single pairs willing to share—but some programs require that you gather 12, 14, or even a few more. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Giving out free trips to organizers is a marketing ploy by tour operators to sell additional customers. Presumably, the folks you gather represent incremental business the tour operator would otherwise not get at all, so it is willing to give you a freebie for your sales effort.

The tour operator makes all the arrangements, so your main responsibility is to recruit travelers and sell them on the program. Unless you’re very fortunate, you may have to mount some sort of protracted sales program—meetings, coffees, whatever—to present the tour. Ideally, you should recruit a few more then the minimum number of travelers in case a few have to cancel. You probably also have to handle the pre-trip reservation and paperwork details.

Once a tour begins, you’re pretty much just one in the group, at least it’s supposed to work that way. The tour operator provides someone to worry about baggage, transfers, sightseeing arrangements, corralling stragglers, and such.

Independent Travel. Lots of airlines, hotels, local sightseeing operators, and others offer similar deals to people who organize tours. Here, of course, you have to do all the planning, scheduling, negotiating, and arranging yourself. And whether or not you include professional guides, you’re likely to have to supervise the entire process from start to finish. You might even have to front some deposit money. And you might want to mark up the package to cover your costs.

Risks and Problems. In either case, as a tour organizer, you face three possible problems and risks:

  • No matter how much assistance the tour operator provides, you’ll probably wind up in the de facto role of a “mother superior” or “troop leader.” People you recruited will naturally come to you with questions and any complaints they might have.
  • If anything goes wrong, the “Pottery Barn Rule” applies: “If it breaks, you own it.” Participants will blame you for a poor choice of tours or cruises, for not doing enough pre-trip homework, for not providing sufficient supervision, and whatever other shortcomings they can imagine.
  • You’re likely to face some serious gripes if any participant you’ve enrolled discovers a lower price for the same or similar tour. And that isn’t a remote possibility: Tour operators may offer late-booking price cuts to fill otherwise undersold seats and rooms. Really disgruntled members of your group might even demand that you get them partial refunds.

These risks are not trivial. I remember one hotel stay in the Middle East where a tour organizer “hid out” from his group in the bar every night during his stay. After a month of bearing the brunt of all the group’s complaints and misfortunes, all he wanted to do was get away from them.

Cruises, too. Cruise lines may also offer group deals. Prices, however, are apt to be higher than rates from discount outlets, so you have to be careful to avoid the appearance of overcharging the group members.
Despite the problems and risks, organizing a group can be a great way to travel at little or no cost. If you’re willing to pay the “price” in effort rather than cash, give it a try. Oh, and apologies to Pottery Barn: It really doesn’t charge you if you accidentally break something.

Your Turn

Have you ever had success organizing a tour? Do you think it’s worth the hassles? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

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