PHOTO: Variety Cruises' MS Panorama in Korkula, Croatia. (photo courtesy of Group IST/Variety Cruises)
Group IST introduced Small Ship Voyages, a new series of small ship cruise programs with culturally immersive tours built into the cruise itinerary.
It’s a brand new product line, but its roots go deep.
Back in the 1990s before “experiential,” “authentic” and “immersion” were buzzwords in the tour industry, tour operators were looking for new ways to package and market tours that would clearly separate them from the perception that group tours were too programmed and provided only a superficial experience. Michael Goren was way ahead of the curve.
Today, cultural immersion is almost a standard requirement of travelers going on tour. But in the ‘90s, it was still something tour operators were reaching for. Goren, with his company IST Cultural Tours, offered some of the first cultural tours on the market.
Goren, who had started in the travel industry in 1981, had begun offering cultural tours through nonprofit organizations such as the American Museum of Natural History, various alumni associations and the then-Elderhostel, today rebranded as Road Scholar. After nearly 10 years of operating such cultural immersion tours, Goren placed a cultural tour series on the market that was available for purchase through travel agents.
IST’s cultural tours were successful as a product line but also provided a model for how tours would increasingly be structured around the concept of cultural immersion.
At the end of the ‘90s, IST Cultural Tours was selected by the Far & Wide Travel Corporation as one of the first few tour operators it purchased to form the new conglomerate.
READ MORE Mark Murphy Discusses Cultural Tourism's Growth and Impact
Far & Wide went on to purchase many more tour operators, becoming one of the most visible forces in the tour market. However, the conglomerate collapsed in 2003 amid a mountain of debt after a few years.
Michael Goren re-purchased IST and started operating again as Group IST, (with several divisions), offering tours that specialized in immersion into cultural areas such as food, music, painting, history and archaeology, as well as religion-based programs.
When President Obama announced the loosening of travel restrictions in Cuba in December 2014, Goren was actually in Cuba on one of the small ship cruises Group IST was already selling on the U.S. market.
"I was in Havana when the announcement came that President Obama and Raul Castro had come to an agreement," said Goren. "I crossed the street from our ship into San Francisco Square and saw the people cheering and celebrating. They were so happy. It was fantastic."
Through a partnership with Variety Cruises, Group IST started offering sea-based trips in Cuba to Americans in 2013, more than a year before Obama's December 2014 announcement of the step toward normalizing relations with Cuba.
The partnership between the cruise line and a tour operator followed the plan of putting a land specialist in charge of shore excursions and providing a structured tour that would use a ship for both transportation and lodging.
The success of the Cuba cruise partnership between IST and Variety Cruises has now led to a further collaboration: A new series of small ship cruises with tour programs superimposed over the cruise itinerary.
Group IST’s new series of small ship cruises travel to Iceland, Portugal and Spain, the Dalmation Coast, the Seychelles with Kenya, and the Seychelles with Dubai.
Using the small ship allows the tour to “get to places others don’t get to,” Goren told TravelPulse.
READ MORE Tour Insights: Cuba Fever in the USA
The concept of Group IST’s small ship voyages, said Goren, “is to reach folks with an added value program, starting with a boat with 15 to 72 passengers, but also to relate yourself to the destination. That’s one of the very big differences with small ships and the big cruisers. On Royal Caribbean or Carnival, you are on a big ship with a few hundred to a few thousand passengers and the boat is almost a destination to itself.”
The small ships have a tiny fraction of the number of passengers on a mega ship. They don’t have the same kinds of on-board attractions, such as casinos, Broadway shows, climbing walls and such. Yet, they offer a nautical experience that is much closer to the water, and a land experience that digs much deeper into the local culture and environment.
“In our small ships, the destination is the destination,” said Goren.
“The small ship or mega yacht is an additional experience, and it takes to different parts of destination. Every night you stay in a different port or site depending on the situation. You may anchor in front of one of the wonders of nature. But you stay there and experience it. And you connect with the environment and to what’s going on in the destination, the location, the people, the nature, the culture, the music and all of the above. It’s very different than on a big ship where you go for a short excursion and then you are back to the casino and the Broadway show, or something like that.”
Goren said the new cruise tours are getting an enthusiastic response from travelers across various markets and demographics.
“We can see the reaction from any age group, from seniors to boomers to millennials and others,” said Goren. “It’s exciting. People come from the big cruises looking for something different, and we give them a real experience.”