Cultural activities are popular among travelers. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Tour operators use local knowledge to craft experiences. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Continued consumer demand for customized itineraries and immersive and authentic travel experiences is driving evolutionary change in the tour operator industry and its products.
“One of the most important shifts in the industry is a growing emphasis on creating personalized experiences,” said John Caldwell, president of MLT Vacations. “Whether affluent or aspirational, vacationers want to feel special and that they have exclusive access throughout the travel experience.”
Customization is another important element to creating a travel itinerary these days.
“Travelers have information at their fingertips, and they want the flexibility to request that certain aspects get added into their travel experiences,” noted Casey Hanisko, vice president of marketing and communications for Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Tour companies have also made accommodations to their product structure in response to the quest for personalized travel experiences.
“Our travelers want the ease and security of traveling with a group, but within that structure, they want to have their own unique experience,” said Melissa da Silva, president of Contiki, which specializes in group itineraries for travelers ages 18 to 35. “This means allowing more free time — at Contiki, we call this METime — to be built into the trip with multiple options of activities.”
Consumer interest in experiential travel continues unabated.
“Travelers want to get away and relax, but they also want to embrace and explore,” said Jack E. Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays.
The emphasis for travelers is on participation.
“The days of watching and observing are gone,” said Hanisko. “Travelers want to learn to cook. They want to hike through the countryside past homes and villages and meet local people. They want to learn dances and crafts particular to that culture and try activities in that destination’s natural setting.”
The same consumer demands shaping the tour industry overall are fueling the evolution of the upscale tour segment.
At Tauck, product development has focused on increased access and authenticity as part of “an all-out push to deliver a deeper, richer immersion for our guests,” according to Jeremy Palmer, vice president of land product for the company.
To support that strategy, Tauck established strategic partnerships with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and the nature documentary filmmakers at BBC Earth. The company also introduced sub-brands and tour “collections” designed to fit specific interest groups and demographics, including families and baby boomers.
Other upscale tour operators identified specific trends that are affecting high-end consumer product choices.
“In terms of both supply and demand, we’re seeing a trend toward more luxury and boutique accommodations,” said Richards of Pleasant Holidays. “Demand for these higher-end and higher-touch products is being driven by the stabilization of the economy; the increasing number of retirees as baby boomers continue to come of age; and travelers’ desire for a more personal experience. Bigger — think mega resorts and mega cruise ships — is not better these days.”
Caldwell at MLT has observed a similar trend.
“We’re seeing increased demand from luxury travelers for vacations that feel more like in-home guest experiences,” he said. “These vacations offer luxury travelers a genuine experience with a destination’s history, culture, cuisine and hospitality, as if they were staying with a local family.”
As changing consumer interests shape the evolution of the tour operator industry, travel agents have an even broader array of products to sell in 2015.
“The traditional ‘escorted tour’ still exists, and hundreds of thousands of people enjoy those kinds of tours every year,” said Caldwell. “But today’s guided travel segment is so much richer, and it offers so many different ways for travelers to see the world, that there is truly something for everyone.”