From bespoke trips to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the demand for customized tours is high, says Robert Carlsen
More free time and increased all-inclusiveness are strongly trending as developing components of customized tour itineraries these days, and finding those specific elements at diverse locations are now a prime priority — and challenge — for travel counselors and tour operators. Daren Autry, operations manager at Montrose Travel in La Crescenta, Calif., acknowledges that customers today expect itineraries that are tailored specifically to meet their needs, as opposed to staying within the confines of an escorted tour. “From an agent’s standpoint, the key to planning a perfect customized itinerary starts with a very thorough qualification process,” he says, adding that once the agent has a solid understanding of the client’s travel history and preferences, they can get creative to deliver a trip that meets expectations. James Vardakis, marketing manager for CIE Tours, says the basic questions agents should use to qualify their clients include: What type of accommodations are you looking for? Would you prefer city center or quieter locations in the country? Do you have any ‘must see’ visits or cities? What’s the budget? How much free time would you like built in, and How many meals would you like to include [in the cost]?
“Groups are looking for more free time to shop, explore and be a part of the local scene,” observes Pam Inman, president of the National Tour Association (NTA). “For smaller groups especially, there can be more give-and-take with restaurants and activities, and the tour director can make decisions based on the interests and ‘personality’ of the group.” Another popular add-on is a lesson or meet-and-greet with a local expert, “or, even better, a local celebrity,” she says. “And a big basic bonus with customized tours is flexibility on dates.” There are advantages of customization for tour operators, Inman points out, including the fact that operators can price the tour based on the expected participation rather than using standard pricing for a scheduled series; and match the quality of the hotel to the specific location, so there’s a wider variety of accommodation options. Plus, operators don’t have to deal with the risk of having a series of tours that might not sell. The ability to alter a tour — such as using From bespoke trips to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the demand for customized tours is high, says Robert Carlsen one hotel as a hub rather than moving from city to city — can make the hotelier happy and can help with room rates; and where the supply of hotel rooms is restricted, operators can pick dates from what’s available and possibly get an even better rate for clients.
Inman adds that travelers generally know what options are available for tours from researching online, but even beyond that there’s a strong demand for new, unique, out-of-the-box experiences they can’t find on the internet. “Consumers want flexibility, and it’s a challenge for tour companies to put an accurate price on the added value of a customized product,” she says. Meanwhile, the idea of paying one price and having an amazing experience is something most clients want these days, insists Margie Jordan, president of Jordan Executive Travel Service of Jacksonville, FL. One example of this all-inclusiveness is, of course, Sandals Resorts. She says she has a couple on her books who are blind, and who are this year marking their third trip to Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Jamaica. “They travel completely alone and have a butler at the resort each time,” she says. “Sandals has gone above and beyond to make their vacations amazing. In 2018, they’re planning to renew their wedding vows there, inviting several of their friends who are also visually impaired.”
As for ongoing trends and areas of growth in the customized tour segment, NTA’s Inman says that smaller group sizes continue to trend — “and that means switching from 56-passenger coaches to mini-coaches and vans that will provide a better small-group experience. It can also mean a switch to a driver/guide instead of using a driver and a tour director.” Montrose Travel’s Autry remarks that modern trends include wellness travel, experiential travel, eco-tourism and humanitarian travel, particularly to Cuba and Africa. Other popular destinations for customized itineraries include Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Italy. Since many of today’s travelers are looking for unusual, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s a whole other opportunity for them to immerse themselves in the unique interests that they enjoy. Says CIE’s Vardakis: “In the past, travelers were excited just to see Big Ben or the Coliseum. Now they want to have tea and scones in a tucked-away farmhouse or [creative] Italian food in an authentic family-owned restaurant.” Furthermore, custom growth patterns seem to be favoring international inbound over domestic. “Tour operators working with domestic destination management organizations (DMOs) are finding new customers in overseas markets,” Inman says. “NTA is known for our China Inbound Program (with more than 200 tour operators), which helps US-based companies capture more of that growing market. And because NTA membership includes more than 40 countries, our members can make similar connections all over the world.”
Autry reveals that his agency’s biggest area of growth in the segment is in the use of international destination management companies (DMCs) to “complement the itinerary.” Because DMCs have local connections, they can fill in the blanks with off-the-beaten-path experiences that “give us a competitive edge over OTAs or clients going directly to a vacation wholesaler.”
A good example of this DMC relationship is one of Autry’s current clients who wants to ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle around the Canary Islands and Barcelona. Montrose Travel was able to easily arrange for another type of motorcycle since they were having trouble acquiring a Harley for his dates — “so we partnered with an on-location resource who was able to make this happen for us.”
And as for ideal destinations for customized tour products, many agents have named Cuba as one of the best, since the components of any itinerary usually have to be arranged separately, and cultural interaction with the local population is often requested. But, JET Service’s Jordan points out that Europe is continuing to see growth in the custom segment, as is Dubai as an emerging market. “The requests that we get the most are for private tours that in some cases include private or small group access, such as tours of the Vatican,” she says. Vardakis adds that CIE Tours is also finding customer interest in television programming locations, such as Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey. “For example,” he says, “access to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, the filming location for Downton Abbey, is in high demand and we’re able to book tickets well in advance.”