At first glance, many restaurants look the same. Nice menu, fancy décor, good location. It’s only when the food arrives that you can really make a judgment, and by then it’s often a little late. So the better ones are transparent up front: about how they function; where they buy their food; even their employment and staffing practises. That’s what we’re doing here: inviting you into the kitchen to lift the lid and peer into the saucepan, open the fridge and squeeze the tomatoes, talk to the plongeur and ask what they get paid per hour.
We’re all about transparency, so if there’s a question you have about how we operate which is not answered here, please write to us. The longer we work in travel and learn about other companies, the more surprised we are about how differently we function.
No disrespect to any of our colleagues and competitors. But here’s how we do it.
Sales Team vs Planning Team
The Industry way – Most tour operators have ‘product’ people who know their stuff, make planning and supplier relationship decisions, travel a tonne and glean a lot of first hand expertise. However, they’re expensive people to put on the phone and to do the spadework on your itinerary. So they don’t. The sales people do that. They’ll have less expertise; in fact they may not even have visited the country in question. They’ll have access to great information. But they’re unlikely to be able to steer the conversation in any really meaningful way. One close competitor of ours actually only allows their sales staff to visit their countries of speciality, after they’ve sold a large number of trips. What we call basic training, they call a ‘perk’.
The Trufflepig way – At Trufflepig, we don’t have a sales team. We have Trip Planners. When you call us for a trip to Spain, we’ll patch you through to the person in our organization who knows the most about Spain. They live there, or they’ve worked there, or they’ve travelled there extensively time and time again. It’s the same person who writes all those in-depth Spain articles in our magazine. That person will handle your trip all the way through, conducting phone calls with you, sharing their expertise, preparing options, refining your itinerary, talking with suppliers, preparing you for departure, operating the trip and following up with you afterwards. The difficulty for us is that this person also needs time in their calendar to get out on the road and see things first hand. So they need a seriously wide skill-set. But that’s our problem, not yours. And apparently we handle it OK, because our planners are generally accepted as the industry creme de la creme.
The Industry way – Here’s a test. Call one of our competitors and ask for a custom itinerary for an Italy trip next Summer. Start your stopwatch. Chances are you’ll get a fully detailed and priced itinerary within 48 hours. That’s a whole lot of work to pull off in two working days. How do they do it? Well, it’s not because they can type 100 times faster than us. It’s because the level of genuine customisation is minimal. An itinerary produced this quickly is customised to your dates, group size and rough budget. But not on any careful consideration of you and your specific aims and hopes; not on any real comparison of options, discussions with guides and contacts, revision and re-evaluation of initial requests. In fact, it’s not really based on any work by a ‘planner’ at all. It’s based on one of two things. Either a sales person punching parameters into a computer system and getting a proposal out, with often zero contact with the outside world: they’re just assembling building blocks which have been loaded into a reservation system. Or in more diligent companies, maybe one phone call has taken place, or one email been sent to one wholesaler in the destination, who sends back a while-labelled trip proposal. But that’s not planning. That’s achieving sales targets. At first glance they look the same, but there’s a gigantic difference between an automated itinerary and a customised itinerary.
The Trufflepig way – Yes, in case you’re wondering, here’s where really do boast about how slowly we work. The initial sketch you’ll get back from us takes minimum a day, usually more like a week to work on…. because…. well, we put a lot of thought into it. We’ll call contacts, compare ideas, check availabilities. Then when it comes to the actual itinerary (the one that took 48 hours above), we build the trip from scratch, and in every single case there will be dozens if not hundreds of conversations and messages that go into crafting the trip. It’s painstaking, we agree. When we ask our planners if they’d like us to streamline the process with technology, they actually say no. Sure, they have to explain to you why things take time (roughly 2 weeks), but actually that’s an easy discussion: we’re working hard on your trip to make it great. And the real kicker? We’re usually cheaper. Go figure. Well, remember we don’t have a big marketing team to pay for.
Commissions for Closing
The Industry way – Most travel companies pay their sales staff (or planners) a combination of salary and commission. Generally quite low salary and often quite high commissions. This reduces the risk for the owners, but warps the motivation for the planner. Now they have to balance their assessment of your best interests (the client) with their monthly take home pay. Maybe it’s worth pushing you to upgrade to that suite? Maybe telling you to travel to Morocco in July with your 2 year old (scorching) doesn’t seem so outlandish after all. Always be closing!
The Trufflepig way – We’ve tried commissions. Often and in different ways. For us, they just simply don’t work. They always, and we mean always, produce quirky behaviour (to put it mildly). They also have a corrosive effect on in-house teamwork and sense of equality. So we pay our planners proper salaries. Actually, we pay them in the top 10% of the industry, as far as we can tell. And then we have a generous and transparent profit share scheme. This way, they come to work comfortable and motivated to do a good job for you. They care about the long term health of the business, which in turn depends on our maintaining long term positive client relationships. And they share the upside when things go well.
Trip Research and Regional Expertise
The Industry way – The world’s a big place… To plan trips, we need to amass a lot of regional expertise. But that’s expensive, and this is a business. How to go about collecting regional expertise quickly and cheaply? The answer is two-fold. First of all, ignore broad regional expertise, and reduce your ambitions to narrow regional touristic expertise. Eg, you can know remarkably little about Morocco, but you can memorise the unique selling points of the top 15 hotels in the Marrakech Medina. You can learn about the different ways of getting to and from the airport. And how should you do that? There exist lots of trade channels for teaching “tourism expertise”. Many of them preclude the necessity of actually going anywhere: newsletters, agency affiliations, online education arrangements. There are trade shows where you go and enjoy 10-minute speed-dating sessions with representatives from hotels and suppliers to ‘learn’ about their properties and services. And then of course there’s actual travel, notably ‘FAM trips’ (familiarisation trips) where a local wholesaler invites agents and salespeople on fast, fixed itineraries, to see hotels and to do a few excursions. Don’t get us wrong, some of these can be truly great. And if you take 150 of them and they add up to a serious basket of experience. But take one, and as far as the travel industry is concerned, now you’re a Morocco “expert”. Except that you’re not. You’re just really not. Interestingly, within the industry, people don’t say “I’m an expert”, perhaps because everyone would know it’s not true. They say “I sell a lot of Morocco”. We say barf.
The Trufflepig way. For a start, we don’t talk about research, we talk more broadly about expertise. It’s our responsibility to grow and nurture the broad expertise of our planners. A big part of that of course is on the ground, visiting hotels and such – developing the touristic expertise mentioned above. But that’s just the baseline, and beyond that we actively subsidise and encourage our planners in developing broad, regional expertise, looking outside the world of tourism, developing contacts in the arts, the world of journalism, local business owners, friends of friends… i.e. making connections and doing actual research. Dig into The Sounder and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. On top of that, many of them live in (or come from) the regions which they plan for. At Trufflepig, our research budget is second only to our salary budget. Nothing else compares. It’s crazy. It makes no financial sense. Or does it.