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For 92 years, Collette Vacations has been bringing people together in the spirit of travel. Collette has been owned and operated by the Sullivan family since 1964, when Dan Sullivan Sr. purchased the business from Jack Collette. Now, the company is headed by his son, Dan Sullivan Jr., who is already prepping the third — and fourth — generations of Sullivans to run the business. What started as a small operation has been built into one of the oldest and most innovative tour companies in the U.S. And, throughout the years, the driving force behind Collette has been its overall philosophy to provide good value. “Basically, I want to run the best four-star travel company in the industry and to offer great quality and value for the money,” said Dan Sullivan, Jr., president and CEO of Collette Vacations.Now, during one of Collette’s most successful years in business — sales are up 61 percent from 2009 — the tour operator is launching a new brand of tours: Explorations. The new brand was created as an answer to what Collette saw as a natural step for the industry.“As we see a growing trend in the market, we respond,” said Frank Marini, vice president of sales at Collette Vacations. “We saw that clients wanted something different and unique, and that’s what Explorations can provide.”
New ExplorationsCollette began experimenting with small-group tours two years ago. Explorations by Collette, as it was known then, offered a more intimate experience for clients with more hands-on activities and less people. These offerings were extremely successful and, now, Collette Vacations has branded these exclusive experiences into a new product that invites clients to “explore, connect and live.” “We have a strong research team at Collette,” said Sullivan. “Explorations came from customer feedback on our service, from our salespeople who are with our customers in the travel agent community and from working with our product managers who are with our vendors, telling us what is trending around the world.”Explorations was developed for clients who want to make a deeper connection with the cultures they would come into contact with on a tour. With small groups of no more than 28 people, these tours are able to delve into a destination and offer more freedom than larger escorted travel groups. “Our research found that people liked the convenience of packaged travel but with a smaller, more intimate experience than they thought they were getting on a regular group tour,” said Melissa Snape, executive vice president of product. “As baby boomers are aging and coming into the market of the packaged travel sphere, they are looking for something that is more personalized and has more flexibility and choice built into it, but that also has the upside of an organized group tour — where we do all the legwork.”In response to these new demands in the tour market, Explorations was created as a stand-alone brand. “We chose the name ‘Explorations’ because it defines what this type of traveler is looking for,” said Sullivan. “They want to dive in and explore a destination, see its unique parts and get a total cultural immersion.”Collette has tried to create a product line that allows the client to have a more engaged and active experience in a destination. “This type of tour really resonates with clients because this generation of traveler is used to having things their way,” said Snape, “but they don’t enjoy doing everything with a huge group of people. They like to have their own experience.” Collette spent a lot of time developing the components of its Explorations itineraries. “When we looked at the creation of the itinerary, there were several features that we felt were very important,” she said. According to Snape, the first component was that each itinerary needed to provide activities that touched the senses and got clients engaged in the destination as though they were traveling there on their own. The other goal Collette wanted to achieve is a content-rich itinerary that offered enough free time and the ability for clients to add in activities on their own thus creating their dream trip within the context of the tour. In a survey of its clients, the tour operator found that offering time for people to go out and eat meals on their own was very important. “The culinary experience was a huge component, and not just eating, but making food, seeing where the food was grown, where local food was produced and who was producing it,” said Snape. “Clients want a more hands-on experience, not just an institutionalized cooking class.”Collette also discovered that its clients wanted to get a more in-depth feel for a destination. “Clients are looking for adventurous experiences that connect them with nature. It’s not necessarily the typical, eco-tourist-type thing, but more than a typical soft adventure.”The Costa Rica: World of Nature itinerary, a 12-day tour featuring Tortuguero National Park, Sarapiqui Rainforest and Manuel Antonio National Park, offers white-water rafting as one of its more adventurous activities.
The ExperienceAlthough Explorations connects with a younger audience, its itineraries are designed for every age group. Clients can choose how active — or inactive — they would like to be.“There is no age in which people wouldn’t want to do one of these tours, however, we are finding that they attract a younger group that is a little more affluent and people who believe that a hands-on cultural immersion is a really appealing part of a vacation,” said Snape. Explorations’ trips also offer a lot of flexibility in terms of participation and activities. “Clients can be as active or as relaxed as they choose to be,” she said. For example, in Italy, the group takes the train to the Cinque Terre and, then, clients have the rest of the day to do whatever they wish. “We provide the option of having someone there to help you facilitate your day, or clients can do something on their own,” said Snape. “We have built in a lot of options. We have tried to provide a balance where people can choose what they would like to do even within the program’s itinerary.”The accommodations offered on Collette’s Explorations trips are also unique. “There are certain areas where you use similar accommodations because that is the best that is available but, in general, we are seeking out smaller, more unique accommodations,” said Snape. Explorations uses villas and an old castle in Italy. In Costa Rica, its itineraries include more eco-lodges. “We are looking for properties that catch the flavor of the area and not the big box, 200-room hotels,” said Snape.Meals are also different on Explorations trips in comparison to those on a more mainstream Collette Vacations tour.“We included less meals on Explorations tours than on regular tours because a client’s time on his or her own was found to be so important,” said Snape. “A lot of the meals we put together offer really unique experiences.” In Petra, Jordan, on the Journey Through Jordan & Egypt tour, the Explorations group visits the Petra Kitchen, which is an interactive cooking class and demonstration followed by a multi-course meal featuring regional cuisine. “When we are using restaurants, we always seek to have local restaurants with unique meals and to offer meals that showcase the cuisine of that region and highlight the regional delicacies wherever we can,” said Snape. One of the other ways in which Explorations distinguishes itself is by its attempt to make popular places such as Machu Picchu, Peru, and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, feel unique. “I think part of the experience of an Explorations tour is the ability to deliver these places in a more personalized way,” said Snape. “Because there are less people in the program, the guides and the local experts that we use are able to deliver the experience in a more one-on-one way. We are trying to make sure that these places can be savored and are not just a photo-op.”
Agent TrainingWith the launch of Explorations set for Sept. 1, Collette wants to ensure that agents are well-versed in its new product.“We are going to be doing special agent training,” said Snape. “There is going to be a dedicated agent section on the Explorations website, ExplorationsTouring.com, that will have a lot of training information. And, we are also holding training sessions with our outside sales team members, who will be going to agencies and training agents on the Explorations line.”Training will roll out in September. Agents can visit ExplorationsTouring.com/Agents for agent incentives that are related to Collette’s Explorations product. And, the tour operator will also be hosting a webinar for agent training on Sept. 15 and Sept. 21 at 3 p.m., Eastern. Agents can register for the webinar at ExplorationsTouring.com/Webinar. “We have some amazing marketing material to help us launch this new product,” said Snape. While the goal of Explorations is to allow clients to taste, live, explore and connect to a destination, clients also receive the benefit of an all-inclusive tour. Collette currently offers 15 different itineraries in Europe, Africa, Australia, Latin America and Asia. On each itinerary, key sightseeing, a majority of meals, accommodations, entertainment, hands-on experiences, local experts and more are included in the price of the tour, which range in length from seven days (California’s Wine Country) to 27 days (The Aussie and Kiwi Experience).