North American tourists helping CIE Tours International drive revenue
Coach tour operator aiming for growth of 15 per cent this year, 20 per cent in 2020
CIE International Tours chief executive Elizabeth Crabill: “We are masters of marketing in North America but we do not know how to market in China yet.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Elizabeth Crabill isn’t chasing millennials to the same extent as some of her rivals in the travel industry.
“They’re not going to be the bread and butter for quite some time,” the chief executive of CIE Tours Internationals told The Irish Times on the sidelines of a recent meeting of all of its coach drivers.
North Americans in their mid-40s and upwards, travelling with their children, are a key demographic. CIE Tours International operates trips to and around Ireland, primarily by coach, for international travellers. With an average spend of $2,700 per person, CIE offers a four-star experience to guests that mainly include North American travellers.
In its 86-year lifespan, the group has brought more than three million tourists into Ireland and last year brought its passenger numbers close to the 50,000 mark.
And while Ireland is its primary product, its recent growth spurt has persuaded the company to look at expanding elsewhere. Having added tours to Iceland and Italy as part of this year’s schedule, Crabill’s focus is now firmly on China – a market where 130 million of the population have passports and are willing to travel outside of Asia.
“Chinese tourists have a huge interest in coming here,” she said, noting that while they’ve begun to scope out the market, they don’t intend to open an office these just yet. “The reason for that is that it’s one thing to run tours for customers that are vetted and want a tour opportunity in that type of travel, [it’s] another to do sales and marketing.
“We are masters of marketing in North America but we do not know how to market in China yet.”
Since Crabill joined the company, CIE Tours International has had three years of consecutive growth. In 2018, it surpassed €120 million in revenue, having exceeded €100 million in 2017.
Not one to sit on her laurels, Crabill plans to achieve growth of 15 per cent this year, followed by 20 per cent in 2020 when it’s expected that an infrastructure investment will bear fruit.
A significant investment in its online offering is planned, with spending of at least €1.5 million on the core design.
Travellers “need to be able to purchase but, more importantly, they need to get inspired and get interest”, Crabill said of the reasoning behind the investment.
At present, CIE Tours International is the biggest buyer of leisure hotel beds in both the Republic and Scotland. It works with more than 800 suppliers to whom it pays €50 million a year. “The roots run deep,” Crabill says, noting that many of the places it does business with started up with CIE Tours as their first coach operator.
While the company has been good for the country, and vice versa, challenges are starting to emerge. Crabill cites the chronic shortage of hotel bed spaces in Dublin as a major problem. “Even the best prices are higher than they would have been several years ago,” she said.
The knock-on effect of that is that instead of putting their guests solely in city-centre hotels, the company has had to look slightly farther afield. The main issue, she says, is that Dublin remains the one entry point of choice for North American travellers and the option to simply move to another airport isn’t there.
Added to the issue of hotel prices is the recent increase in the VAT rate to 13.5 per cent. It had been cut to 9 per cent by the Government in 2011 to help the industry get back on its feet following the recession.
Crabill says it was “disappointing that it happened in one fell swoop”, adding that it has exacerbated currency problems US tour operators have faced through the fluctuation of the dollar against the euro.
While the company has yet to pass on the cost to travellers, some rivals have. But Crabill suspects that’s likely to “test the desire of the North American market”. If prices edge too close to the $3,000 mark, that could act as a psychological barrier for prospective Ireland inbound tourists.
Rather than focus too heavily on the market challenges, Crabill is looking towards growth and recently opened a London office with five staff. Additionally, CIE’s luxury product is fast becoming popular, recording 110 per cent growth in 2018 and helping the group improve its quality rating to 96 out of 100.
Crabill, who worked in cosmetics and entertainment before joining the travel industry almost 18 years ago, has her sights firmly fixed on digital growth. And considering “Ireland has just gone through the roof as a destination”, she sees no shortage of opportunities.