PHOTO: The most frequently used catch-phrase for tour operators in 2015 is “experiential travel.” Photo courtesy of Tauck.
Authenticity, experiential travel, cultural immersion, small groups, custom travel, river cruising, multigenerational travel and sustainable tourism — these are the buzzwords of the tour industry as it enters into the 2015 season.
For tour operators, 2015, like any year, is a long time coming. In terms of tour planning, tour operators entered 2015 years ago. In terms of financial projections, they have visited 2015 so many times already it feels like home. And in terms of booking, tour operators already have much of their 2015 business booked. But for the rest of us, 2015 is just around the corner and companies are eagerly rolling out their new programs.
Tour operators are coming off a blockbuster 2014. “The year 2014 was a standout year for most operators, certainly for Tauck,” says Jeremy Palmer, vice president, general manager of land for Tauck. “It was our best year ever, and we are expecting to see a continuation of a lot of positive trends in 2015.”
Many tour operators had record years in 2014, and many who didn’t break records still had strong years. Even with the deep damage inflicted on the African travel industry by the Ebola scare, 2014 will end strong for most of the tour industry.
“While we continue to operate with our consistent hallmarks, we are really focusing on our Signature experiences in 2015,” says Phil Capelli, president of Insight Vacations. “Those are the unique and exciting experiences that unfold in Europe when traveling with us, such as visiting local family vineyards that allow our guests to get involved in winemaking while sampling the freshest oysters just retrieved in Ston. We have packed our journeys with these types of experiences filled with local characters.”
The most frequently used catch-phrase for tour operators in 2015 is “experiential travel.” It’s the area where every tour operator is trying to get the jump on every other. It’s an area that is ripe for creativity. There is practically an unlimited range of possibilities.
“The biggest change I see is the fight to discover unique and exciting experiences for our guests,” says Insight’s Capelli. “It’s the biggest question we ask ourselves when looking at our itineraries. It’s not enough to just go to Europe and see the must-sees and must-dos. You travel with Insight so we can truly show you the real Europe, and its phenomenal culture and people.”
“It is more about the experiences,” says Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, director of product for Collette. “[Our clients] want to go where others haven’t gone. They want to sleep in the castle, not just visit it. They want to eat dinner with the locals. This is one of the reasons we expanded our Explorations line, geared for smaller groups of 12 to 24 travelers who want the niche experiences and boutique hotels among the other wows of going out on tour.”
“Flexibility and immersion will remain the driving trends for the coming year, and likely years to come,” says Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus Family of Brands. “The traveler is looking for experiences that bring the destination to life that they can’t find on their own. At the Globus Family of Brands, these principles have been drivers for years.
“Flexibility is headlined in our customers’ ability to customize any Globus, Cosmos, Monograms or Avalon trip with their own selection of activities and excursions, pre-booked before their trip and commissionable to the agent. They also have the flexibility in matching the vacation type to fit their personality, including independence through Monograms. As for immersion, that’s what we’re all about—making things possible, and seamless, that they couldn’t arrange on their own, highlighted by Globus’ included Local Favorites.”
Escorted travel is still highly popular, and the basic model of an escorted tour package has expanded in its range of diversity. The basic model of escorted touring has proved highly durable and adaptable to changing market conditions, varying destinations and individual styles of tour operators. One of the major changes in the way the model is being offered in recent years is to add more independence, more free time and free choice within a structured itinerary.
“Clients want the guided travel aspect with more leisure time,” says Leibl-Cote. To respond to that demand, Collette introduced last summer a new series for 2015 called Spotlights, which are based on stays in a single hotel for the duration of the trip, using it as a base for travel in the region – a hub-and-spoke configuration.
“You can visit the sights of Dublin alongside your tour manager and then spend your afternoons at leisure,” says Leibl-Cote, “with your tour manager giving you recommendations and making sure you’re comfortable in the city.”
One of the ways the group tour model has adapted to changing demand is through a change of preference to smaller groups. “Abercrombie & Kent is seeing dramatic growth in luxury small group journeys that explore a region more in-depth,” says Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent, “combining traditional land-based sightseeing with river cruising.”
Groups are increasingly exclusive groups who travel according to their own designs. “Increasingly popular are theme group tour arrangements that offer a balanced combination of theme activities and general touring elements within the itinerary,” says Laudie Hanou, vice president, SITA World Tours. “Members traveling as a group still are individuals, who appreciate if they are pampered. The old herding days are long gone. Group-touring elements such as restaurant choices give the group traveler control and add spontaneity while touring.”
As river cruise operators continue to expand the overall capacity, demand continues to grow and fill the ships, with no limit yet in sight.
“River boating continues to be one of fastest-growing segments in our space,” says Tauck’s Palmer. “We have seen no abatement in 2015. If anything, we have seen that product line outperform 2014 both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of how quickly that product is booking. It’s extremely strong.”
Following a year when the Ebola panic led to a downturn in African safari, accentuating the dependency of conservation efforts on tourism revenue, the issue of sustainability loomed larger than ever. “For us we will see a further push to sustainability turning into a market segment and not a niche,” says Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions.
Closely related to the rising demand for sustainable tourism is increased interest in opportunities that allow clients to give back through voluntourism. But Sanghrajka warns that some may exploit these trends without seriously contributing to the sustainable tourism movement.
“Along with the rise in voluntourism comes the rise in false voluntourism,” says Sanghrajka. “When you are visiting an area to help with a socio-economic challenge, if you are not there long enough to finish what you started, you end up causing more damage. That leads to resentment from locals because they feel like a personal project instead of feeling like people.”
According to Sanghrajka, sustainable or responsible tourism is not something that can be done offhandedly. “This is not something you do on the side,” he says. “You’re either all in or not at all.”
But though there may be posers and sham sustainability for show, the movement toward sustainable travel is underway, driven by market forces. Big Five surveys travel agencies every year and one of the questions is about whether sustainability “is important enough to me and my clients that it influences who I work with.”
Six years ago about 50 percent answered in the affirmative, and Sanghrajka says many responses seemed to be motivated by a wish to appear politically correct rather than based on any sincere commitment. That has changed. “The last survey we did two months ago set that figure at 89 percent,” says Sanghrajka. “And today, the need to be PC on this subject has largely been removed so what we are seeing are real sentiments now.”
Family travel continues to grow, well into a second decade of strong growth. Collette’s Jaclyn Leibl-Cote lists multigenerational family travel as one of the company’s strongest areas of growth. “People are celebrating big time in 2015 with their families,” she says. “Good health, success and love. Our family line boasts fun for all ages, which is important with so many families turning to guided travel this year as an alternative to Disney.”
One reason behind the growth of multigenerational travel is that it is expanding to more exotic destinations. “Families are exploring more exotic destinations like China and India with other families under the guidance of an expert A&K tour director,” says A&K’s Lassers. “They want their children to learn about countries they see as our partners and competitors.”