Escorted tours allow guests to see both a destination’s popular sights and hidden gems. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Operators often employ local guides with years of experience. // © 2017 Getty Images
Every year, travelers embark on adventures all over the world, and while some choose to travel without a guided itinerary, others put their dream vacations in the capable hands of experienced tour operators.
There are many reasons clients look to escorted tours, including for access to experiences that they may not be able to arrange on their own. However, there are also misconceptions related to touring that might discourage clients from booking. Tour companies are striving to address these concerns by making adjustments to policies and itineraries, but travel agents can also help by discussing the advantages of escorted tours with apprehensive clients.
A great way to approach the idea of escorted touring is to go over the day-by-day itinerary with clients so they’ll know what they will be seeing, that there is something for everyone and that there will be free time to explore on their own.
Meredith Wallace of Minnie Memories Travel in Bedford, N.Y., says her biggest hurdle is convincing travelers that they will have the special moments they want.
“Once we go over the schedule and they see how much time they will save by going into special entrances and not standing in line, they see there will be enough quality time together to make lasting memories,” she said.
If someone chooses a tour of a particular destination, they probably have a specific goal in mind, whether it’s to taste local foods, see art and architecture or visit notable or historical sites. Some clients may worry that they won’t have opportunities to encounter anything authentic to a destination on an escorted tour, so it’s a good idea to remind them that travelers often get to experience things on tours that they would not be able to alone.
“In addition to VIP front-of-line access at the world’s must-see sights, Globus takes travelers off the beaten path to places they might never find or experience on their own,” said Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus Family of Brands.
These “Local Favorites” — a destination’s hidden gems and behind-the-scenes activities — are offered on every Globus tour and might include once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as visiting a working macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, enjoying a bush breakfast in Kenya’s Maasai Mara or spending time in the home of a local family in rural Peru. Although travelers may be lucky enough to stumble upon one of these experiences on their own — particularly if they are adventurous enough to wander off the beaten track — there is little chance they would be able to find special experiences in every destination they visit without the help of a knowledgeable guide.
Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), says that the focus of A&K journeys is providing in-depth introductions to destinations. In addition, A&K’s Connections Boutique Group Journeys are specifically crafted to feature immersive authentic experiences — described as “Boutique Connections” — ranging from participating in a chef-led cooking class to mingling with locals in Barcelona, Spain’s Boqueria Market.
“We use Resident Tour Directors, who have lived in the location for decades — if not their entire lives,” Fawcett said. “Year-round residents possess the kind of insight into local culture that can only come from being locals themselves.”
Similarly, Intrepid Travel’s tour leaders are born and raised in the destination, so their insider knowledge is unsurpassed.
“The leaders know the urban legends behind every town square; the handy shortcuts down timeworn alleys; and the traditional dishes you won’t find on the tourist menu,” said Leigh Barnes, regional director for North America for Intrepid Group. “A local leader is more than just a guide; he or she serves as a bridge between travelers and locals.”
Insight Vacations has also created itineraries that promote a deep understanding of a destination by connecting guests with locals who bring them to life. Phil Cappelli, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, gives an example of this connection: After touring the arts district of Barranco in Lima, Peru, guests have the unique opportunity to meet a famous Peruvian painter in his studio.
In addition, the small group size on most departures and personal service from a Traveling
Concierge provides Luxury Gold clients with behind-the-scenes admission to landmark attractions, interactions with people not accessible to independent travelers and hands-on activities that provide a personal experience in each destination.
Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips, believes that the benefit of operating in small groups is that clients can take advantage of “serendipitous opportunities” that might present themselves along the way. One example, Lowell recounts, was the result of a guest in Cuba asking about the village where his grandfather lived before the revolution. Lowell says that the guide’s wife knew someone in the village, and because of that, the group was not only able to take a small detour to see the town, but the current residents at the grandfather’s address also invited the entire group into their home.
“This event was life-changing not just for the descendant of this village, but for the entire group,” Lowell said. “And it was possible only because of the small group size and our incredible local access.”
Unless clients are booking for an entire tour group, they will be traveling with at least a few people they don’t know. That’s part of the adventure for some globetrotters, who look forward to meeting travelers from all over the world. But for others, the thought of being thrust into a group with those who may not share their travel style can be cause for concern. To help alleviate this apprehension, agents should remind clients that the choice of tour company, itinerary and time of year often leads to self-selected groups of similar travelers.
“We find that our guests enjoy traveling with other like-minded individuals who share similar interests,” A&K’s Fawcett said. “Lasting friendships are often struck, and many of our guests plan future travel with people they meet on their journey.”
Parrish acknowledges that group touring may not be for everyone. She suggests that agents consider Globus’ award-winning sister company, Monograms, for clients who like the idea of a tour but are less enthusiastic about traveling with a group.
Parrish explains that Monograms allows travelers to explore the world independently with expert help, so they get the benefit of on-site local experts, transportation between cities and countries and half-day guided sightseeing with VIP access to must-see landmarks. But clients also have freedom to explore on their own or add optional excursions. In this way, they can take advantage of the benefits of organized touring without committing to the idea of a group dynamic.
Lowell notes that Access Trips guests often begin by saying they are not “group-tour people,” but by the time they return home, they’re usually sold on the Access Trips model of “micro-group” touring.
“Access Trips are intentionally designed with a balance of immersion and sightseeing, expert guiding and individual discovery,” Lowell said. “This gives our guests the best experience touring a destination without the downside of traditional escorted tours.”
Land tours frequently require large blocks of time on a bus to get from point A to point B. Many travelers welcome the opportunity for downtime between busy sightseeing locations, but for others, extended travel time confined to a coach can be frustrating.
When clients seem worried about too much bus time, agent Wallace says she tells them that the guide will point out sights they would simply drive by if they were on their own. Plus, she notes, tour companies often add local escorts, who give detailed information and personal insight into the areas they are passing.
“The coach is the quickest and most convenient way to get between destinations,” said Insight’s Cappelli. “But it has other advantages, as well. Guests get door-to-door service from their hotel to the next destination, and they get to stop in small towns en route and explore places they wouldn’t otherwise see if traveling by plane or train.”
To address concerns about the time spent on a motorcoach, Globus tries to keep average time spent on a motorcoach at less than 20 percent per day. Fawcett says that A&K tries to limit long bus rides, but also makes sure that any sightseeing done from a coach allows each guest plenty of room and a window seat.
According to Cappelli, Insight minimizes time on the coach by keeping many trips regional — some with only a couple of hours’ drive between locations — which gives guests as much ground time as possible in each destination. On Luxury Gold itineraries, he notes that the company uses the best type of transport for each destination.
“In Europe, it may be a luxury coach or river ship; in Asia and South America, we incorporate air travel; in Africa, we go on safari,” he said.
Cappelli adds that guests traveling in Ireland or Scotland can arrange a private car trip with a driver-guide, and as a post-trip extension in Italy, guests can travel on the famous Venice-Simplon-Orient Express from Venice to Paris.
If a client’s goals are seeing and doing as much as possible; having local and authentic experiences; and combining guided and free time, there really is no substitute for an escorted tour. And even within the tour dynamic, there are plenty of options that will match anyone’s travel style.
“I always point out that there is a tour for everyone,” Wallace said. “There are adventure-type tours where you might even be in a tent to tours where you are in five-star hotels and everything in between. That’s why I tell my clients to always keep an open mind about guided touring.”