The destination marketers at Visit Charlotte in North Carolina have a long track record of promoting their city in the group travel industry. So when tour operators started asking for new, upscale experiences for their travelers, the team got to work at coming up with new ideas.
“We’ve had tour operators ask for outside-the-box experiences,” said Stephanie Lucas, the organization’s group tour sales manager. “They want to know what’s new and different and what sets us apart.”
To meet that demand, the staff turned to their partners around town last spring and asked them to develop upscale experiences that would be available exclusively to groups.
“We had a seminar where we invited all of our attractions and had a brainstorming session just to get the wheels turning,” Lucas said. “A lot of them already did things that were experiential or had things that they could quickly turn into a luxury experience.”
The results were unveiled at the American Bus Association Marketplace, which took place in Charlotte last winter. Some of the options were behind-the-scenes tours and tastings at restaurants, private-label tours at a vineyard and hands-on experiences with art and artifacts at local museums. Adventurous groups can even arrange to drive a NASCAR vehicle on the racetrack at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
A wine tour of the nearby Yadkin Valley wine country has proven particularly popular.
“They take you in a van or bus and teach you the techniques and the etiquette of wine tasting,” Lucas said. “Then you go to three or four wineries in the Yadkin Valley and do tastings, tours and lunch. It’s a full day of tasting and education.”
Although the menu of high-end experiences in Charlotte is still relatively new, Lucas said tour operators have already shown positive reactions, and several attractions around town have seen increased group bookings as a result of the program.
For some people, the ultimate travel experience involves an up-close encounter with an exotic animal. Out of Africa Wildlife Park, an attraction near Sedona, Arizona, has found a way to offer animal-lovers unprecedented access to fascinating creatures on its VIP Tours.
The wildlife park has a large collection of African animals that roam free across a large preserve. VIP Tours takes groups of up to 30 people on a safarilike excursion to see these animals before proceeding to private encounters.
“On a VIP behind-the-scenes tour, you learn about animal instinct and how it works,” said park president and co-founder Dean Harrison. “You see it in the buffalo, the zebra, the giraffe and the leopards. You learn to understand animal behavior and, in fact, your own.”
Tours use a specially rigged double-decker SUV to give participants unobstructed views of the animals, many of which come right up to the vehicles to interact with guests. After the ride, guests go with guides to restricted areas where they can see big predators in demonstrations and programs like the “Tiger Splash Show,” in which guides interact with the animals and teach visitors interesting facts about animal psychology.
For a truly luxurious experience, the park partners with a helicopter company to offer combination packages with sightseeing tours of the area, giving visitors flights in and out of the park from Sedona.
Harrison said the VIP tours, which cost $149 per person, are almost-daily occurrences that appeal to animal-lovers with deep pockets.
“Some people just want the best,” he said. “They’ve seen the rest and been to zoos before. They are inquisitive and want to know how to get close to some of these major animals. They learn how the inside of an animal mind works.”