Docents are experts in high culture. // © 2015 Context
Feature image (above): A chef might lead a market tour with Context. // © 2015 Context
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Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context, confesses he isn’t a fan of the typical tour. He dislikes the feeling of being talked at, the monotony of preplanned scripts and the calculated and wince-worthy cheesy jokes. But what he does love is engaging with an expert. That’s why Bennett, along with wife Lani Bevacqua, created Context 12 years ago.
The tour operator, headquartered in Philadelphia, employs a network of certified scholars and specialists who lead small-group or private walking seminars in Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, North America and South America. Bennett explains how Context has solved the “immersive experience problem.”
Changing the Game
There are a lot of pieces in putting together a trip, and one big component is: “While I’m there, what am I going to do? Of the various options in front of me, how will I immerse myself in the place I’m visiting? How can I learn about it and feel and experience it in the most substantial way?” A lot of times, people answer that question by taking a tour.
Context is certainly a tour company, but we do tours a little differently. We keep groups at six people maximum. And instead of using tour guides, we connect people with docents, or local experts. Usually, they are professors of local universities with expertise in a high-cultural discipline.
We get docents with CVs encompassing teaching, writing and researching experience — so they know what they’re talking about. But the tricky part is: Do they have the narrative ability? Can they carry a group and communicate social intelligence?
We do an extensive interview process with them based on these things. We check references. If they are professors, we talk to their students or colleagues. We care less about the research aspect; our real question is if they’re a good teacher.
Beyond the Classroom
If you’re going to Beijing, you might sign up for a Context tour of the Forbidden City, which would last three hours and be led by a sinologist from a local university. You might decide to go to the market with a local chef as your docent, or go to 798 Arts District with a curator or an auction-house operator. Instead of a tour guide, you have a real-life expert, so it’s like you’re going back to college for three hours.
We spend about 80 percent of our time, resources and energy on the product, and 20 percent on marketing and selling it. That’s bad for us as a business, but it’s beneficial for the agent because 99.9 percent of the time, their clients come back and say that it was a fantastic trip and that the best part was some Context itinerary.
The tours are commissionable, which is great, but I think the strongest value is that Context takes a trip and transforms it into an experience.