Many tour operators are focused on providing authentic dining experiences // © 2012 Tauck
For more information on escorted tours, read an interview with Brendan Tours' Nico Zenner
When people thought of touring, it used to be that the first thing that came to mind was the film “It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.” The movie became a stereotype of the escorted tour industry. Over the last decade, however, tour operators have gone to great lengths to dispel this idea, and the industry is enjoying some of its most successful years ever, despite turmoil in Europe, clashes in the Middle East and volatility with airfares. While the industry is transforming, it isn’t headed in the direction travelers may think.
“Back in the ’70s, people told my dad that by the ’90s touring would be gone,” said Dan Sullivan IV, director of sales at Collette Vacations. “Now, touring is bigger than ever. I think that it will continue to change and evolve.”
Tour operators have been working hard to replace words that are associated with touring such as whirlwind and whistle-stop with a new vernacular that includes phrases such as authentic experiences, in-depth sightseeing and hassle-free vacations. While travelers used to complain about barely having enough time to take a photo of momentous sites such as the Colosseum in Rome, they now rave about how well-managed their time is in a destination while on a tour.
“Travelers don’t want to be wasting their time,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing at the Globus Family of Brands. “The idea of not missing something is a huge benefit for the escorted tour market.”
So, which has changed more: today’s traveler or today’s tour?
“Escorted group travel was built on the basic promise of providing a no-hassle vacation,” said Born. “Hassle-free, easy and simple are the main drivers for clients booking this type of travel.”
Research conducted by Globus found that 17 million Americans were open to touring and that the biggest driver was that the experience was hassle-free.
“This section is bigger than all of the cruisers in a year,” said Born.
Sullivan agrees that the industry is becoming more diverse.
“The tour industry has transformed like television,” said Sullivan. “Now, when you ask someone what their favorite channel is, there is a diverse range of answers.”
In the mid to late ’90s, many people believed that touring was an antiquated way to travel and that FIT was the best way to get an authentic experience. Over the years, travelers have realized that it’s not as easy — or time effective — to go it on their own.
“People believe that they can get in a car and drive the Amalfi Coast,” said Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations. “The problem is that they don’t get to see as much as they would on a tour.”
Evolution of the Industry
“Clearly, escorted tours have seen headwinds increase,” said Jeremy Palmer, vice president of product development at Tauck. “Blame it on mother nature or economic volatility or the popularity of cruising, but the industry has responded with a more robust product.”
Longer stays are one of the ways in which the industry has transformed for the next generation of travelers.
“We’ve adapted and changed for what the customers and agents have asked for,” said Kazlauskas. “We went from doing multi-country tours to doing two- to three-night stays in a destination. We now go in and spend two hours in the Colosseum. Before, clients wanted to be sightseers. Now, they want to get under the skin of a destination.”
While the escorted tour industry is transforming, it’s focus is more on diversification.
“No one trend seems to be taking over,” said Sullivan. “What’s happening is that the industry is becoming more diverse.”
While the bones of the escorted tour experience remain the same, many features have been enhanced.
“We have changed the pace, locations, inclusions, style and format of our product,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar. “We are completely focused on delivering unique and exclusive insider experiences such as our Be My Guest dining. But we have not changed the fundamental business model of carrying a group of people together, and that group average remains 40 people. We have changed the product to suit the modern traveler.”
One of the most popular requests from travelers — and one of the biggest changes in the industry — is more time in a destination.
“Baby boomers don’t want the traditional escorted tour,” said Sullivan. “They want single hotel stays. They want to go to Italy and stay in one city. ‘Hub and spoke’ is a good model of what the modern escorted tour client wants today.”
One of the ways in which tour operators have diversified the product to make it more appealing is by adding new features and new experiences.
“The magic is in the delivery of the moment,” said Born. “This will keep the experience from being cliche. The secret ingredient is that the tour operators are building and delivering the experience just for the group. To that group, you are the only ones there. It has to about the uniqueness of the moment and making clients feel special.”
According to Palmer, Tauck frequently updates its itineraries to keep clients engaged.
“We have turned over 40 percent of our product, and we go tour by tour and see what we are ‘hitting’ and what we are not with feedback from directors, agents, clients, etc.,” said Palmer. “The product managers travel and look for things that are authentic and what we have unique access to. This ensures that clients are interacting with the environment and the culture.”
Palmer noted that in China, clients have the opportunity to hold a panda bear and visit an Apple factory.
“It doesn’t have to be a big splash from a monetary point of view,” said Palmer. “It needs to fit with the narrative of the trip. That is what we are trying to do.”
Ultimately, touring’s popularity comes down to time management and the delivery of unique and authentic experiences.
“On an escorted tour, you can do a comprehensive Rome tour in less than four hours because of the way we manage the time,” said Born. “We bring you right into the attractions, there is no line. Everything is structured efficiently. To the traveler, it delivers perfect time management. Their time is gold, and they don’t want to miss a thing.”
New Niches and Exotic Destinations
One of the newest trends in the escorted tour market is tours that focus on a distinct niche, such as music, popular television personalities, books and more. The Harry Potter franchise has inspired a spate of tours in England and Scotland and tour operators are eager to cater to these clients with a range of targeted tours.
Tauck’s partnership with filmmaker Ken Burns is an example of how the industry is focused on new experiences.
Burns is working with Tauck to tell the story of America’s Buffalo Soldiers as part of a new itinerary that explores San Francisco and the National Parks of Northern California, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The history of the Buffalo Soldiers in the parks is one of several cultural narratives that Tauck will highlight in its new, all-inclusive, eight-day guided journey, Yosemite And Sequoia: John Muir’s California.
Insight is also honing in on new clients with its new Rhythms and Flavors of America tour. The itinerary starts in Chicago and encompasses bourbon tasting, a visit to the Anheuser Busch Brewery, the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Grand Ole Opry and more.
Sullivan sees potential in exotic markets such as Africa and Eastern Europe.
“One of the biggest emerging destinations, is Africa, specifically Kenya and South Africa,” he said. “South Africa has had a lot of demand.”
Additionally, Sullivan noted that there was increased interest in South America.
“South America is really emerging as a destination,” he said, “but it can become challenging. There is an ebb and flow in the demand, which has a lot to do with pricing. This is happening in Rio, where rates are going up. That is going to slow down growth at which time the market will correct itself.”
Born also sees interest rising in more exotic locales.
“We are seeing a mix of destinations both tried and true and emerging,” he said. “Germany and France are up, and Eastern Europe and Israel are emerging. On the exotic side, South America, Africa and Asia are experiencing a lot of growth.”
The Next Five Years
Over the next five years, tour operators agree that the market will continue to diversify and face challenges.
“I think that there is going to be more specialization in the industry,” said Sullivan. “Tour operators are going to want to do more limited tours with more focus on individualization. The family segment is going to grow for those companies that educate families and travel agents that these are really great bonding experiences. We need to get the word out to consumers and agents that these tours are feasible.”
While Born would like to see less volatility in Europe, he said that Globus is bullish on growth over the next five years.
“It is not just fingers-crossed optimism,” he said. “We see more and more boomers coming to tours when they are tired of doing it on their own. There is a new 60-year-old every few minutes in the U.S. They are ready to have people do things for them — this is the market that escorted tours is squarely in.”
Palmer believes that selling tours is going to become more of a digital experience and that those companies who can capitalize on digital products will be ahead of the game.
“Bringing tours alive on video and using iPads as a selling tool to demonstrate and bring the tour to life is going to be critical. As you move into the digital realm, you will be able to conquer the ‘this is just a bus tour’ myth,” he said.
Sullivan summed up the future of the industry by comparing it to saving for retirement.
“The tour industry is like a mutual fund,” he said. “Humans have a tendency to want to generalize things but, really, it’s about diversification.”
Palmer also noted that the next five years will be focused on inbound travel. Indicating that the “next generation” of tour clients may be visiting the U.S., rather than leaving it.
“Inbound travel is going to be a big trend,” said Palmer. “We have started to ramp that up, targeting the English-speaking markets as well as China, Hong Kong, India, Brazil and Argentina. We are examining all of our options right now.”