Exotic destinations are popular for customized adventure travel. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Custom trips might revolve around a cultural theme. // © 2016 iStock
Consumers are spoiled. Just look at our current entertainment options. Instead of having to go to a movie theater at a specific time, we now get films delivered to our living room on demand. In the past, when we wanted to hear music, we went to a record store and bought an album; today, personalized playlists appear like magic on our smartphones.
It’s no wonder, then, that more and more of today’s travelers are demanding customized options for their vacations, too.
“Similar to the advent of Spotify tailoring radio stations to your personal interests, or Netflix suggesting the right movie for you from your past preferences, we don’t foresee the concept of personalized trip itineraries losing traction,” said Claire Saylor, senior marketing manager for the U.S. for tour operator Audley Travel. “People value their vacation days like gold, and they don’t want those days misspent on a trip designed for 70 percent of the population when it doesn’t fit their interests. A day misspent cannot be recovered.”
Studies reflect the importance of customized vacations, as well. In the “2016 Industry Snapshot” survey of adventure travel suppliers conducted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), the demand for custom itineraries was the top-rated development for 2016.
“We’ve been watching this trend of customization do nothing but grow over the past years,” said Shannon Stowell, president of the ATTA. “It appears that Americans’ need for their own special trip continues to be a driver of change. It’s both difficult and an opportunity, and it cannot be ignored.”
In fact, customization has become such an integral part of adventure travel planning that it is misleading to call it a “trend.” For many operators, it’s the only type of trip they do.
“Companies such as Scott Dunn exist to totally customize a trip around on our guests’ wish lists, budgets and restrictions,” said John Spence, president of Scott Dunn USA. “Travelers are increasingly demanding extraordinary experiences and more meaningful connections with places.”
Some of the common aspects of a trip that travelers tailor include departure and return dates, budgets, activities that are adapted for a specific hobby or for a diverse group with different interests, mobility issues and more. The desire for custom adventure itineraries is a positive development for travel agents because it gives them the opportunity to highlight their customer service skills and destination expertise while crafting trips that can’t simply be booked online without a human touch.
With the help of tour operators, agents can help couples celebrate a milestone with a bucket-list adventure trip, or help larger groups with varying needs. For example, at Scott Dunn, a guest wanted to take a group of 17 to Tanzania, but his challenge was that he was traveling with a multigenerational group and one family member with limited mobility.
“The desire for clients to fulfill certain personal agendas has opened an opportunity for specialized suppliers and agents to work with clients to customize experiences specific to their wishes,” said Owen Gaddis, a former Virtuoso agent and tour operator and current director of sales for Untrodden, a curated online lodging marketplace launching later this year. “The ability to do this might have started as a trend but has quickly turned into a standard practice among travelers, as well as among suppliers and advisors.”
Tour Operator Expertise
The key asset that tour operators bring to custom adventure trip planning is local knowledge. In many cases, operators have years of experience in the destinations they serve and can utilize a network of experts to craft individualized activities.
“We invest heavily in our staff and send them to their specialist regions multiple times a year,” Spence said. “They’ve often lived and worked there and have friends locally — it’s hard to beat that insider know-how. Of course, luxury is still about fine linens and sumptuous surroundings, but it’s also about doing something totally unique that says something about you. For that, operators need a great little black book.”
Audley Travel’s Saylor says that the real-world, on-the-ground experience of a tour operator is an asset that consumers and agents just can’t match on their own.
“Our ability to do personalized trips has evolved over 20 years in business,” she said. “It is streamlined by a custom reservations system and intensive preparation of our country specialists, who have multiple months of experience traveling or living in their destination.”
Spence points out that besides expertise, custom tour operators often offer more value for the dollar than cookie-cutter itineraries. He says a common misconception is that a set departure will be the cheaper option.
“In fact, those trips often cost more because guests are paying for guides and hosts,” he said. “So I think it’s worth the extra time to build a custom trip from a financial point of view, as well as in regard to the quality of the resulting experience.”
Tour operators not only have logistical expertise, but they also often have the experience that comes from designing dozens of unique trips. Untrodden’s Gaddis points out that creating a custom itinerary might begin with mixing and matching moments from previous trips to create a unique recipe for a particular client.
“There are already pretty substantial collections of experiences and ideas in each particular destination,” he said. “From this information, we can often build a full itinerary by simply incorporating different experiences in a ‘playlist’ that is specific to a client’s interest or schedule.”
Connor Frey, private group and FIT manager for Intrepid Travel, says his company has designed a trip to visit the “Star Wars” movie set in Tunisia; a getaway to meditation retreats in Nepal; a tour of a photographer’s favorite shooting locations in India; and much more.
“I’m still blown away by the consistent execution of our people to pull off some pretty crazy requests,” he said. “The possibilities are truly endless, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to customizing adventure travel.”
Saylor says that sometimes the best trips come from a personal motivation that is much larger than the trip itself. Audley has planned trips to specific battle zones or military stations outside of Hanoi for Vietnam vets; crafted a trip that was an introduction to the culture of India for a mother and her adopted Indian daughter; and created a mother-and-son bonding trip to Japan that could appeal to his interest in anime and her passion for the country’s traditional culture and cuisine, among others.
“Planning custom travel is part psychology and part logistics,” Saylor said.
How Do Agents Fit In?
While tour operators often have invaluable experience and local knowledge, travel agents are also an important part of custom adventure trip planning. Perhaps the most important decision a travel agent makes is finding the right operator to work with in the first place.
Saylor says this is where advisors can truly impress their clients.
“You must do your own personalizing by choosing an operator that matches your client’s wants and needs,” she said. “This is what really sets the best agents apart and makes the customization process well worth it for all involved.”
According to Gaddis, if agents truly know their clients — and the suppliers — then playing matchmaker will set up the trip for success right from the start, as well as save valuable time in the long run.
“The advisor/supplier relationship is crucial to a successful experience,” he said. “Suppliers should be seen as an extension of an agent’s brand. The experience is heavily reliant on an operator’s professional, knowledgeable services, and when this goes sour, it can have negative consequences on the experience as well as the advisor/client relationship.”
Intrepid’s Frey believes that trust is a major factor when choosing a tour partner.
“Leave the logistics to the operators,” he said. “Focus on the who, what, where, when and why, and we’ll handle the how. Intrepid has been in business over 28 years and we know these countries and, more important, how to plan the smoothest possible trip inside and out.”
One of the key ways agents can aid the custom trip planning process is by truly getting to know their clients. As their main advocate, agents should find out as much about clients’ travel expectations, special interests, motivations, history and preferences as possible. Then, all of this information can be used by tour operators to craft the perfect vacation.
“Having discussions with clients about past trips, personal tastes and preferences gives me a better sense of how to build a trip that the client will be intrigued by,” Gaddis said. “The reality is that clients often don’t know what they want, and they are coming to an advisor to help them decide on where to go and what to do. The more you know about your client, the better you will be able to assist in the planning process.”
When it comes to adventure travel in particular, agents need to ask about mobility restrictions, health concerns and comfort levels with certain activities. But, according to Saylor, beyond the specific questions, it’s important to have open communication between the client, the agent and the operator throughout the planning process.
“Any small detail could spark a personalized touch that could make a client’s whole trip,” Saylor said. “And once the trip is planned, it is essential that the agent fully understands and communicates all plans back to the client to set expectations.”
While creating customized adventure trips can be more challenging, ultimately, agents have a lot to gain from this approach. Not only is it fast becoming the norm in travel, but planning a bespoke trip proves an agent’s worth, and it offers the chance to bond with a client.
“The biggest benefit of listening to exactly what clients want and being able to create an itinerary that best aligns with their interests is the customer loyalty and satisfaction that comes as a result of this,” Saylor said. “Experience is becoming social currency, and everyone wants their own unique story to tell.”