Boutique Tours

Small groups are the next big thing in touring By: Janeen Christoff
Smaller groups don’t have to use whisper headsets while touring. // © 2011 Collette Vacations
Smaller groups don’t have to use whisper headsets while touring. // © 2011 Collette Vacations

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Read detailed information on small group itineraries
It's true that, sometimes, good things come in small packages and, recently, tour operators have found this to be true about touring. Think all tours are made the same? Not anymore. As the tour industry segments into various categories such as family travel, river cruising and voluntourism, small groups are emerging as the next big trend. The "big box" way of traveling by motorcoach can now be made more intimate when experienced with a limited number of people.

Brendan Vacations, for example, is taking this approach by launching its Small Group Discoveries itineraries this April.

"Small Group Discoveries are ideal for a growing number of travelers who are looking for a more intimate, immersive and unique touring experience," said Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations. "These new tour options are ideal for travelers with less time -- travelers who are looking for comfort; unique and fantastic lodging; a worry-free vacation; awesome sights; professional, local and fun drivers and guides; and a less rigid schedule."

Tauck launched a small group product, Culturious, in 2009. The tour operator's general manager for land products and new business development, Jeremy Palmer, agrees with Zenner.

"At Tauck, we are always looking for guest feedback about new products and new business initiatives," said Palmer. "We did extensive consumer research with travelers who fit our demographic and who had an income level that fit our business model. We asked what was important to them, and small groups came out at the top."

Size Matters
Melissa Snape of Collette Vacations, which just launched its own small group itineraries, Explorations, last September, believes that small groups are also a way to attract new clients.

"More clients were inclined to enter touring with groups of fewer people," said Snape. "Smaller group sizes were necessary to continue to attract boomers."

Tauck also found that size matters when it comes to small groups.

"On average, small groups of 20 people was the breaking point," said Palmer. "Much below that and people realized the dynamic was different. Twenty was the sweet spot."

General Tours president, Robert Drumm agrees that groups of 20 or fewer are more ideal. The tour operator has fully embraced the concept of small group touring and reduced the number of travelers on each of its itineraries.

"The positive response of guests when group size diminished during the recession caused us to embrace the concept fully," said Drumm. "Thus, in 2011, every one of our 41 escorted trips is guaranteed at 16 guests or fewer."

The Attraction
While the concept of small group touring has been around for a while, major industry players are latching onto the idea in droves. According to Drumm, an uptick in well-heeled clientele is helping to drive the boom.

"The concept has taken hold quickly, particularly among more upscale and experienced travelers and even among those who have been more independent-oriented in their prior travels," said Drumm.

He believes that one of the driving forces behind the growing interest is an increased desire among travelers for a more exotic experience.

"I think it parallels the growing interest in more exotic travel," Drumm said. "Independent travelers feel a little more needy, perhaps, when it comes to strong language barriers and remote locations."

Drumm also believes that small groups facilitate a need for travelers who may be transitioning from FIT travel.

"The transition in travel style from 'on-your-own' to a small, congenial group with more attention to individual interests and flexibility is easier," he said. "The taste for a more intimate, tailored 'boutique' experience not unlike what is experienced at boutique hotels and retail shops Ö fuels the interest in small group travel."

Zenner added that tours that were once based on the "one-size-fits-all" approach have changed dramatically over the years.

"There are now themed tours -- culinary, wine, special interests, family, archeology, specialty and more -- with shorter durations. There are tours with 'a la carte ingredients,' tours with more inclusions, upscale tours, mainstream tours and even more options," Zenner said. "Travelers are very savvy and have a wide choice of touring possibilities. Our Small Group Discoveries fit nicely in a somewhat new niche market of affordable, yet boutique-style touring with higher-end accommodations, local flavor and fewer participants."

When it comes to the attraction of small groups, intimacy and exclusivity are major selling points.

"Those who go on a small group tour will like it because it is novel, unique and more intimate," said Zenner. "They will like it because the hotels are luxury or deluxe, and many simply do not have the capacity to accommodate large groups. Since the tours are operated with a smaller coach, groups can get to more remote locations. Fewer participants also means shorter coach boarding times, quicker hotel check-in, better restaurant service -- simply a more personal experience."

Another key feature is the deeper relationship that develops between travelers and guides when there's a smaller group.

"Our clients like the closer relationship with their trip leader, who interacts with the individuals in a small group, unlike the more formal presentations experienced with a group of 48 people," said Drumm.

And still another driver of the small group boom is a less-regimented approach to touring.

"One of the biggest attractions of small group touring is that it is easy to adjust the dayís activities and the timing while traveling," said Drumm.  

Target Demographic

Research shows that clients who are looking for the small group experience are primarily boomers who can afford the sometimes heftier price tag that comes with these more intimate experiences. According to Snape, however,  younger people should not be overlooked because, while boomers are the target demographic, small groups appeal to a wide range of people.

"Some of these clients are younger and more affluent," she said.

Drumm has also found similar interest from a younger demographic.

"Our audience is 50-plus, with household incomes above $110,000. They are usually college graduates and post-graduates and have past international travel. This primary audience is the boomer, who is already acquainted with overseas travel. However, on our programs to the 'natural' world -- Galapagos, East and Southern Africa, Vietnam -- we skew down to 40-plus," he said.

Although small group touring sometimes costs more, the itineraries offer great value.

"Brendan's Small Group Discoveries have higher-end accommodations, unique activities and inclusions," said Zenner. "They offer excellent value for money and are very competitively priced."

Depending on the type of tour -- Brendan currently offers three itineraries in Ireland -- and the season, tour pricing starts at less than $2,000 per person, based on double occupancy, for the land arrangements only.

Snape noted that, while prices may be a little bit higher, clients are also getting more.

"They are a little bit more expensive, but not by much -- maybe by 10 to 15 percent," she said. "But the trip is more interactive so clients are getting more for their money."

Tauck's Palmer agrees.

"Boomers have an independent streak and a desire to get into the heart of a destination," said Palmer. "Our Culturious itineraries offer the opportunity to give people a lot more free time to go and experience a destination. Boomers like to challenge themselves."

The Future of Touring
While small group travel is growing in popularity, the increased interest by no means indicates the end of the traditional tour.

"I think itís going to work both ways," said Snape. "We are finding that some people may start with a Collette trip or vice versa, and some will go back and forth. A lot depends on the itinerary, the drivers behind the destination and the specific trip."

The general consensus in the industry indicates that demand for this type of touring will continue to increase.

"Culturious is doing very well," said Palmer. "But overall, all of our products are doing well. However, I do think there is an energy and enthusiasm behind this product that speaks strongly to its growth."

According to Snape, clients are more specific these days, and they want their travel to be more tailored to their desires.

"I'm not sure that Explorations will be as big as Collette, but it definitely has the potential to be a major product in the next 10 years," said Snape. "People are looking for different experiences in different places."

As the market segments and small group tours become more mainstream, agents may be wondering how they should find the best product for their clients.

"Ask what small group means to your clients," advised Palmer. "The long-term successful strategy is finding out why they want to do it and what they want to get out of it."
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