Bazaar shopping // © 2014 David De Lossy
"The days of being on a 50-seat motorcoach and being told to look to the left and then look to the right are numbered,” said Chris Coillet, product and marketing leader for Worldwide Traveler. “People want to get up close and personal with the destination. Consumers want to participate, not observe. They want to learn, not be told.”
Coillet’s statement gets to the heart of what has become a sea change in the tour operator industry over the past few years. As a result of these changes, instead of relying on small, specialized tour companies, travelers can now go to the major tour operators to get a full range of soft-adventure activities and unique experiences.
Collette is one tour operator that is adjusting its offerings to fit these new travelers.
“We have built in more leisure time to give guests the chance to incorporate more soft adventure,” said Dan Sullivan Jr., president and CEO of Collette.
Optional excursions offered on Collette’s 18-day Exploring Australia tour include watching the sunrise from legendary Ayers Rock while on the back of a camel or climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge for a spectacular view of the opera house and the harbor.
“Most tour operators have tried to break free of the stereotype of a confining bus tour with limited freedom,” said Melissa McKee, U.S. marketing and public relations specialist for G Adventures. “We often find ourselves trying to combat the misperception that our brand is for the hard-core, active adrenaline junkies. But to us, the term ‘adventure’ has always meant active exploration, cultural immersion, embracing the unexpected and creating true, lifelong connections with the people and places we visit.”
According to McKee, the U.S. market is embracing adventure travel in a big way and the company expects to see even more growth over the next few years.
“There is definitely an appetite to step outside the confines of all-inclusive resorts and big-bus tours to experience the raw beauty of the world,” she said.
According to a recent study by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, among travelers from North America, demand for activities defined as “hard” adventure — such as caving, heli-skiing, trekking and more — has decreased 20 percent over the past four years. Meanwhile, soft-adventure activities now claim about 16 percent of the entire market.
“Experiential travel is not a fad or a trend, and it’s not going away,” said Worldwide Traveler’s Coillet. “It’s a generational evolution of travelers’ expectations about visiting a destination. We work very closely with our network of suppliers to ensure that we provide truly immersive experiences in all of our destinations. We offer a variety of activities all over the world, ranging from feeding and washing a baby tiger at a sanctuary in Thailand to a private bush cooking class in Australia’s Outback to swimming with great white sharks in South Africa.”
Coillet pointed out that every traveler’s definition of an “experience” is different. As a major tour operator, the company has the ability to use multiple suppliers and global buying power to make sure the clients’ ideal experiences happen.
“We have organized vineyard tours through many of the world’s wine regions, private safaris, local school visits and cultural performances, and the list goes on,” he said.
Steve Cox, co-founder of International Expeditions, thinks that travel agents do not need to go searching for new adventure-focused clients.
“What most agents may not realize is that they already have a base of adventure travel clients,” Cox said. “Adventure travel isn’t just climbing something or roughing it. It is simply journeys that tap into nature and local cultures, with some physical activity required. And because companies such as International Expeditions are typically very inclusive, agents don’t have to worry about losing commissions on extra tours and add-ons that guests book once they are on the trips.”
According to Cox, agents should start by learning more about their clients.
“It’s easy to tap into your existing client base and ‘convert’ them to adventure travelers just by asking a few questions,” he said. “Certain questions point to experiences that can be found in soft-adventure tours and expedition cruises, such as ‘Do you like to hike or take nature walks? Do you like gardening? Do you like exploring bazaars and local markets when you travel? Do you or your family like wildlife? Have you ever thought it would be fun to swim with dolphins, sea lions and penguins?’”
Every major tour operator emphasizes the importance of working closely with travel agents.
“The best agents we work with give the client some basic parameters and then let them talk and drive the discussion about what their dream vacation is all about,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “We like to listen before we talk, but when it’s time for input, we do strive to be 100 percent honest in responding to questions and determining trip suitability. When a trip has been selected, the agent then drives the conversation and orchestrates the booking.”
Sometimes it can be challenging to coordinate divergent requests within one group traveling together.
“This happens on a majority of group bookings,” said Coillet of Worldwide Traveler, “especially with multigenerational gatherings. We recently helped an agent put together a family reunion in New Zealand, where the youngsters wanted New Zealand’s most exhilarating experiences and the older generations preferred to visit a local winery. Groups will generally travel together and stay together, but they don’t always play together.”
Still, when it comes to play, tour operators are ready and able to jump into the sandbox and help today’s travelers.