Explore Cities in a New Context

A Q&A with Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel By: Emily McManus
Context Travel specializes in scholar-led walking tours in major cities located throughout Europe and the U.S. // © 2011 Context Travel
Context Travel specializes in scholar-led walking tours in major cities located throughout Europe and the U.S. // © 2011 Context Travel

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Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel // © 2011 Terence Carter
Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel // © 2011 Terence Carter

The Details

Context Travel
www.contexttravel.com
After two years of sailing around Central America and across the Atlantic Ocean, Paul Bennett, founder of specialty tour operator Context Travel, had an epiphany. He discovered that to truly understand a place, you have to connect with an expert local from that destination. When he ended his voyage in Rome, he began putting together his plans for Context Travel.

Currently operating in a number of major European and American cities, Context Travel provides small group tours to travelers who want an in-depth understanding of their new environment. Walking seminars are led by local scholars from each tour-specific discipline, providing an educational guided experience. TravelAge West recently spoke to Bennett to discuss his company's unique approach to touring new cities.

What sets Context Travel apart from other tour companies?
We limit our groups to no more than six people, which, in terms of shared group walks, is by far the smallest in the industry. The idea there is that you can ask questions, you can be interactive, you can be hands-on and it can act like a seminar. Additionally, other than using tour guides, per se, we use scholars. Most of the people leading our walks are professors at local universities or practicing professionals who are connected with the kind of the walk. Context Travel is absolutely unique. When you're putting together a trip to any one of our cities and you are thinking about programming the time of your clients with some kind of cultural activity, Context should be at the top of your list. Between the kinds of people that we have on the ground, the kinds of walks and the great, there is a lot of range for a number of different clients.

What kind of traveler are your walking seminars designed for? What is your key demographic?
Our key demographics are mostly North American professionals between the ages of 40 and 60. We have lots of doctors and lawyers who are generally couples, although we do get groups of friends travelling together. Families are also a large demographic for us; we have a family program of walks geared toward them specifically. We also get a lot of grandparents with grandchildren traveling together and a growing group of people in their 30s who are starting to discover our walks. That was an interesting trend for us in 2010 -- more people in their 30s traveling with us than ever before.

Do you feel that your clients need to have a good educational background to get the most out of your tours?
Absolutely not. I think they need to be intellectually curious. They need to love to learn and love discovering art and history. This is actually a question we get a lot, because they see the credentials of the docents who lead our walks and think, "Gosh, do I have to be a graduate student?" The answer is no. As the walk goes on, it changes and evolves, so if you have a lot of people who are completely out of their element, the walk is going to go at a slower pace and we're really going to tailor it to laying out those basic ground rules of history. The converse is true. If a group knows all about the basic history of a city and want to get deeper into the sort of minutia of that history then they can go in that direction. That is where the small group is really critical.

How do you plan on working with travel agents to get the word out about Context Travel?
We have built a website for travel agents that gives them a way to book walks so that we can track them to the clients and pay out a quarterly commission. Another thing we've done recently is launch a travel agent newsletter just for agents, with inside information about what we are doing. We also revamped our commission structure so we now offer a tiered commission structure based on quarterly sales targets so, when an agent reaches certain targets his or her commission goes up. Also, whenever an agent comes to one of our cities they can try a Context walk for free.

Which of your tours are best-sellers?
The best-selling tour of all is the Arte Vaticana, a four-hour comprehensive walk around the Vatican in Rome, Italy. In second place is our Louvre French Masters walk in Paris. Both of these are very popular walks.

How do you decide which sites to include in each of your tours?
In a given city we might have 20 different walks that we organize, and we do that by looking at the city and what it has to offer. Often times, it presents a network of scholars and that is when we start to look at individual walks and sites. Our docents are really a big part of our organization. The tours are not scripted -- there may be two or three fundamental monuments or artworks that we want included on the walk, but the docents may manage the walk however they like. So, if one person has a specific interest or question, the docent has the freedom to take a look at that example and make a substitution on the fly.

Other than the 13 destinations where you currently offer tours, are any other destinations planned for the future?
We just recently launched our newest site in Berlin and later, in February, we'll be launching Barcelona and New Orleans. We have Washington, D.C., tour, starting up in either March or April, and we are also working on a launch in Asia. At this point, we're looking at Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong for a launch sometime in 2011.
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