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How to Start a Tour Operator Business

Written by:

Carolyn Young is a business writer who focuses on entrepreneurial concepts and the business formation. She has over 25 years of experience in business roles, and has authored several entrepreneurship textbooks.

Edited by:

David has been writing and learning about business, finance and globalization for a quarter-century, starting with a small New York consulting firm in the 1990s.

How to Start a Tour Operator Business

Fast Facts

Investment range

$2,300 - $10,300

Revenue potential

$108,000 - $360,000 p.a.

Time to build

0 – 3 months

Profit potential

$86,400 - $144,000 p.a.

Industry trend

Growing

Commitment

Flexible

Are you an entertainer? One of the ways you could use your skills is by starting a tour operator business. You could offer tours to see the main attractions in your city, tours of natural areas, or even tours of the food scene in your city. The tour operator industry took a hit during the pandemic, but it’s coming back strong in 2023 and is worth more than $10 billion, so there’s money to be made.

But first, you’ll need some business know-how. Luckily, this step-by-step guide details all you need to know to start a successful tour operator business.

Step 1: Decide if the Business Is Right for You

Pros and cons

Pros

  • Meet lots of people and show them a good time
  • Good profit potential
  • Growing market

Cons

  • Business needs to be based in an area with attractions of some kind
  • Can be somewhat seasonal

Tour operator industry trends

Industry size and growth

Tour Operator industry size and growth

Trends and challenges

Trends

  • Many tourists are seeking tours to “hidden gems” rather than the normal tourist spots.
  • Many people are booking their travel activities, including tours, on mobile apps.

Challenges

  • Technology is playing an increasing role in the tour operators industry, requiring tour operator business to make an investment in technology.
  • Current economic conditions may negatively impact the travel industry in general. 
Tour Operator Industry Trends and Challenges

Demand hotspots

Tour Operator Industry demand hotspots

What kind of people work in tour operator businesses?

  • Gender –  53% of tour guides are female, while 47% are male.((https://www.zippia.com/tour-guide-jobs/demographics/))
  • Average level of education – The average tour guide has a bachelor’s degree.
  • Average age The average tour guide in the US is 34.3 years old.
Tour Operator industry demographics

How much does it cost to start a tour operator business?

If you’re going to do walking tours, your startup costs should be around $2,000. Costs include a computer and a website. If you plan to give tours in a vehicle like a trolley, your costs will be closer to $10,000.

Start-up CostsBallpark RangeAverage
Setting up a business name and corporation$100 - $500$300
Business licenses and permits$100 - $300$200
Insurance$100-$500$300
Website$500 - $1,000$750
Computer$1,000 - $2,000$1,500
Van or trolley down payment$0 - $5,000$2,500
Sales and marketing budget$500 - $1,000$750
Total$2,300 - $10,300$6,300

How much can you earn from a tour operator business?

You can probably charge about $120 per person for a half day tour or $200 for a full day tour. Your profit margin should be about 80% if you run your business from home.

In your first year or two, you could work from home and have 30 customers a week, 30 weeks a year, at $120, bringing in $108,000 in revenue. This would mean $86,400 in profit, assuming that 80% margin. 

As you gain traction, you might have 100 customers a week, 30 weeks a year.  At this stage, you might have a kiosk and hire staff, reducing your margin to around 40%. With annual revenue of $360,000, you’d make a tidy profit of $144,000.

Tour Operator Business earning forecast

What barriers to entry are there?

There are a few barriers to entry for a tour operator business. Your biggest challenges will be:

  • Being in a good location where people will pay for tours
  • Having extensive knowledge of your tour area

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Step 2: Hone Your Idea

develop a business idea

Now that you know what’s involved in starting a tour operator business, it’s a good idea to hone your concept in preparation to enter a competitive market. 

Market research could give you the upper hand even if you’ve got the perfect product. Conducting robust market research is crucial, as it will help you better understand your customers, your competitors, and the broader business landscape.

Analyze your competitors 

Research tour operator businesses to examine their services, price points, and customer reviews.

  • Make a list of tour operator businesses that offer similar services. 
  • Review your competitors’ services – their features, pricing, and quality – and marketing strategies.
  • Check out their online reviews and ratings on Google, Yelp, and Facebook to get an idea of what their customers like and dislike.
  • Identify your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses. 

This should identify areas where you can strengthen your business and gain a competitive edge to make better business decisions.

Why? Identify an opportunity

You’re looking for a market gap to fill. For instance, maybe the local market is missing an inbound tour operator, or a tour guide business that offers travel agency services as well.

You might consider targeting a niche, such as food scene tours or adventure travel tours.

This could jumpstart your word-of-mouth marketing and attract clients right away. 

What? Determine your services

You’ll need to determine what kind of tours you want to give. Consider what’s in your area that might be of interest to tourists. Your best bet is to pick a niche that other tour companies are not targeting. You could also offer travel agent services like booking hotel accommodations or flights.

How much should you charge for tours?

Your prices should be based on market prices in your area, but also on your operating costs.

Once you know your costs, use this Step By Step profit margin calculator to determine your mark-up and final price points. Remember, the prices you use at launch should be subject to change if warranted by the market.

Who? Identify your target market

Your target market is likely to be tourists, and the tourists who participate in tours are often older, but it will depend on the type of tours you offer. If your tours are likely to appeal to older tourists, you can market to them on Facebook. However, your best bet is to partner with travel agencies who can promote and book your tours. 

Where? Choose your business premises

In the early stages, you may want to run your business from home to keep costs low. But as your business grows, you’ll likely need to hire workers for various roles and may need to rent out an office or a invest in a kiosk to set up in high traffic tourist areas. You can find commercial space to rent in your area on sites such as Craigslist, Crexi, and Instant Offices.

When choosing a commercial space, you may want to follow these rules of thumb:

  • Central location accessible via public transport
  • Ventilated and spacious, with good natural light
  • Flexible lease that can be extended as your business grows
  • Ready-to-use space with no major renovations or repairs needed
Tour Operator Business idea rating

Step 3: Brainstorm a Tour Company Name

Your business name is your business identity, so choose one that encapsulates your objectives, services, and mission in just a few words. You probably want a name that’s short and easy to remember, since much of your business, and your initial business in particular, will come from word-of-mouth referrals.

Here are some ideas for brainstorming your business name:

  • Short, unique, and catchy names tend to stand out
  • Names that are easy to say and spell tend to do better 
  • Name should be relevant to your product or service offerings
  • Ask around — family, friends, colleagues, social media — for suggestions
  • Including keywords, such as “tours” or “guided tours”, boosts SEO
  • Name should allow for expansion, for ex: “GlobeStride” or “Boundless Journeys” over “EcoTreks” or “Dive Quest”
  • Avoid location-based names that might hinder future expansion
  • Use online tools like the Step by Step Business Name Generator. Just type in a few keywords and hit “generate” and you’ll have dozens of suggestions at your fingertips.

Once you’ve got a list of potential names, visit the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office to make sure they are available for registration and check the availability of related domain names using our Domain Name Search tool. Using “.com” or “.org” sharply increases credibility, so it’s best to focus on these. 

Finally, make your choice among the names that pass this screening and go ahead and reserve your business name with your state, start the trademark registration process, and complete your domain registration and social media account creation. 

Your business name is one of the key differentiators that sets your business apart. Once you pick a name, reserve it and start with the branding, it’s hard to switch to a new name. So be sure to carefully consider your choice before moving forward. 

Step 4: Create a Tour Operator Business Plan

Every business needs a plan. This will function as a guidebook to take your startup through the launch process and maintain focus on your key goals. A business plan also enables potential partners and investors to better understand your company and its vision:

  • Executive Summary: Summarize your tour operator business, highlighting the unique travel experiences you offer and your target market.
  • Business Overview: Describe your tour operator business, including the types of tours you provide, destinations you cover, and the travel niche you specialize in.
  • Product and Services: Detail the tour packages and services you offer, such as guided tours, transportation, accommodations, and any unique experiences or add-ons.
  • Market Analysis: Analyze the demand for travel and tours in your chosen destinations, considering factors like tourism trends, customer preferences, and competitor offerings.
  • Competitive Analysis: Identify other tour operators in your target locations, their strengths and weaknesses, and explain how your tours will differentiate themselves through quality, pricing, or unique experiences.
  • Sales and Marketing: Outline your strategies for reaching and attracting customers, including digital marketing, partnerships with hotels or travel agencies, and promotions to drive bookings.
  • Management Team: Introduce key team members responsible for running the tour operator business, highlighting their experience in the travel industry and customer service.
  • Operations Plan: Describe the logistics of running your tours, including itinerary planning, tour guides, transportation, safety measures, and quality control.
  • Financial Plan: Present financial projections for your tour operator business, including startup costs, revenue forecasts based on anticipated bookings, expenses for tour logistics, and expected profitability.
  • Appendix: Include any relevant documents, such as tour itineraries, partnerships with hotels or attractions, insurance policies, and marketing materials.
what to include in a business plan

If you’ve never created a business plan, it can be an intimidating task. You might consider hiring a business plan specialist to create a top-notch business plan for you.

Step 5: Register Your Business

Registering your business is an absolutely crucial step — it’s the prerequisite to paying taxes, raising capital, opening a bank account, and other guideposts on the road to getting a business up and running.

Plus, registration is exciting because it makes the entire process official. Once it’s complete, you’ll have your own business! 

Choose where to register your company

Your business location is important because it can affect taxes, legal requirements, and revenue. Most people will register their business in the state where they live, but if you are planning to expand, you might consider looking elsewhere, as some states could offer real advantages when it comes to tour operator businesses. 

If you’re willing to move, you could really maximize your business! Keep in mind, it’s relatively easy to transfer your business to another state. 

Choose your business structure

Business entities come in several varieties, each with its pros and cons. The legal structure you choose for your tour operator business will shape your taxes, personal liability, and business registration requirements, so choose wisely. 

Here are the main options:

  • Sole Proprietorship – The most common structure for small businesses makes no legal distinction between company and owner. All income goes to the owner, who’s also liable for any debts, losses, or liabilities incurred by the business. The owner pays taxes on business income on his or her personal tax return.
  • General Partnership – Similar to a sole proprietorship, but for two or more people. Again, owners keep the profits and are liable for losses. The partners pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC) – Combines the characteristics of corporations with those of sole proprietorships or partnerships. Again, the owners are not personally liable for debts. Here’s how to form an LLC.
  • C Corp – Under this structure, the business is a distinct legal entity and the owner or owners are not personally liable for its debts. Owners take profits through shareholder dividends, rather than directly. The corporation pays taxes, and owners pay taxes on their dividends, which is sometimes referred to as double taxation. Read how to start a corporation here.
  • S Corp – An S-Corporation refers to the tax classification of the business but is not a business entity. An S-Corp can be either a corporation or an LLC, which just need to elect to be an S-Corp for tax status. In an S-Corp, income is passed through directly to shareholders, who pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
types of business structures

We recommend that new business owners choose LLC as it offers liability protection and pass-through taxation while being simpler to form than a corporation. You can form an LLC in as little as five minutes using an online LLC formation service. They will check that your business name is available before filing, submit your articles of organization, and answer any questions you might have. 

Form Your LLC

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Step 6: Register for Taxes

The final step before you’re able to pay taxes is getting an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. You can file for your EIN online or by mail or fax: visit the IRS website to learn more. Keep in mind, if you’ve chosen to be a sole proprietorship you can simply use your social security number as your EIN. 

Once you have your EIN, you’ll need to choose your tax year. Financially speaking, your business will operate in a calendar year (January–December) or a fiscal year, a 12-month period that can start in any month. This will determine your tax cycle, while your business structure will determine which taxes you’ll pay.

The IRS website also offers a tax-payers checklist, and taxes can be filed online.

It is important to consult an accountant or other professional to help you with your taxes to ensure you are completing them correctly.

Step 7: Fund your Business

Securing financing is your next step and there are plenty of ways to raise capital:

  • Bank loans: This is the most common method but getting approved requires a rock-solid business plan and strong credit history.
  • SBA-guaranteed loans: The Small Business Administration can act as guarantor, helping gain that elusive bank approval via an SBA-guaranteed loan.
  • Government grants: A handful of financial assistance programs help fund entrepreneurs. Visit Grants.gov to learn which might work for you.
  • Friends and Family: Reach out to friends and family to provide a business loan or investment in your concept. It’s a good idea to have legal advice when doing so because SEC regulations apply.
  • Crowdfunding: Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer an increasingly popular low-risk option, in which donors fund your vision. Entrepreneurial crowdfunding sites like Fundable and WeFunder enable multiple investors to fund your business.
  • Personal: Self-fund your business via your savings or the sale of property or other assets.

Bank and SBA loans are probably the best option, other than friends and family, for funding a tour operator business. You might also try crowdfunding if you have an innovative concept.  

types of business financing

Step 8: Apply for Tour Operator Business Licenses and Permits

Business Licenses and Permits

Starting a tour operator business requires obtaining a number of licenses and permits from local, state, and federal governments.

Federal regulations, licenses, and permits associated with starting your business include doing business as (DBA), health licenses and permits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), trademarks, copyrights, patents, and other intellectual properties, as well as industry-specific licenses and permits. 

You may also need state-level and local county or city-based licenses and permits. The license requirements and how to obtain them vary, so check the websites of your state, city, and county governments or contact the appropriate person to learn more. 

You could also check this SBA guide for your state’s requirements, but we recommend using MyCorporation’s Business License Compliance Package. They will research the exact forms you need for your business and state and provide them to ensure you’re fully compliant.

This is not a step to be taken lightly, as failing to comply with legal requirements can result in hefty penalties.

If you feel overwhelmed by this step or don’t know how to begin, it might be a good idea to hire a professional to help you check all the legal boxes.

Step 9: Open a Business Bank Account

Before you start making money, you’ll need a place to keep it, and that requires opening a bank account.

Keeping your business finances separate from your personal account makes it easy to file taxes and track your company’s income, so it’s worth doing even if you’re running your tour operator business as a sole proprietorship. Opening a business bank account is quite simple, and similar to opening a personal one. Most major banks offer accounts tailored for businesses — just inquire at your preferred bank to learn about their rates and features.

Banks vary in terms of offerings, so it’s a good idea to examine your options and select the best plan for you. Once you choose your bank, bring in your EIN (or Social Security Number if you decide on a sole proprietorship), articles of incorporation, and other legal documents and open your new account. 

Step 10: Get Business Insurance

Business insurance is an area that often gets overlooked yet it can be vital to your success as an entrepreneur. Insurance protects you from unexpected events that can have a devastating impact on your business.

Here are some types of insurance to consider:

  • General liability: The most comprehensive type of insurance, acting as a catch-all for many business elements that require coverage. If you get just one kind of insurance, this is it. It even protects against bodily injury and property damage.
  • Business Property: Provides coverage for your equipment and supplies.
  • Equipment Breakdown Insurance: Covers the cost of replacing or repairing equipment that has broken due to mechanical issues.
  • Worker’s compensation: Provides compensation to employees injured on the job.
  • Property: Covers your physical space, whether it is a cart, storefront, or office.
  • Commercial auto: Protection for your company-owned vehicle.
  • Professional liability: Protects against claims from a client who says they suffered a loss due to an error or omission in your work.
  • Business owner’s policy (BOP): This is an insurance plan that acts as an all-in-one insurance policy, a combination of the above insurance types.
types of business insurance

Step 11: Prepare to Launch

Launching a Business

As opening day nears, prepare for launch by reviewing and improving some key elements of your business. 

Essential software and tools

Being an entrepreneur often means wearing many hats, from marketing to sales to accounting, which can be overwhelming. Fortunately, many websites and digital tools are available to help simplify many business tasks.  

You may want to use industry-specific software, such as Flybook, FareHarbor, or Resmark, to manage your bookings, email communications, and customer lists.

Accounting

  • Popular web-based accounting programs for smaller businesses include Quickbooks, Freshbooks, and Xero
  • If you’re unfamiliar with basic accounting, you may want to hire a professional, especially as you begin. The consequences for filing incorrect tax documents can be harsh, so accuracy is crucial.

Create a website

Website development is crucial because your site is your online presence and needs to convince prospective clients of your expertise and professionalism. You can create your own website using services like WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace. This route is very affordable, but figuring out how to build a website can be time-consuming. If you lack tech-savvy, you can hire a web designer or developer to create a custom website for your business.

Your customers are unlikely to find your website, however, unless you follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices. SEO will help your website appear closer to the top in relevant search results, a crucial element for increasing sales. 

Make sure that you optimize calls to action on your website. Experiment with text, color, size, and position of calls to action such as “Book Now”. This can sharply increase purchases. 

Marketing

Here are some powerful marketing strategies for your future business:

  1. Leverage Social Media Influencers: Collaborate with travel influencers on platforms like Instagram and YouTube to showcase your tour packages, tapping into their engaged audiences and fostering trust through authentic experiences.
  2. Run Targeted Online Ads: Utilize platforms like Google Ads and social media advertising to target specific demographics interested in travel, ensuring your ads reach potential customers who are more likely to engage with your tours.
  3. Create Compelling Visual Content: Invest in high-quality photos and videos of your tour destinations, sharing them across social media, your website, and promotional materials to evoke emotions and entice potential customers.
  4. Implement Referral Programs: Encourage satisfied customers to refer friends and family by offering incentives such as discounts or exclusive perks, amplifying your customer base through word-of-mouth marketing.
  5. Collaborate with Local Businesses: Partner with local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses to cross-promote services, creating mutually beneficial relationships that expand your reach within the travel community.
  6. Host Virtual Tours: Capitalize on the growing trend of virtual experiences by offering online tours or live-streamed previews, allowing potential customers to get a taste of your offerings before committing.
  7. Optimize for Local Search: Ensure your business appears in local search results by optimizing your Google My Business profile, collecting positive reviews, and providing accurate information, making it easier for customers to find and choose your tours.
  8. Offer Limited-Time Promotions: Create a sense of urgency by periodically offering limited-time promotions or exclusive deals, encouraging potential customers to book your tours sooner rather than later.
  9. Attend Travel Expos and Events: Participate in travel expos and events to showcase your offerings directly to an audience interested in travel, allowing you to engage with potential customers face-to-face and establish personal connections.
  10. Focus on Customer Experience: Prioritize exceptional customer service and personalized experiences to build a positive reputation, as satisfied customers are more likely to become repeat clients and ambassadors for your business.

Focus on USPs

Unique selling propositions, or USPs, are the characteristics of a product or service that sets it apart from the competition. Customers today are inundated with buying options, so you’ll have a real advantage if they are able to quickly grasp how your tour operator business meets their needs or wishes. It’s wise to do all you can to ensure your USPs stand out on your website and in your marketing and promotional materials, stimulating buyer desire. 

Global pizza chain Domino’s is renowned for its USP: “Hot pizza in 30 minutes or less, guaranteed.” Signature USPs for your tour operator business could be: 

  • Discover the extraordinary with our immersive and personalized tours
  • Leave no stone unturned with our comprehensive and authentic tour itineraries
  • Discover the hidden gems with our knowledgeable tour guides
unique selling proposition

Networking

You may not like to network or use personal connections for business gain. But your personal and professional networks likely offer considerable untapped business potential. Maybe that Facebook friend you met in college is now running a tour operator business, or a LinkedIn contact of yours is connected to dozens of potential clients. Maybe your cousin or neighbor has been working in tour operator businesses for years and can offer invaluable insight and industry connections. 

The possibilities are endless, so it’s a good idea to review your personal and professional networks and reach out to those with possible links to or interest in tour operator businesses. You’ll probably generate new customers or find companies with which you could establish a partnership.

Step 12: Build Your Team

Building a Team for a New Business

If you’re starting out small from a home office, you may not need any employees. But as your business grows, you will likely need workers to fill various roles. Potential positions for a tour operator business include:

  • Tour Guides – give tours, customer service
  • Marketing Lead – create and implement marketing strategies
  • General Manager – scheduling, accounting

At some point, you may need to hire all of these positions or simply a few, depending on the size and needs of your business. You might also hire multiple workers for a single role or a single worker for multiple roles, again depending on need. 

Free-of-charge methods to recruit employees include posting ads on popular platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Jobs.com. You might also consider a premium recruitment option, such as advertising on Indeed, Glassdoor, or ZipRecruiter. Further, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a recruitment agency to help you find talent. 

Step 13: Run a Tour Operator Business – Start Making Money!

Running a Business

The tourism industry has bounced back in a big way since the pandemic, so now could be a great time to start a tour operator business. It’s an exciting way to share the highlights of your area, have some fun, and make some money. You could eventually hire a whole team of tour guides to take your business to the next level.

Now that you understand the business, you’re ready to plan your itineraries and get your successful tour operator business on the road!

Tour Operator Business FAQs

Is a tour operator business profitable?

A tour operator business can be profitable depending on various factors such as market demand, pricing strategies, operational efficiency, and the ability to provide exceptional customer tour experiences.

What happens during a typical day at a tour operator business?

During a typical day at a tour operator business, various activities take place to ensure smooth operations and high-quality service. These include responding to customer inquiries and booking requests, designing and customizing tour itineraries, coordinating with suppliers, managing reservations and payments, addressing customer feedback, conducting research on new destinations, and collaborating with marketing and sales teams.

What is the growth potential of a tour operator business?

The growth potential of a tour operator business is significant, with opportunities to expand services to new destinations, diversify tour offerings, enhance customer experiences, and leverage digital marketing strategies. Developing partnerships with other businesses in the travel industry can also contribute to growth and increased revenue potential.

What type of business is a tour operator business?

A tour operator business falls under the travel and tourism industry and operates as a service-based business that organizes and arranges travel experiences for individuals or groups. The business acts as an intermediary between customers and various suppliers, providing comprehensive and well-planned travel experiences through pre-packaged tours or customized itineraries.

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How to Start a Tour Operator Business