Last updated: 10:30 PM ET, Thu April 02 2015

Inside Insider Journeys

After 20 years, an Asia specialist has a new name that better reflects its focus

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | David Cogswell

Inside Insider Journeys

PHOTO: Mark Yacker (right), Insider Journeys’ director of North America, with a local guide at Angor Watt.

Asia cultural travel specialist Travel Indochina is rebranding itself as Insider Journeys. The 21-year-old company expanded its operations beyond Indochina 10 years ago, so it had long since outgrown its former brand name. But the company also wanted to change its brand to better signify what it actually does.

Paul Hole, the managing director and founder of the business, says the new name better reflects Insider Journeys’ philosophy and core focus. “Over the past decade,” Hole explains, “we have expanded well beyond the Indochina region to cover much more of Asia, including Japan, Thailand, China, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Myanmar. With 21 years of history and experience in Asia, we now feel we’ve come of age and the time is right to make this major change that captures the notion of richer, more intimate travel experiences in the style of travel we offer.”

The brand Insider Journeys carries the tagline: “Imagine the stories,” which acknowledges that the travel experience is very much about sharing stories and memories when the trip is over.

Though the company remains an Asia specialist offering travel “from India to Japan,” it wanted a brand that did not define it by geography but by the type of service it really provides, says Mark Yacker, the company’s director of North America.

Special Access for Clients

PHOTO: Clients chat with a monk in Luang Prabang, Laos, on an Insider Journeys tours.

Insider Journeys reflects the kind of travel opportunities the company offers, including its Insider Experiences special access to attractions that it has been offering clients for quite some time. “We’ve been using that term for many years, even under our old brand,” says Yacker. “That’s partly why came out with the new brand.”

Asia, Yacker notes, “is all we do. We’re not trying to cover the world. You read in the trade press all the time about the importance of travel agents finding their niche. I feel that’s where things will also be going with tour operators. It’s hard to know everything about everywhere. That’s the challenge agents have now, trying to seem like they know everything about everywhere. We prefer to really hone in and be experts at what we do.”

The origin of the company goes back two decades ago to when Hole, an Australian, went on a trip to Vietnam. “In 1993, he was traveling in Vietnam just after it opened to Western tourism,” says Yacker. “He fell in love with the place. As he tells the story, he was looking for a way he could live there. So he quickly set up a destination management company.

“The company started operating tours into Vietnam out of Australia. Over the next couple of years, he expanded to Cambodia and Laos. That’s where the name, ‘Travel Indochina,’ came from,” Yacker says.

Today, the company operates in 11 Asian countries. Groups are a maximum of 16 people and usually run with 12 or 13. The company offers about 1,000 departures a year, all guaranteed. Besides its group departures, it also offers custom-designed independent travel.

Insider Journeys has expanded beyond its home office in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, and now has seven ground operations offices in Asia, three in Vietnam, two in Cambodia and two in Laos. It has a staff of 60 people.

Niche and Client Demographic

PHOTO: The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, one of the destinations featured on Insider Journeys.

The company sees itself as a cultural tour operator. “We’re not an adventure operator,” says Yacker. “I like to point out that we’re much more a cultural tour operator, a comfortable cultural tour operator. My history and background is more from the adventure side. But I was looking for a more comfortable product to offer to the kind of clients who very often use travel agents — clients who are looking for that hands-on, up-close-and-personal contact with the destination during the day, but want accommodations and transportation vehicles that are all very comfortable.”

Yacker describes the client profile as a “retired backpacker, someone who has come up through adventure travel but now is looking for a bit more comfort.”

The company’s clients are mostly in the 40 to 70 age range, but chronological age is not really the distinguishing characteristic of the Insider Journeys client.

“We get some in their 30s and some in their 70s if they are fit and happy to travel that sort of distance,” says Yacker. “Asia is not really well set up for mobility issues, with all the walking on cobbled streets and some of the chaotic Asian cities. If they are fit enough to get out and do some walking, they will be fine. We don’t keep them cooped up in a coach looking out the window. They’re going to get out. We get them up close with local culture, people and food. Those are the three pillars of what we offer: culture, people and food.”

There are many operators to choose from in going to Asia. But it is in the extras, beyond the essentials, where a tour operator can distinguish itself, and that’s where the Insider Experiences come into play.

The Insider Experience

PHOTO: One Insider Journey features a visit to a nunnery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

“What people are looking for are experiences,” says Yacker. “What we are doing is sharing this part of the world that we love. One of the things that sets us apart is that we are using insider knowledge to get away from the crowd.”

For example, the main gate to the temples at Angkor Watt is unfortunately extremely crowded. Clients travel half way around the world to see one of the most sought-after sites on the planet and then often get caught up in a big traffic jam just as they approach their final destination.

“When you see pictures of Angkor Wat, you don’t see the crowds and the traffic jams,” says Yacker. Unfortunately for many people, when they get there that is exactly what they encounter.

Insider Journeys has another way. There are actually five gates to Angkor Thom, the temple complex. Only one is usually used for tourism. The Insider Journeys group gets up before dawn and heads to the little-used east gate.

“We get access through the east gate,” says Yacker. “If you have a bigger group you can’t do it. We take flashlights and walk through the jungle. You can see the silhouettes of temples, but you can’t quite make them out. You’re hearing the birds as the jungle wakes up around you. Then suddenly about 90 seconds into the walk it hits you: ‘I’m in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia!’ Your first glimpse of the temples is on your own in the jungle, instead of being where there are several hundred tourists waiting to take the picture of the temple at sunrise.”

The group will eventually get to the front where the tourists crowd because everyone wants to get the iconic photograph with the reflecting pools from that view. But their first experience of seeing the temple was not from within a crowd of tourists.

“It gives them that special experience,” says Yacker. “They want to feel like an explorer, and that’s the experience we give them. It’s really like that of an explorer.”

Alone on the Great Wall

Insider Journeys also has a way of avoiding the highest concentration of tourists visiting the Great Wall of China.

“Most operators most tour operators take you to Badaling to see the Wall,” says Yacker. “That’s the closest area to Beijing, a 45-minute drive. There’s a 2,000-coach car park there, and a McDonald’s and a Starbucks. If you’re with 2,000 coaches, imagine how many people there are. We take them farther, to a place called Mutianyu. It’s double the distance from Beijing, about an hour and half. It takes longer to get there and is more costly for our operations. But when you get there, sometimes you’re the only one on the Wall. We were able to have a picnic on the Wall. You could not do that at Badaling.”

That’s what Insider Journeys is all about. “It’s about getting people away from where all the crowds go,” says Yacker. “It’s really giving them that connection, that feeling of the wall. Most of our clients are baby boomers. They probably read of The Great Wall in National Geographic 40 years ago. It’s a lifetime dream for them. The experience matters.”

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Vacation Agent Magazine

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