Journeys Within handing over Southeast Asia ground operations offices to our local staff

The Journeys Within team

When we founded Journeys Within Tour Company out of the Journeys Within Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I had no idea what I was doing.

I remember early on a friend in the industry asked me, “Are you a ground operator or a tour operator?”

He was rewarded with a blank stare.

It turns out that ground operators have local offices on the ground, hire the guides and drivers, and book the various activities a traveler will experience. A tour operator is based in the U.S. and works with the clients to put together an itinerary, which, when ready to go, is booked through one or more ground operators. (Want more details? See April’s great blog post about the differences here.)

After having this explained to me I promptly replied, “Oh, I need to do both!”

In those early days while I was living in Cambodia, we were working directly with the guides, drivers, hotel managers and other elements of the trip and we hadn’t found any companies in Southeast Asia that we felt had the same standards we did – a high level of service, customization and a willingness to go above and beyond for every trip.

On the other hand, I loved working with the clients. I loved hearing what they liked and didn’t like, and putting together the dream itinerary for them. I couldn’t imagine not keeping that pie together, thus Journeys Within was born.

We opened offices in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and partnered with a friend in Myanmar. We trained guides and worked with drivers. We worked with our local offices to build capacity and to grow our team. We hired April and grew our U.S. office so clients could easily contact us and so we could have a presence here in the States.

Splitting my time between the U.S. and Southeast Asia, I ran one business, comprised of at least five different companies. (Oh, and we started and ran an amazing sister non-profit called Journeys Within Our Community.)

It has been a wonderful adventure and I think it allowed Journeys Within to become what it is today – a global family dedicated to creating incredible trips.

Now, as we look to the future, we are realizing it is time to evolve.

This year two things have happened simultaneously that have made the path forward become very clear.

The first is that more and more guests are asking us to book trips for them in other areas of the world – areas that we know and love, but we don’t have the time or energy to work on, as we are so involved in Southeast Asia. Our clients are asking us to be a true tour operator.

As we’ve seen this phenomenon happen, I have also realized the capacity of our ground teams. When we first started the offices in each country, it was because I needed to train our team and create the experience we wanted for our guests. Tourism in Southeast Asia was new and we moved there because we felt we were creating jobs, not taking them away from locals. Sure enough we’ve created those jobs and built these incredible local teams, and they are now at the point that they don’t need me.

Don’t get me wrong, they still want our amazing clients to come and travel with them; it’s me looking over their shoulders that they don’t need. So, with this in mind, I have decided to hand our local offices over to our local teams.

This won’t happen overnight, but in the next six months we will transition to them owning and operating their own ground operations offices. They’re ready to take over and I’m ready to let go!

I couldn’t be more proud of our teams on the ground and the fact that they are ready to run these ground operations businesses on their own. I’m excited to work with them to keep the standards as high as they are and to watch them grow. In Southeast Asia, ownership is king and my teams deserve to own their own slice of the Journeys Within pie!

In fact we’ve already tested this roadmap with Michelle and Khoa in Vietnam. Khoa has been a Journeys Within guide for over 12 years and his wife Michelle was our original Vietnam Director. Now, we have partnered with Michelle and Khoa and they have their own ground operation in Vietnam, running the Journeys Within tours and creating incredible experiences for our guests. We will use this model as we hand over the Laos and Cambodia offices to our teams on the ground there and we’re excited that we can keep the high level of service, but empower our local teams.

As for us in the U.S. office, the transition will allow all of us to embrace being a tour operator and continue providing the incredible customer service that has won us recognition as one of Travel + Leisure’s Top 10 Tour Operators in the World (thanks to your votes!). And we hope in the future to be able to add destinations and tours beyond Southeast Asia, with the same Journeys Within quality, service and adventure.

So when I’m asked now, I can answer quickly: “We’re a tour operator, but we work very closely with our amazing ground operators.”

Sincerely,

Andrea Ross

p.s. Nothing will change in terms of how you work with us here at Journeys Within. April and I will still be your points of contact in the U.S. office. Give us a call at 877-454-3672 anytime!

What our Southeast Asia staff are saying

Play video: Narla's reaction

Click here for a short video we shot with Narla about the transition. We also spoke with Michelle Nguyen of In Country Tours, the ground operator who will be working with Journeys Within to execute tours in Vietnam and Cambodia after the change in company structure…

Andrea Ross: After working for Journeys Within for so many years, how do you feel now that you’re running your own company and working with Journeys Within?

Michelle Nguyen: We are an extension of the team, whether it’s working with the guiding stars or with the unicorn warriors in the office. Having fun and working hard together for a common vision is a great motivator. It’s such a great opportunity to continue to work with people you know who share the same ethos and approach to experiential travel and customer care as we do.

Andrea: What does being in the Journeys Within family mean to you?

Michelle: We feel very blessed and fortunate. Over the years we have all established such a close bond, one built through an extensive time of learning together, understanding and supporting each other. It is rare to find a business that is so successful in proactively growing and enriching lives as Journeys Within is. You share time and experiences not only with your team, but also gathered under the Journeys Within umbrella are their family members. We feel the importance of people. Even this past summer, we all went away on holiday together and it was so special to feel everyone’s happiness.

Andrea: What does owning and running your own company mean to you?

Michelle: It is the opportunity to bring some “sunshine” to as many people’s lives as possible through doing something you are passionate about.

Travel lingo: What’s the difference between a Tour Operator and a Ground Operator?

Like any specialized industry, the travel world can be full of confusing insider lingo that’s difficult for ordinary people to understand. It can get so bad that even we often have to Google some of the terms and acronyms that get thrown around, and we’ve been at it for 15+ years!

Two questions we get asked quite often – which are particularly relevant given Journeys Within’s recent decision to give away our ground operations businesses in Southeast Asia to focus exclusively on being a tour operator – are…

Journeys Within's Ground Operations team
The Ground Operations team of Journeys Within’s Cambodia office.

What’s the difference between a Tour Operator and a Ground Operator?

Tour Operator: An agent or agency that designs tour packages for travelers. Normally a package will include: airfare, ground transportation, accommodations and guide services (which the Tour Operator will book through local ground operators). Tour Operators book and pay for services on behalf of their clients, working with multiple agencies, and clients pay the Tour Operator for the full package.

Journeys Within has been a Tour Operator from the very beginning, and will continue to be as we transition away from our Ground Operations units.

Ground Operator: A local agency that provides services such as transportation and guide services. Generally, Ground Operators work with Tour Operators, but at times will work directly with clients.

In the beginning, Journeys Within also played the role of a Ground Operator for our clients, with local offices in the countries we serve. This was out of necessity at first, because we wanted such a high level of control at the local level to ensure our clients had incredible experiences while on tour. However, as our local staff has grown into leadership roles, we are now confident that they will be able to continue providing the incredible service levels our clients expect without the direct oversight from the U.S. office (of course, we’ll still be in close contact).

Andrea, her kids, and Narla on an inspection of new touring options in Cambodia.

Why would a traveler want to work with a Tour Operator vs. a Ground Operator?

A Tour Operator’s focus is creating the full tour that the guest is looking for. We understand the guest’s needs and can translate that into the trip that they’re looking for.

Tour Operators understand travel from the traveler’s perspective.

With a Tour Operator, you can pick up the phone and call someone in the U.S. to plan and discuss your trip details.

As a Tour Operator, we have traveled the region extensively, so you get the on-the-ground knowledge of a ground operator, but the service of a local travel agency.

When booking through an accredited Tour Operator, you know that you have the security of the U.S. travel regulations protecting your travel investment.

A Ground Operator is generally less expensive, but they are harder to reach as they are based locally, so you have to deal with time differences and often have limited English-speaking office staff.

Ground Operators tend to focus on working with Tour Operators who are their main clients vs. individual travelers.

Ground Operators focus on a local region. Therefore, if you’re looking to travel to multiple areas within one trip, you’ll need to book through multiple ground operators and coordinate the transfers between those regions on your own.

April Cole is the Vice President of Sales for Journeys Within Tour Company