Tours Embrace Culture, Food and Authenticity

Tours Embrace Culture, Food and Authenticity

Spotlight 2016: Tour operators are setting the table for immersive travel experiences By: Valerie Chen
<p>Collette’s home-hosted meals help tourists experience a destination firsthand. // © 2015 Collette</p><p>Feature image (above): Today’s travelers...

Collette’s home-hosted meals help tourists experience a destination firsthand. // © 2015 Collette

Feature image (above): Today’s travelers are looking to connect with local cultures through food. // © 2015 iStock

Modern-day travelers are a confident bunch. They know exactly what they want in a trip and, as a result, expect both tour operators and travel agents to go above and beyond when meeting those demands.

According to American Express Travel’s July 2015 “Future Travel Trends” survey, 85 percent of respondents nix prepackaged itineraries in favor of bespoke ones — an unsurprising statistic when considering the vast amount of resources available with the click of a mouse. In other words, if a consumer decides to purchase travel services rather than independently plan a trip, the “one size fits all” approach will probably miss the mark. 

Casey Hanisko, vice president of marketing and communications for the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), predicts that this inclination won’t taper anytime soon.

“Customized itineraries will continue to be on the rise, with deep experiential aspects as important,” Hanisko said. “More accommodations will be connecting with local operators and offering experiences outside of the properties for their guests. There will be less set itineraries without flexibility. Travelers expect to be able to change their mind, to choose their experiences and to be surprised.”

Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus Family of Brands, notes that the demand for customization has evolved into a demand for personalization, which has a subtle yet significant difference. 

“It’s the idea that travelers desire to put their personal stamp on their trip, adding experiences that suit their specific tastes, but they are not required to build everything from the ground up,” Born said. “They want the balance between support, professional assistance and the ability to make choices.” 

Another takeaway for many tour operators is that travelers want an intimate experience, rather than feel lost in a crowd; hence, an increased focus on small-group products. 

Abercrombie & Kent, for example, has limited its Small Group Journeys to no more than 18 guests, while Intrepid Travel has nearly doubled its own small-groups department this year in order to better serve such clients. 

Travelers are also thinking outside of the box when deciding their dream trips, dodging the attractions and sites that typically teem with visitors. Nowadays, the goal is to explore a destination like a local — not a tourist. 

“There will always be the iconic experiences, but people want stories to tell, and it is the ‘real’ experiences that deliver on that,” Hanisko said.

Food seems to lie at the heart of this push toward authenticity. 

At Intrepid Travel, for instance, the immersive- and adventure-travel trends continue, with a heightened focus in 2016 on food excursions. And at Collette, local culture and local cuisine currently go hand in hand — and will likely stay that way.

“Many of our home-hosted meals and stays really help bridge the gap between being a tourist in a city and experiencing a culture firsthand,” said Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, vice president of product development for Collette. 

Avanti Destinations has also noticed the rising trend of tours by local experts, particularly with the inclusion of food. Harry Dalgaard, the company’s president, cites the example of having dinner with a local family or simply paying the family a brief visit as part of a longer tour.

“This type of product gives people a true sense of having a genuine encounter with the place and its people,” Dalgaard said. “It brings two cultures together and enriches everyone involved.”

Similarly, visits to local farms, breweries, distilleries and wineries give travelers a close-up look at a destination’s gastronomic culture. Cooking classes and tours highlighting street food have also picked up steam. 

According to “Taste the Adventure: Exploring the Intersection of Food Experiences and Adventure Travel,” a recent report by ATTA, upcoming trends range from foraging wild, edible plants with local experts to incorporating aromas in order to heighten food experiences.

“Twenty-five percent of businesses report that local tour operators are driving the inclusion of food experiences,” Hanisko said. “I believe this is a sign that local operators and destinations are seeing food as an important differentiator and part of their cultural story.”