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Report: Small Group Tours

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Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to travel — small groups can often mean better experiences at better prices. By Evelyn Kanter

 

The buzzword for 2017 travel is “experiential”. But unless your clients want to experience traffic gridlock in major cities such as New York or London, or shore-excursion-gridlock in top cruise ports including Freeport or Rome, the answer is small-group tours, especially custom ones.

Top trends include multi-generational family reunions, festival travel, religious visits, tracing family roots and culinary trips. Trails are becoming more popular, including those for beer, wine and distilleries. Also growing in popularity annually for the past several years are behind the scenes and VIP or private opportunities, which, by their exclusive nature, must be limited in size.

Perillo Tours recently launched Learning Journeys, offering customized tours for as few as two people. Small groups, including families, are oriented around health and wellness, art and photography, music and performance, science and history, birding and wildlife.

Trafalgar Tours, a fourth-generation family-owned operator, has launched the Be My Guest program, with such perks as private early admission to the Vatican Museum, guided by the museum’s curator. CEO Gavin Tollman says small groups “remove the barriers to visit hidden gems,” including the ability to stay in traditional Japanese ryokans where the overnight guest limit is 10 or fewer, and to negotiate roads not accessible to full-size tour busses.

Shanghai Spring Travel, which specializes in China, hosts only groups that can fit in an airport-style van on the narrow road to Dunhuang, an outpost along the ancient Silk Road, for camel rides in the Minghsha Sand Dunes.

Smiling Albino, which specializes in Southeast Asia, offers a private art tour in Vietnam led by a former Communist Art Police agent.

Winter resorts have long provided the opportunity to ski or snowboard with resident Olympic medalists, most notably Steamboat, Colo., with Billy Kidd and Nelson Carmichael. Former Winter Olympics destinations, including Salt Lake City and Lake Placid in the US and St Moritz in Switzerland, also host opportunities for passengers on their iced bobsled runs, piloted by an Olympian-in-training.

Also getting in on the action is National Geographic with G Adventures, which caters for groups of up to 16 people. Behind-the-scenes perks include touring National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC, and dinner in a family home in Namibia. The Canadian Polar Bear Experience includes private time with representatives of Polar Bears International, the conservation group dedicated to saving endangered polar bear habitats.

Everybody loves to eat when they travel, so it should be no surprise culinary tourism continues to grow, especially “cook with me” programs. The small Black Forest town of Baiersbronn has the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world — three restaurants in a town of 15,000 people.  SouthWest Germany actively markets the region’s culinary connection, including the chance to get in the kitchen with one of the town’s top chefs. Clients can learn to make world-famous Black Forest cake at the Hofgut Sternen, and take home the award-winning recipe alongside selfies with the chef.

While Italy and France are famed for their truffles, that hasn’t stopped California’s Mendocino County from marketing its mushroom farms and foraging excursions, with the staff mycologist at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg. Local hotels and B&Bs have porcini packages agents should take into account.

Nearby Carlsbad wants to be known as more than just the home of the Legoland theme park and themed hotel. The city is marketing small-group or individual experiences such as drum circles led by the curators of the Museum of Making Music, surfing with a Biarritz-born Basque chef from the Park Hyatt Aviara, or a backstage tour of the Chuao Chocolate kitchen. “By pairing travelers with local artists and personalities in unique venues, our team can enhance the experience and make it memorable, shareable and unique to this destination,” says Tamara McGiboney, the city’s group sales and development manager. 

Sometimes, a small group is just a business traveler and companion and a few colleagues, looking to make the most of limited additional leisure time. Travel Composer, which specializes in Israel travel, provides what founder Hani Sand calls “flash visit” travel.

As the age of the amateurish selfie begins to wane, travellers interested in photography are opting for smaller tours with award-winning photographers, to guide them to the best angles and camera settings. Travelshooters limits groups to a maximum of eight, to destinations such as the Pushkar Camel Fair in India. Another resource for professionally-led tours is the Society of American Travel Writers, whose photographer members shoot for Nikon, Canon, Olympus and top magazines. 

Small group trends include niche markets.  Australia-based Pink Travels was started by a cancer survivor, who takes fellow survivors on restorative outdoor trips. Founder Jane Wilkinson is growing her business via cancer support groups in target markets where she operates tours, and social media. 

The US National Park Service, which administers more than 400 parks and historic sites and landmarks, is marketing notable destinations with an LGBTQ history, including the newly named Stonewall National Monument in New York City. With last year’s well-publicized 100th anniversary of the NPS, lodges in popular parks including Yellowstone and Yosemite were overbooked, and travel professionals are well advised to book clients early for travel this year.

Another growth market is African-American travel, including what Laura Mandala of Mandala Research describes as “Civil Rights Trails”, such as sites related to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Underground Railroad. “For Southern communities struggling economically, those tourism dollars are hard to ignore,” she says.

North Carolina markets the African-American Music Trail, and its connections to musicians who have worked with James Brown, Prince and others. Small towns along the trail, including Kinston and Wilson, are renovating abandoned tobacco warehouses and textile factories into theaters, concert stages and artisanal food and craft centers in order to attract visitors.

New Orleans is famous for both its food and its music, and a new, local small-group operator makes the most of both. Clandestine Tours organizes experiences such as the chance to drive supercars on the NOLA motorsports track, private historic home and plantation tours, and VIP access to restaurants and music venues. Tours are limited to 12 people.

Voluntourism also demands smaller sizes, as a 44-passenger bus group would simply overwhelm an organization trying to absorb so many “helpers”. That makes volunteer travel ideal for familes. Projects Abroad matches families to a destination or project by the interests  of the children, such as volunteering at an orphanage in Sri Lanka. Volunteering abroad as a family has benefits for everyone, says US program advisor Alejandra Estrada Guzman.

“Parents appreciate the opportunity to teach their children about different cultures and the power of one person helping another,” she says.

Fathom Cruises, a division of Carnival Cruise Lines, was created on the premise of combining volunteering and behind-the-scenes programs with sightseeing.  The ship, whose capacity is just under 700 passengers, alternates weekly between Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Volunteer experiences include planting trees and teaching English; behind-the-scenes programs include learning about alternative plant-based medicines from the doctors of Las Terrazas, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, outside Havana.

Women have never been considered a “niche” market, but as automobile companies learned years ago, women usually play the decisive role in big-ticket family purchase decisions. A recent survey of 1,000 international travelers by search site Skyscanner revealed that nearly three-quarters of women said they do most of
the research and decision-making. Sports tourism is another opportunity for travel professionals to book small groups, such as to support a friend or family member in a triathlon, marathon or bike race. Arizona and Florida actively market “cactus league” and “grapefruit league” baseball spring training tours. “The bicycle tourism sector is becoming more lucrative,” says researcher Mandala, especially when the competition
is in an attractive destination.

It’s easier to accommodate special client requirements in small groups, such as allergies, and direct these travelers to properties with allergy-friendly rooms, even entire floors. Four Seasons (formerly JW Marriott) offers these rooms in certain of their properties, including the Ihilani Resort & Spa in Oahu, Hawaii. It uses a special filtration system to remove 98% of allergens, and “bedding, carpeting, walls, furniture and air conditioning are specially treated to remove contaminants,” says GM Steve Glen. Four Seasons hotels also offer special accommodation, with hardwood floors and simple shades instead of dust-trapping carpets and curtains, and hypoallergenic bedding.

It may not be a trend, but Austin Adventures (formerly Austin-Lehman Adventures) reports growth in last-minute bookings, as travelers find they do, indeed, have the time and money to get away. Austin reports that bookings less than 30 days out doubled last year. Such last-minute decisions are likely to be made by families, upscale millenials and boomers, with travel-professionals expected to think on their feet, and have alternative suggestions ready for any eventuality.

Small group travel tends to be more expensive than bulk-rate FIT tours, which gives travel professionals the opportunity to upsell upscale hotels and restaurants offering larger commissions. A recent survey by Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group indicates that 70 percent of individuals with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more prefer a widely recognized hotel brand, and to dine in a restaurant with a well-known or celebrity chef.

Small tour operators such as NOLA’s Clandestine, large operators like Perillo, as well as cities or countries with taxpayer-funded budgets, lean more and more on social media to identify and target clients. It’s less expensive than traditional advertising and fancy brochures, plus it’s more timely. Professional agents should be doing the same.

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