When it comes to budget travelers, price is obviously a major factor. But at all levels of travel, even premium and luxury products, travelers are looking for good value for their money—so how do they define value, and how can travel agents help them find what they are looking for?
According to the Martini Affluent Traveler Report, the top 3 percent of Americans, those who earn more than $250,000, tend to choose accommodations based on their luxury rating. On the other hand, affluent travelers who earn between $75,000 and $250,000 consider the value of the accommodations to be more important than the rating. And in this year’s Virtuoso Luxe Report, the top two must-have experiences for affluent travelers were reported as discovering unique places and creating unforgettable memories. So the key for travel agents is defining the value of a travel experience, which lies in the emotional and aspirational benefits, rather than just focusing on price.
“In our industry, there are so many choices because there are more people traveling,” says Susan Entringer, CTC, travel consultant with Bon Voyage Travel in Tucson, AZ. “Not everyone can take a luxury tour, so we’re lucky to have so many options and ways to get them out there traveling, depending on what’s the best fit for them.”
With so many offerings on the table, travelers often need to be guided toward the ideal option for their needs and preferences. Under these circumstances, it’s important for agents to keep overall value in mind and not just the up-front price—and to effectively illustrate the difference to their clients.
Value Versus Price
Travel agents are perfectly placed to explain the details of the unique experiences that are available with premium tours, gaining credit for their expert knowledge along with the benefit of a higher commission. The slightly higher cost to the traveler provides a tremendous return as travelers fulfill lifetime bucket-list desires and participate in custom-crafted experiences they never even could have imagined—and that’s the recipe for a repeat client.
“It’s important to put the entire vacation experience into perspective when booking an escorted journey—it’s so much more than simply the hotels, dining and sightseeing,” says Phil Cappelli, president of Insight Vacations, which features premium and luxury escorted journeys. “You truly need to look at what you’re getting, and the quality of each individual element.”
If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip or the traveler isn’t planning to return to that destination, then it’s especially important to provide some behind-the-scenes and hands-on experiences. The client also has to consider that while they might pay a lower cost up-front with a mid-range tour, they will have to pay extra for optional activities. That means there’s more potential for out-of-pocket expenses paid in a foreign currency if they don’t choose a tour that is already built the way they want it.
When considering the value of a tour, most people look first at the tangible value they get from the quality of the accommodations and sightseeing. But in fact, many affluent travelers are really more interested in the intangible value that they’ll get from experiences they’ve been dreaming about for years.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Cappelli. “You can’t put a price on exploring Venice after the day-trippers leave. You can’t put a price on the new friends you met at that local restaurant or learning the secret ingredient to Nonna’s famous Bolognese sauce.”
That’s the difference between seeing the landmark sights versus engaging with the locals, which enables travelers to come home with a completely new viewpoint. For help in exploring these intangible values with clients, look for several key travel motivations, such as:
Discovering Hidden Gems
Exploring new destinations has become the top travel motivation, and is even more important than checking things off the bucket list according to the Virtuoso Luxe Report. There’s nothing like visiting the Eiffel Tower for the first time, but then what’s next? There’s value in being able to experience adventures beyond the obvious attractions that each destination has to offer, such as the chance for meaningful engagement with locals, savoring authentic local cuisine and exploring behind-the-scenes.
In fact, the hands-on and out-of-the-ordinary experiences are often the most memorable. Entringer describes an art walk she took in Alaska this summer that ended at a glass studio. “We got to put on the masks and goggles and we made something of our own creation,” she says. “When we were done, they had it sent back home to us. You wouldn’t expect this kind of experience would exist, but it was the highlight of the trip for me.”
Optimum Group Size
There’s a Goldilocks zone when it comes to the size of a group—one that allows for an intimacy of experience and individual focus on each traveler’s interests, yet has the power to open access to special sites and maximize technology.
“The 30 people who choose a premium tour are probably a more defined and refined traveler to have as your fellow passenger,” says Entringer. “They’re more interesting, so you enjoy your time together more.”
Plus, smaller group sizes mean more customization and intimacy of experience. When you have a bigger group of 50+ people together, the experience slows down—and there’s often that one person who gets lost in the shopping area, forcing everyone else to wait.
In addition, often premium tours use advanced technology like whisper earphones so everyone doesn’t have to stand around the guide “like a group of small ducks,” says Ellen Price, an Altour travel agent. “You can wander away and day dream and see it at your own speed, yet also hear what they’re trying to teach you.”
Customized to the Client
With rest and relaxation cited as one of the top travel motivators this year by the Virtuoso travel advisors, most travelers are looking for free time on their own—but not too much or they don’t feel they’re getting what they’ve paid for. For example, many travelers appreciate getting a block of free time on some mornings or mid-afternoon to wander and explore their own interests, knowing there are organized parts of a tour that will ensure they experience the major sites.
Premium tours also feature local tour directors who are well-immersed in what’s available, and can answer questions and provide direction on the spot. “For instance, I was in Florence, and I told the tour guide that I heard there was a wonderful leather store that Clint Eastwood shopped in,” says Price. “By the next morning, he had the address and directions and during the afternoon free time, I was off and gone.”
One of the advantages of a smaller group size is being able to stay in signature hotels that are family-owned or located in historical buildings established close to an old city center. This allows travelers to enjoy a more authentic cultural experience, which is the second most important travel motivation according to the Virtuoso Luxe Report.
“Boutique hotels are wonderful because they really bring out the character of the destination,” says Cappelli. However, it’s important to qualify if clients want a room that is acceptable but not especially interesting (or convenient) or if they’re interested more in a sense of place and adventure.
“When you’re on a budget group tour, the hotels are on the edge of town and people think the price is too good to pass up,” Price says. “Yet the premium tour groups with better-located hotels allow you to wander around on your own, or go back to something you saw and loved. You want to be able to tell your friends that you walked along the Seine and bought a painting from an artist on the way back to the hotel.”
Another way that premium tours offer truly authentic experiences is by providing culinary treats that are specific to the region, including cooking classes and shopping in local markets. Travelers have the benefit of not always eating a hotel meal, and yet they also don’t have the daunting task of trying to find a great place to eat on their own.
“Guests want authentic, high-quality cuisine and they don’t want to waste all their time on Yelp finding that,” says Cappelli. “They also want to try local specialties. We were recently in Paris and whenever we had free time, people would be grabbing a crepe, or a croissant, or a macaron—there’s nothing like having the real thing!”
Entringer agrees: “There’s a difference between eating for sustenance and eating for enjoyment, which is something they can talk about with their friends and family when they return. Then they seek out those opportunities on their next trip.”
As with any other kind of travel, travel advisors need to qualify clients to recommend the right tour. What kind of travel have they done before? What elements have they enjoyed? What would they prefer not to do again? What are they hoping to see on this trip? Do? Experience? What is their budget? And so on. And of course, sometimes the initial answers belie what comes later through more careful questioning.
Dinar Pavri, a travel counselor with AAA, says she separates her clients between those who are tourists and those who are “real travelers.” “The tourists want to be in a country a day, to check off the things they’ve seen and done, while travelers want a more hands-on experience,” Pavri says. “Travelers will try to absorb everything about the local culture and give everything a shot, whereas tourists stay true to their own nature and don’t want anything to challenge them.”
Travelers who can benefit from premium tours include:
Repeat Tour Participants
Baby boomers who are experienced and want to build on past trips can find more value in premium tours. Perhaps there are still traditional sites they want to see, but they are also looking for something that they can’t achieve on their own with independent travel.
Price says she is “surprised and continually pleased” by the number of repeat travelers she sees for premium tours. “But I shouldn’t be,” she says, “because premium tours have taken those difficult things away from travel, like finding your way about and deciding what are you doing when. Yet it also allows for my travelers to express their personality and explore what interests them.”
Travelers Looking to Kick It Up a Notch
For those who have done mid-range tours before and now want something more, premium tours can fit the bill. These are travelers who have enjoyed the overall experience of touring, but can be enticed to a higher level with an understanding of the benefits a premium tour features that they won’t experience on a mid-range tour.
“People are more well-traveled these days, so they want to kick it up a notch,” says Entringer. “It might be an after-hours visit to the Vatican or a private wine tasting at a family vineyard that isn’t open to the general public. You can’t just walk up and get that service. And it’s very important to them.”
Pavri agrees that experienced tour travelers know exactly what they’re after. “They like some down time, but they want most of the experiences to be included,” she says. “They want a knowledgeable tour director and guides that have a lot of local expertise. They like the fact that the hotels are in walk-about areas during their free time.”
Premium tours can also suit travelers who have since been reluctant to try tours because they’ve heard about crowded buses and regimented schedules. With premium tours, they get the benefit of having someone else organize the nuts and the bolts of the trip, yet they also get the feel of doing things on their own.
“This is something that I run across all the time,” says Price. “My clientele is older and they’re experienced travelers. The first thing out of their mouth is ‘no tours,’ but the next thing out of their mouths is ‘I don’t want to drive in Italy.’ ”
This is where the travel advisor can be especially helpful, presenting travelers with tour options that fulfill both those desires. “The internet is loaded with endless information and to be able to review it is great—but to make decisions just based on that can be very daunting,” says Entringer. “So an agent who does this daily and has seen these places and knows the tours can help guide clients in the right direction—to a premium tour that brings together the ease of group travel with the flexibility of individual travel.”
Some travelers love to have every day filled up with activities and experiences, while others need more leisure time to relax or explore on their own. Insight Vacations offers a variety of touring styles that suit different desires—for example, Discovery journeys are multi-country adventures while Easy Pace journeys offer full days at leisure. Insight also offers Country Roads journeys that venture off the beaten path, and the new Insight Inclusive journeys include all breakfasts, dinners and experiences in one upfront price.
Insight Vacations also recently expanded its luxury product line under a new and separate brand, Luxury Gold. This worldwide collection feature luxury hotels, epicurean and Michelin-Star dining plus exclusive VIP experiences.
“There really is something for everybody,” says Phil Cappelli, president of Insight Vacations. “Often times people say they don’t want to be in a group because the schedules are so packed, but in reality, when they travel on their own they end up overpromising and under-delivering, so they see less than they intended and in a more chaotic way. Leave it to the experts—we’ve been doing this for 40 years and have it down!”
A few years ago, Insight went through their impressive listing of hotel partners and selected their favorites as part of their Signature Hotel Collection. Ashford Castle is probably the best example of a signature hotel—it’s been home to royalty and aristocracy for nearly 800 years. Featured as part of Insight’s Irish Elegance 9-day trip, the castle recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and has won numerous world’s best awards.
Another example of VIP access is Insight’s exclusive visit to the Vatican Museums, which is part of the 9-day Italian Intermezzo tour. Guests enter through Preferred Partner Access, so they don’t wait in line to enter the Vatican, and then they explore the art and history of the famed museums with a local art historian.
“When the museum closes to the public, guests are invited to a VIP dinner in the museum itself, among its priceless treasures,” says Cappelli. “It’s truly unforgettable.”
For Insight’s Easy Pace Spain 11-day journey, the highlight is 3 nights in San Sebastian. Not only is Basque Country home to some of the friendliest people, but to some of Europe’s best cuisine. Guests are taken off the beaten path to local taverns that offer small bites, called “pintxos,” with an atmosphere that emphasizes camaraderie and socializing with locals.
“It’s like being at a friend’s house for an intimate party, sharing hors d’oeuvres and wine over great conversation,” says Cappelli. “It’s truly a cornerstone of the local culture, and a great Signature Experience for our guests.”
Another tour that offers local experiences in an exotic locale that travelers can’t find on their own is the 2017 Country Roads of Croatia, which takes 15 days to explore the islands and coast of Croatia, including Plvitvice Lakes. “I was on this tour when we stopped at a family oyster farm and we stayed for close to five hours instead of the one hour scheduled because everyone was having such a great time,” says Cappelli. “The oysters were fresh out of the water across the street and with their amazing white wine, it was one of those life experiences. At Insight, we’re opening eyes for people. These Signature Experiences are the most important part of travel.”