By Eliza Myers
You might think that after decades of taking groups to Italy, a tour operator’s Rome itinerary would be etched in stone. But over the past five years tour operators have been supplementing and subtracting from itineraries to iconic places like Rome and numerous other destinations.
The main ingredient added to many tour operators’ itineraries since 2007 is the element of choice. Instead of one basic tour to Rome, groups can choose their own adventures from more custom-made itineraries.
Do you want a 14-day tour that hits all the must-sees of Italy or an eight-day trip immersing you in the cuisine of Rome? Do you want more free time or do you want to make fewer decisions? More than ever before, individuals are deciding the pace, length and focus of group tours.
This recent personalization of group travel helps tour operators attract more baby boomers on their tours. To meet this goal, recent itineraries have also included more culturally immersive activities, exotic destinations and unique experiences.
To appeal to a variety of travelers, including baby boomers, many tour operators have developed new itinerary categories. For example, Tauck recently created Culturious tours, aimed at the active boomer traveler. Boomers seeking an alternative to traditional tours can choose these smaller group trips with more adventurous itineraries.
“The Culturious tours target one specific demographic,” said Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager for Tauck. “For example, these boomer-aged travelers may have been to Italy before on a more wide-ranging tour, but this approach goes to one area of Italy, like Tuscany. Instead of being a broader tour of the country, it explores one region of the country in greater depth.”
In recent years, companies such as Globus Family of Brands have been expanding itinerary offerings to attract a particular demographic, an ongoing trend. In 2003, Globus launched Avalon Waterways for small-ship cruising and Monograms for more independent travelers. For more options, the company also began expanding its add-on opportunities.
“We’ve started deconstructing our tours,” said Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing for Globus. “For example, on a tour of Peru, you can add on the Amazon River or Easter Island. This allows people to personalize their tour a little more.”
In 2010, Collette Vacations also increased itinerary customization by organizing tours into three distinct categories: Explorations, Family Vacations and Collette Classic Touring. Explorations targets younger travelers with smaller groups and more invigorating activities, and Family Vacations focuses on intergenerational travel.
“We have noticed as we’ve branched out to Explorations and our family trips, that those passengers are still working, so we need to keep in mind their vacation times,” said Suzanne Kinahan, product team manager for Collette. “Those trips tend to do well seven to nine days in length. The more exotic destinations tend to be a bit longer because of how long it takes to get there.”
The type of itinerary is not the only decision for today’s consumer: Once a traveler has booked a tour, the choices continue during the trip. For example, instead of going to a predetermined restaurant with a predetermined menu as has been customary, some tour operators, like Trafalgar, have started new dining programs that allow guests to choose the restaurant that most suits them that day.
“In today’s guided vacations, we give passengers a choice of restaurant so they can pick what restaurant they feel like eating at,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar. “Instead of being segregated into a separate part of the restaurant, they will be seated in the main part of the restaurant with a wide menu choice. It’s closer to a completely local dining experience.”
Trafalgar’s customized dining experience reflects the company’s transformation over the past five years to offer more guided vacations rather than the less-personalized tours of the past.
Similarly, Fancy-Free Holidays has adopted a guided-vacation approach to reach younger travelers who desire more flexible vacations.
“We have had to adjust our way of doing things to accommodate more people’s travel needs,” said Sandi Pufahl, president of Fancy-Free Holidays and president of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).
Because choice plays such an important role in attracting potential travelers, Pufahl also relies on her membership with TAP to help cushion Fancy-Free’s tour offerings. If she has a client looking for a specific tour she doesn’t cover, she can direct them to one of TAP’s guaranteed departures for more options.
Chasing the exotic
Just as seafaring explorers of the past expanded the boundaries of the known world, today’s tour operators have been expanding their destinations over the past five years. Groups have become bolder and are more willing to try destinations outside of North America and Europe.
In response, more tour operators, like Tauck, have increased the number of itineraries to South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Most recently, Tauck introduced an itinerary to Northern India and Nepal.
“The tours to new exotic destinations are part of a larger trend, which is overall growth in international business,” said Armstrong. “Traveling with a tour operator is a great way to expand your comfort zone. For example, many people wouldn’t attempt a trip to China on their own; but because of the group dynamic, they may decide they can take a trip there.”
Globus has also responded to the desire for exotic destinations such as Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Israel joined the company’s catalog of destinations two years ago, for example, and is now one of Globus’ top-selling products.
Many of these exotic tours feature smaller groups, as foreign culture lends itself well to a more intimate group.
“People in their 40s will take a tour with us to an exotic destination like Thailand,” said Halboth. “Our exotic destinations help people get to places they don’t want to go on their own. That’s why tour operators were developed, and that’s why they are still valuable today.”
Familiar destinations are also seeing new itineraries. For most tour operators, traditionally popular countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Italy remain at the top. However, more in-depth itineraries exploring those popular regions keep people coming back. Globus recently introduced an itinerary of Italy’s Umbria region for people who want to see parts of Italy beyond Rome.
In Trafalgar’s case, although the company’s top destinations have remained the same, the most popular itineraries have changed since the company introduced its At Leisure and Family Experiences brands. Those two types of itineraries have climbed in popularity to overtake some of the company’s traditional tours.
“Italy is our No. 1 destination. The national parks have always been in the top five; that hasn’t changed,” said Wiseman. “What has changed is that the At Leisure and Family Experiences itineraries are in the top 10 of all those itineraries when they weren’t before.”