|The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is made up of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.|
Improving with age, CIE Tours is still a major powerhouse when it comes to selling escorted tours to Ireland and Great Britain.
Throughout Ireland’s tumultuous history, it has been difficult for certain institutions to remain constant. Those that have, however, have withstood the test of time and have become ingrained into the fabric of the destination. When a tour operator such as CIE Tours has stuck around long enough to celebrate its 80th birthday, it is a good bet that it will be around for another 80 years.
In the Beginning
Although CIE Tours uses 1932 as its official start date, in reality the company has been operating tours to Ireland since the late 19th century. “The reason why we use 1932 is because during that year, the Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin, pulling over 1 million visitors. The government at the time asked CIE to organize the congress,” says Brian Stack, president of CIE Tours.
CIE are the initials of the Gaelic name of the company, Coras Iompair Éireann, which translates to the Irish National Transport System. Since the company’s inception, it has run all the trains and buses within Ireland. Eighty years ago, during the Eucharistic Congress, CIE Tours began running tours, buses and trains. There were no hotels in Dublin at that time to handle the large influx of visitors, so CIE rented cruise ships and luxury liners and lined them up just outside Dublin to use them as hotels.
What started as just a tour operation within Ireland expanded to bring travelers from Britain to Ireland, and then from America to Ireland. In 1968, the company registered as an American corporation. Today the company is the single largest provider of tourists to Ireland and is rapidly rising as a producer of tours to Scotland, England and Wales.
What is CIE?
CIE Tours’ main product is fully inclusive escorted tours. Though the company began by selling travel to Ireland, it has expanded over the last 15 years to include Great Britain. “We sold Britain-only tours [at first] and it is a product that we have been developing,” notes Stack. “It took a while for people to associate CIE Tours with Britain.” However, depending on what part of the U.S. you live in, it is often easier to reach London from the U.S. than Ireland, making it easier for people to do a UK tour either before or after a visit to Ireland. With this logic, it is easy to see why the company has branched out to capture this segment of the market.
|Clients on a CIE escorted group tour enjoy the comfort of luxury coach travel.|
While travel to Ireland has always been relevant, economic and social conditions over the last 20 years have caused its numbers to fluctuate. When Stack came onboard with CIE Tours in 1990 following stints with Aer Lingus and the Irish Tourist Board, the company was going through a difficult time and there was discussion of shutting it down.
|Liffey Boardwalk links the Ha’penny and O’Connell bridges in Dublin.|
It was the start of the first war in Iraq. Stack was tasked with the challenge to bring the company back up to speed. In the time that he has been with the company he has seen the destination rebound from the “foot-and-mouth-disease” scare, the aftereffects of September 11, and finally the worst economic climate Ireland had seen for years.
“But our business continues to slowly grow,” says Stack. “Sure, we’ve had some down years, like 2009; 2010 was better, and 2011 improved on that; 2012 was the best year in our 80-year history and we are looking good for 2013.”
“The difference between going on a CIE tour and going on anyone else’s tour is that when you go on a CIE tour, you pay the travel agent and then that is it. The only other money you spend is on buying gifts or buying drink,” adds Stack. “All of the rest of the tour is included.” CIE Tours estimates that about $550 is the amount of money that people save by buying a tour up front that is all-inclusive.
Tours include four- and five-star hotels that have been vetted by CIE. More often than not, CIE passengers are the biggest customers at these hotels, so they are looked after very well. Each year the company holds an award ceremony, and the hotels included on tours score 90 percent and above when rated by clients.
|Rock of Cashel is of the most spectacular—and most visited—tourist attractions in Ireland.|
It is also important to note that customers on a CIE program are not lumped into one group. When people travel on vacation, they want to be treated as individuals, regardless of whether they are on a group itinerary or not. “When a hotelier sees a CIE tour coach coming to his or her hotel, he is aware that these people do not want to be treated as ‘part of the tour,’” notes Stack. “The vacation is a vacation for couples aboard the coach. If they want a table for two at the hotel restaurant, they get a table for two.”
|Blarney Castle, home of the fabled Blarney Stone, was built in 1446.|
There are 25 different tours to Ireland and approximately 10 tours of Scotland and the UK. Each one is different, ensuring that the range of travelers seeking a CIE tour will find what they are looking for. CIE Tours also handles the “fly and drive” business, where people rent cars and drive on their own. There is also its groups division. In 2012, CIE Tours brought in 300 separate groups to Ireland and Britain.
Who’s on the Bus
The customer base CIE Tours caters to covers a massive demographic. As with any travel company, there are segments of the market that would not travel with the company either because they are financially capable, or because they are so wealthy that they prefer to travel differently. Then there is the middle segment of about 150 million people in the range that CIE Tours wishes to target.
To break it down even further, 65 percent of CIE’s passengers are women. “If you are a single or widowed woman, your options for going on vacation are limited,” says Stack. “You are meeting 30 to 40 people roughly the same age with a guide whose role it is to make sure you enjoy yourself.”
The majority of CIE’s business, approximately 80 percent, comes from the U.S. Of that, one quarter is from the East Coast, one quarter from the Midwest, and the rest is scattered business from the Southeast and California. Beyond that, other tourists are coming in from Australia, Europe and the UK.
|The Ring of Kerry is a natural center for outdoor pursuits such as golf, watersports, cycling, horseback riding and fishing.|
There is a new generation of traveler in the U.S. There has never been a time in the U.S. when more people over the age of 60 are looking to travel in the capacity that they want to now. People are retiring younger and younger and they have the time and money to burn.
Sixty-five percent of CIE’s passengers are over 55 years old. “Sixty is the new 40,” adds Stack. “People are willing to travel. They have their kids out of college so they can be looking at doing things for themselves, and on their bucket list Ireland always features big.” The last count that CIE Tours received stated that about 7 million people in the U.S. want to go to Ireland in the next few years. In reality, only about 600,000 American tourists visit Ireland annually, which represents a huge potential.
On the Horizon
That margin between 600,000 and 7 million is a pulsating pool that CIE Tours is eager and willing to tap into. “We are looking very positively toward the future of CIE Tours,” says Stack. “The biggest growth in our business is a combination of Scotland and Ireland or Britain and Ireland. We see enormous growth in that market.”
“We are always offering something new,” Stack continues. Looking to 2013, CIE Tours has incorporated Wales, offering a few new itineraries, which broadens the scope and breadth of what the company has to offer.
CIE and Its Agents
CIE Tours prides itself on its relationship with the travel agent. “We are a travel agent tour operator,” assures Stack. More than 80 percent of the company’s business comes from agents. They can book directly online or call CIE on the phone. Even the brochures have only numbers for travel agents.
“The benefit of booking with an agent, to use ASTA’s old slogan, is ‘without a travel agent you are on your own,’” says Stack. “There is no extra cost to the consumer to book through an agent because we pay the agent.” Stack tells Travel Agent that in 2012 CIE Tours paid more commission than any other year in its 80-year history, and that number is increasing annually.
The operator offers a certified agent program, as well. A certified CIE agent receives places on fam tours, advanced copies of brochures, and the recognition by the company that they are one of the main reasons why CIE Tours is so successful.
“I see nothing but a very bright future for tourism to Ireland and Scotland,” Stack concludes. “CIE is a financially strong company that is continuing to grow and gain market share.”
|Conwy Castle in North Wales affords breathtaking mountain and sea views from its 13th century battlements.|