Last updated: 12:30 PM ET, Mon January 04 2016

Leading on the Back-Roads

A look at how the company's small-group touring style distinguishes it from the competition

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell

Leading on the Back-Roads

PHOTO: Rothenburg is featured on the company’s “Germany’s Romantic Back-Road to Vienna” itinerary.

As 2015 winds into the fall season, Back-Roads Touring is responding to a significant increase in demand by boosting capacity by 22 percent for its June to October park travel season.

Chris Coillet, the company’s vice president of marketing, says he sees the surge in demand as a confirmation that the Back-Roads small-group touring product is radically different from traditional touring — and that difference is appealing more and more to today’s travelers.

What is the formula that is working so well for Back-Roads Touring? It’s Back-Roads Touring’s own individual style of small-group touring.

“Small-group touring is all we do. We carry a maximum of 18 people. Some operators call their products small-group touring and they are carrying 25 people on a 50-seat coach,” says Coillet. “What we’re able to do with a smaller coach, a Mercedes Benz Sprinter, is to get into those small locations that big buses just can’t get to.”

Also, smaller groups can be more easily accommodated into boutique hotels, something that is greatly appreciated by a growing number of travelers who have become more sophisticated and look to dig into the deeper nuances of the destinations they visit.

This kind of small-group touring is something Back-Roads Touring has been practicing since its inception nearly 30 years ago. Back-Roads’ small-group tour formula is built into its bedrock, says Coillet, sand is not something that was added when it appeared as a market trend.

PHOTO: Back-Roads “Beneluxe & the Northern Rhine” tour includes a visit to the cathedral in Germany’s Cologne.

The Back-Roads products themselves are geared toward travelers who are ready to concentrate on a particular destination. “It’s for someone who may have been to Europe or any of the regions previously and wants to go back and explore in more depth,” says Coillet. “The majority of our tours don’t go into a different country. They’ll stay in one region, like Cornwall in the U.K. or the Loire Valley in France. It’s getting people up close and personal with the destination.”

Back-Roads Touring has conducted its own kind of market research and has determined that there are essential reasons why its product is resonating with clients, says Hugh Houston, touring brand manager for Back-Roads.

According to Houston, many travelers choose small-group touring because that style of travel is cozy and comfortable. It’s a more manageable size, more like a family, than a coach of 50 people.

Eighteen passengers is an optimal size for Back-Roads, providing opportunities to mix socially with other people on the trip and interact more deeply with guides.

Houston notes the company opts for local, indigenous lodgings over multinational chains. That is another advantage of being in a small group that can be easily accommodated almost anywhere. When staying in a local lodging, one absorbs the culture without having to go to a museum to do it.

The company strives for immersion, not just in the environment but among the people who live there. “It’s important for passengers to relate to local culture, to eat in locally owned restaurants and to see local craftsmanship,” says Houston.

That cultural immersion is key to what distinguishes Back-Roads from its competitors. “I think one of most powerful things that you can do as a tour operator is to put people in situations and introduce them to people, and show them things that are unique and foreign to them that they don’t get back home, to put them in an immersive environment,” says Coillet. “They don’t want to go to Europe and spend all that money and get the same experience you get doing a road trip here in the States.”

Never one to rest on its laurels, Back-Roads is continually adding new programs. Its 2016 brochure features 15 new tour programs and a total of 57 programs. Furthermore, all of its tours are continually revised and upgraded. “We have a very comprehensive review policy, with the surveys we put out with our guests, getting their feedback, feedback from the tour guides. We make changes based on things that happen throughout the year,” says Coillet. “You could almost stay that every tour is almost new.”

Central to Back-Roads’ product and its value proposition is the importance of getting off the tourist track. Coillet believes that personal encounters with locals are the heart of foreign travel. Under the Back-Roads Touring ethos, such experiences are the way to most fully experience any place. “To be able to ask questions to someone from there about the history and their knowledge and experience — it brings the destination to life,” said Coillet. “Anyone can go buy a ticket to the Eiffel Tour and go up it. But it’s so fascinating to go to a small village where I meet the families that have been so ingrained in it for hundreds of years.”

New tour products for 2016 include “Edinburgh to London”; “A Taste of Scotland with Carolyn Robb, Former Royal Chef”; “Germany’s Romantic Back-Road to Vienna”; “The Greek Ionian Islands”; “Peloponnese and Greek Saronic Islands”; “Kent and Sussex”; and “Slow Food Tour of Puglia.”

In the final analysis, the company’s name says it all. Back-Roads Touring really does travel on the back roads. That’s the whole idea.

“We take the back roads, not the motorways,” says Coillet. “It’s getting people into those destinations, into those small towns and villages and getting them to feel like they’re part of the region, and then having the local experiences as well.”

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the November 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.