Selling Small Group Toursby Maria Lenhart /
This is part two in a series on small group travel.
Clients who aren’t usually interested in guided tours may be good candidates for the growing number of small group tour options recently introduced by tour operators.
At the same time, demographic trends are fueling ever-more demand for small group travel.
This style of touring is particularly strong for well-traveled clients, solo travelers and retired baby boomers, according to tour operators in the market.
They spoke with Travel Market Report about the small group tour market, the type of clients it appeals to and how to sell to those clients.
According to tour operators, the small group traveler is better traveled, more educated and a bit more affluent than tour clients in general.
“Ours are a sophisticated, well traveled clientele, many of whom have professional degrees,” said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander+Roberts. The company specializes in tours for groups averaging between eight and 16 participants.
“They are looking for authenticity and the chance to have some experience they couldn’t get on their own.”
Increasingly, the company’s tours are attracting solo travelers, especially women, Drumm added.
“In some cases, they may be married, but their husbands don’t want to go,” he said. “Especially if it’s to an exotic destination, they like the idea of traveling in a small group of like-minded people.”
Retired baby boomers who’ve been to many mainstream destinations are another growing market for small group tours, according to Dan Sullivan IV, director of sales for Collette.
The company is experiencing particularly strong growth in Explorations, its small group tour division.
“In many cases, they are already well-traveled and want to dive deeper into one country or region, which you can do with small groups,” Sullivan said.
“It doesn’t have to be to an exotic destination. We’re seeing a lot of interest in European regions outside of the major cities.”
Unlike adventure travel
While small groups have long been the mainstay of adventure travel companies, it’s important to note that clients attracted to small group travel may have little in common with adventure travelers, said Mark Yacker, director, North America, for Australia-based Travel Indochina. The company specializes in tours for groups of 16 or fewer.
“The majority of our clients are in their forties, fifties and sixties with an income that allows them to pay between $200 and $350 per night for an immersive cultural experience with a certain level of comfort,” said Yacker.
By contrast, adventure travelers tend to be in their twenties and thirties. They have tighter budgets and may be more interested in physical activities than local culture, he added.
Working with agents?
Another important difference is that clients with an interest in culturally-oriented small group travel are more likely to book through a travel agent, according to Yacker.
“A research project we conducted last year with Foresight Research showed that 70% of travelers who were interested in small group travel expressed they were ‘extremely likely’ to consult and rely on a travel agent – twice the number of those planning other types of travel,” he said.
Keep it personal
Clients who prefer to travel independently are also good candidates for small group travel if agents approach them correctly, according to Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing for the Globus Family of Brands.
“Don’t lead with the fact that it’s group travel, but emphasize the cultural immersion aspect, especially the fact that they will have experiences that they can’t get on their own,” she said.
“And, at the same time, let them know they will save money over an FIT.”
Halboth also suggests that agents look through their databases for clients who regularly travel to international destinations and make a personal pitch to them.
“This is not something you sell by doing a blast email,” she said. “It’s better to start with a phone call and suggest a couple of ideas. Or do a targeted email to a targeted group of people.”
Halboth said some clients, particularly if they are traveling solo or are getting up in years, may be receptive to the idea of visiting a new or exotic destination if they have the support provided by a small group.
“You can emphasize that small group travel is easier than traveling on your own, it’s a way you can feel safe and yet still get the local feel,” she said. “People really like it, once they try it.”
For agents, that means repeat business, Halboth added.
“Once people get the flavor of an exotic destination, they usually want another. The repeat factor on small group travel is very high.”
Agents can also be instrumental in changing clients’ preconceived ideas about guided travel, according to Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar.
The tour operator next year will launch Hidden Journeys, its series of small group tours.
“Most Americans don’t have any idea about the depth, variety and content of the modern guided vacation program,” Wiseman said.
“Agents can open up their clients to the possibilities, particularly if they ask the questions that get at the emotional motivators of why people travel,” he said.
The 'why' of it
“It’s the ‘why’ questions that really qualify the client and determine what’s right for them.”
Sullivan also advises agents selling small group travel to dig deep to understand the needs of their clients.
“Is knowledge and immersion important to them? Do they want to get outside of the major cities and get off the beaten path?” he asked.
“If so, let them know they can do this with a small group tour.”
Smaller is (Sometimes) Better: The Growth of Small Group Tours