How to Manage your Guests' Expectations: A Guide for Tour and Activity Operators

Kelsey Tonner|January 13, 2016

Being an international tour guide for ten years, I’ve learned a number of things about how to consistently create an unforgettable experience.

Over at the Be a Better Guide Project, I now spend a HUGE amount of time helping tour and activity operators grow their businesses by creating memories of a lifetime for their guests.

This is a guest post from Kelsey Tonner of Be a Better Guide, a premium online training solution for tour guides and tour companies. Visit Be a Better Guide to join their online community today!

There are any number of tips, techniques and pieces of advice that I could share – but I thought that for this article I would focus on one of the largest and most common mistakes in the industry. And that is: Improperly managing guest expectations.

A stroll through any tour company’s negative online reviews will reveal a lush jungle of unmet expectations, mis-communications and guest disappointments that all stem from this root issue.

And so it is my goal to help you avoid a similar fate. In this article we will discuss three different types of guest expectations, go over some real-world examples and touch on how to manage and shape expectations as a tour or activity business.

To help you with taking action, I’ve created a free, downloadable resource: Expectation Busting – An Action Guide for Tour Operators, which will help clarify what you are promising your guests. You can download the action guide here.

To begin, let’s look at three different types of expectations your guests bring along with them.

1) Organizational expectations

“Organizations make direct promises to customers through advertising, on their websites and marketing materials, in company correspondence and contracts, and in service guarantees and policies published for everyone to see.”

-Performance Research Associates, “Knock your Socks off Service

Organizational expectations are likely the ones with which you are the most familiar and make up the bulk of what your customers are expecting from you.

They include things like:

  • The tour will begin at 1pm sharp
  • The activity will end at 4pm
  • We will start/end at this exact location
  • We will visit/see all of the following sites
  • A coffee break will be included in the cost of the tour etc.
The most important part of great customer service is simply doing what you say you will do

These ‘promises’ are communicated to your guests via your activity descriptions, sales pages and website. You should also review your e-mail correspondence with guests, travel planners, flyers, sales campaigns and even your confirmation e-mails, as they too are shaping your guests expectations.

I coach businesses to break down these promises and descriptions into a discrete list of obligations you have to your clients. Once you have this list of organizational expectations, you are now in the best position to consistently fulfill all of the promises you’ve made.

This list will be especially important for your leaders, guides, facilitators or field staff. They need to know exactly what their guests have been promised and what they are responsible for delivering to the customer.

During this review of organizational expectations, you may also find some discrepancies within your communications. If there are any inaccuracies or promises you cannot consistently keep, then they should be removed immediately to prevent guest disappointment.

Now, let’s turn to the second kind of guest expectation.

2) Common expectations

Here is another quote from “Knock Your Socks Off Service” which explains the nature of common expectations:

“Your customers bring additional expectation with them to every single transaction. Based on their past experiences with you and with other service providers, customers make assumptions about what you can and can’t do for them. Failing to meet a customer expectation, whether you knew about it or not – even whether you helped shape it or not – has the same impact as breaking any other promise.”

In other words, your guests may have expectations based on previous tours that they have been on, previous experiences with your own company or even from experiences with the rest of the industry. In many ways, these guests’ expectations are shaped by forces beyond your control.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate this point.

These days, people are booking almost every element of their travel experience online, and often times through their mobile devices. Travellers book their plane tickets online, their accommodation and hotel reservations, they use review sites like Trip Advisor to research and book their experiences, and with the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft, they are now even booking their taxi services online.

If this new generation of traveller arrives on your website, but is not able to book your experience nor check your tour availability, then you will likely be disappointing them and likely losing a customer.

Even though you may never have offered online bookings in the past, your competitors and industry are setting the expectations that you need to manage.

Much in the same way, if you operate a tour in your local area, and all other experiences offer a pickup via shuttle, guests may bring that expectation with them to your tour.

Meeting your customers’ expectations is the fastest route to happy guests

So how do we find out about these ‘common’ expectations?

The best way is to talk to your guests and customers. Ask your guests about any frustrations or disappointments they faced throughout their experience with your company.

Do they have ideas on how the website could be more clear? Could the booking process have been improved? How did they feel about your pre-tour literature and communications? Was there any additional information they would have liked to receive? What might have made the tour better?

These types of questions will get your guests opening up about their experiences and sharing how you can better meet their expectations.

To get a sense of what is going on in your industry and region, I highly recommend shopping around for tour experiences in your area. Go through the whole experience of researching, booking and attending other companies experiences. Take careful notice of what is being promised and how they are managing your expectations.

You can also keep abreast of global travel trends with online magazines such as Skift and Tnooz or other publications more specific to your industry or country.

These types of expectations are the hardest to uncover and it takes real time with your customers to tease them out. However, by putting in the effort your company and brand will be in the best position to keep your customers happy.

Let’s now look at the last of the three major types of expectation.

3) Personal promises

These are quite simply personal commitments you or your staff make to your guests. Think of commitments made over the phone, while on tour or via e-mail.

“The majority of guest service promises come from you. These are the promises you make when you tell a customer, “I’ll get right back to you with that information” or “You should expect to receive a confirmation of your refund by e-mail” or “I will speak to the manager about this”

-Performance Research Associates, ‘Knock your Socks off Service

Expectations are created from you and your staff in the form of personal promises

You and your staff are underwriting these promises, and customers will hold you accountable for them. Disappointment can often arise in guests when staff are not familiar with your company policies and promise things that are not realistic.

To stay on top of these type of expectations, meet regularly with your staff (especially new employees) to go over exactly what your policies are and how activity leaders should handle various scenarios.

The last thing you want to happen is have your guests being told one thing by one member of your company and then another from someone else. The more explicit you can be with your staff and guests about your policies, the less likely you’ll face disappointed guests.

Here is a real-world example of how I have used expectation lists in the past.

When I was working for Backroads Tours in France, I was in charge of developing our Burgundy and Chablis weeklong bicycle itinerary.

I spent a season going through all of our guest and leader feedback and I noticed some of our guests were complaining about a particular visit to a chateau along our bike route. Most of them indicated that the tour was a bit boring and it was frustrating to wait for the entire group to arrive by bicycle. After I looked into the visit, I realized that our regular guide had changed and the experience was no longer something I wanted to include in the trip.

As I was planning a new version of the day I realized that the chateau had been featured in our travel planner, trip description, website and other sales materials that had already been sent to confirmed guests. If I removed the chateau from the trip, there was a chance of disappointing the many guests who were already expecting this visit.

Therefore, instead of removing the chateau entirely, I removed the group tour and created an optional stop in at the chateau. When the time came to update our sales page for following season, I removed all mentions of the chateau and was then able to safely remove it from the itinerary, sure that I would not be disappointing any paying customers.

Now there are of course situations where your tour needs to be changed for one reason or another and it will deviate from your tour description. This can be done – and in some cases should be done – but you must tread carefully.

Many negative online reviews of tours come from itinerary changes or last-minute adjustments to the activity that were not properly communicated to the guests. Even changing guides last minute can get you into trouble, especially if certain guests have read rave reviews about a particular guide and made a special request for that staff member.

If you need to make changes to your tour, here are some questions to think about:

Is there a way you can communicate to your guests about the change? How can you frame the change so it is not seen in a negative light? Are there extras or bonuses that you are offering? Are you prepared to offer a discount or a refund if someone asks for it?

Your answers will be different whether you are talking about major or minor changes, but you should have the answers ready.

Managing expectations

Now that we have a better sense of the various types of guest expectations let’s quickly look at a few more best practices for managing these commitments.

  • Always be as clear as possible in your tour descriptions (i.e. don’t be vague about important details such as the who, what, where, why and when)
  • Have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section of your website (or for each activity/tour). This is a fantastic way to address some of the most common misunderstandings about your tour. Anytime a question keeps coming up over and over from your guests, be sure to add it to the FAQ.
  • Clearly state your cancellation and refund policies on your website, and be sure to send links to them in your confirmation e-mails
  • Ensure that the people re-selling your tour have up to date and accurate information about your experiences. If you find out your re-sellers are spreading misinformation, seek to fix this immediately! As far as guests are concerned you are responsible for making sure your re-sellers have accurate information about your tours.
  • Always be honest and upfront about potentially negative experiences or ‘downsides’ to your tour. As an example, I’ve heard from tour operators in Iceland who say they have to go out of their way to make sure guests are prepared for rain and variable weather. While photos on their website show sunny days, most Icelandic tour companies must emphasize over and over that there is a high chance it will rain on your tour. By being honest, up front and transparent, you show integrity and it gives your guests a chance to prepare for your experience.
A rainy day in Iceland can be enjoyed with the proper clothing!

By implementing these best practices you position yourself well should guests have inaccurate expectations about your tour.

You should always apologize for any misunderstandings, but you can point them to your FAQ page, your online policy information, AND the e-mails you sent them – all before they came on tour.

Misunderstandings will happen inevitably, but it is your job to graciously re-align any expectations that are out of whack with the reality of your experience.

Taking action

Once again, here is your free, downloadable resource: Expectation Busting – An Action Guide for Tour Operators to help you manage guest expectations.

By taking these steps now, you are setting you and your guests up for success. Simply by consistently meeting your guest expectations, you will be doing what so many tour companies still struggle to do.

On top of that, once you are safely delivering on all of your promises and your guests are happy, it is time to go one step further, and exceed these expectations. But that is another topic, for another time.

Good luck and I wish you many a happy and satisfied customer!


Kelsey Tonner helps tour businesses all over the world create, sell and market their experiences - plus provide coaching on delivering extraordinary service. The Be a Better Guide Project brings the world's top tour leaders and tourism businesses together to learn from one another, share best practices, and build an online community. Be a Better Guide also offers premium online training solutions for tour guides and tour companies.

Join thousands of subscribers and get free content
about the activity industry, business tips, and more!