Demand for immersive experiences will continue in 2017. // © 2016
Feature image (above): Butterfield & Robinson’s CEO sees cycling and other forms of active travel as a catalyst for a transformational experience. // © 2016 Butterfield & Robinson
Ask any travel industry insider, and they’re likely tell you that 2016 was a challenging year. With the onset of the Zika virus, numerous terror attacks, worldwide political unrest and a resulting shift in traveler attitudes, suppliers have been consistently called on to cater to a traveler’s unique needs, preferences and — perhaps now more than ever — anxieties.
Despite the events that have yielded these challenges, tour operators agree that clients have proved themselves resilient, and the demand for off-the-beaten-track, authentic packaged experiences is at an all-time high.
“Every year, some sort of news item prevents travel,” said Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president and general manager of land product and worldwide operations for Tauck. “For individuals who want to travel, this is the new normal. But the desire to go out there and experience the world is trumping that.”
This is especially good news for the tour sector, which, between 2009 and 2015, grew 4.5 percent — a rate faster than both cruising and river cruising, according to a recent TravelStyles survey.
And numerous operators have recently refreshed their offerings to keep up with the demand for immersive experiences. Abercrombie & Kent, for example, this year introduced a new portfolio of Connections Boutique Group Journeys that focus on accommodating clients at locally owned hotels near — but not in the center of — busy tourist hubs.
Trafalgar, on the other hand, in 2015 introduced Hidden Journeys, which are designed to give smaller groups an immersive experience in niche destinations; and Globus’ Local Favorites program gives clients access to behind-the-scenes activities.
But simply offering tours that are labeled as “authentic” or “experiential” may no longer be enough to pique travelers’ interests.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry and consumer analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group, says that clients are increasingly well-cultured and experienced, leaving an opening for tour operators to push the envelope even further.
“Just because you did something the same way for decades doesn’t mean that is always what you should do,” Harteveldt said. “It’s no longer Grandma’s chocolate cake — experiences have to evolve in ways to be authentic, relevant and appealing.”
“The need for authentic tours has always been there,” he said. “What’s accelerating, specifically, is what defines ‘authentic’ and ‘experiential.’ Those expectations are being raised.”
Thus, a unique challenge is posed for 2017: How, after a year rocked with uncertainty, can operators elevate these off-the-beaten-path, immersive experience that clients crave while still keeping safety and security at the forefront?
Norman Howe, CEO and president of Butterfield & Robinson, an operator that specializes in luxury biking and walking tours, has one idea that he expects to resonate with today’s anxious-yet-adventurous clientele: the rise of “transformational” travel.
According to Howe, travelers tend to harbor both external and internal fears. There has already been a “safe-haven shift” due to the bubbling over of external fears, leading clients to change where they are traveling to and, in turn, limiting their ability to experience a unique “sense of place” once they are there.
But, Howe says, a good tour operator will work to remove these external fears, then “create a space in travelers’ lives where they can challenge the internal ones.”
This idea of transformational travel, he adds, targets a client’s emotional, psychological and spiritual being, leading to a lasting sense of liberation and serenity once a tour is complete. In the context of active travel, for example, a certain physical feat could be at the core of the experience.
“We are using an activity, like biking, as a catalyst to deliver the traveler in the middle of the landscape, the culture and the place in a very immediate way,” Howe said. “They’re immersed in the sensory aspect of the place, and there’s the element that they’re overcoming challenges.”
Another way to ensure a truly transformational experience is to hire high-caliber guides who can help clients on both a physical and an emotional level, he says.
“The best guides have a sort of psychotherapist ability to understand the fears of our travelers and use that sense of caring and insight to help those people have an experience and evolve in some beautiful way,” Howe said.
But before a traveler can even embark on a transformational journey, a trusted travel advisor may need to give clients the nudge they need.
“A professional travel agent is aware of what’s going on,” Harteveldt said. “They will never allow a traveler to go to a place where they could be put in harm’s way. It’s an important point that distinguishes the professional agent and the agency.”
Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus Family of Brands, echoes this sentiment.
“The sense is that many travelers are taking a wait-and-see approach to their 2017 bookings,” she said. “Our focus is encouraging our travel agent partners not to wait on 2017, but to make contact with their customer base now to begin the conversation about 2017.”