This is the first in a series on small group travel.
Once primarily limited to the adventure travel market, small group tours designed to provide more immersive experiences are a rapidly expanding segment for mainstream tour operators.
Along with offering more options for small groups, tour companies are also creating other customized products aimed at attracting consumers who eschew the idea of a traditional group tour.
Trafalgar’s Hidden Journeys
Among the latest companies to broaden its scope is Trafalgar, which next spring will launch Hidden Journeys, a series of itineraries designed to take smaller groups into destinations the tour operator already serves.
The 11 Hidden Journeys itineraries will have no more than 26 travelers on each departure. They will cost about 20% more than Trafalgar’s standard tours, which typically accommodate groups of 45 to 52.
While the destinations--including Italy, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Newfoundland, Panama, Japan and China—are not new for Trafalgar, the smaller group size makes it possible for the company to offer new locations and experiences within those destinations, said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar.
“The smaller group size allows us to contract with smaller hotels in smaller towns where we couldn’t go with our normal group sizes,” he said.
“We’re finding that more of our customers, some of whom have done 10 or 20 trips with us to mainstream destinations, are now telling us they want to go to places outside the mainstream.”
The goal behind Hidden Journeys is also to attract new customers, including those who would never consider touring with a large group, Wiseman added.
Collette’s Explorations, launched a few years ago, is its small group brand for 18 or fewer participants.
And it is outpacing all of Collette’s other tours in terms of sales growth, according to Dan Sullivan IV, director of sales.
“As a company, we’ve had strong growth in 2014 at well over 22%, but Explorations grew quite a bit more than that – it’s leading the way,” Sullivan said.
Growth in demand for small group tours is part of a larger trend favoring “niche tours” that allow consumers to “dive deeper” into a destination and to meet and mingle with people with similar interests, he said.
“For example, garden tours, which are a new area for us, are also doing very well.”
Collette’s newest product line is Spotlights, a series of four- to six-night independent packages. Sullivan said Spotlights features “hybrid” experiences, offering a mix of guided activities and free time in just one city or small region.
While not aimed at small groups, Spotlights is another example of a product aimed at well-traveled consumers who may not normally opt for a guided tour.
“What we’re doing is trying to expand and reach new markets,” Sullivan said. “We want to draw in people who didn’t think touring was right for them.”
Alexander+Roberts’ Original Events
While small groups have long been the focus for Alexander+Roberts, formerly General Tours, the company is also introducing options to meet growing demand for even more intimate and immersive experiences, said Robert Drumm, president and CEO.
A new offering is Original Events, a series of one-time departures built around a specific theme or cultural event.
The first of these is an eight-day trip limited to 16 participants and departing in October 2015. It will focus on the Jewish heritage of Rome, Florence and small medieval towns in the Italian countryside.
Other trips will feature a sheep-shearing celebration in Iceland and the 50th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident in Vietnam.
The company two years ago took the small-group concept a step further by making private versions available on all of its itineraries.
“You can depart on any date you wish with a private guide and driver,” Drumm said. “It’s really great for multi-generational family groups.”
Alexander+Roberts has been benefitting from rising consumer preferences for small group tours, which has boosted business by 22% during the past year, according to Drumm.
“We appeal to well-educated people with natural curiosity,” he said. “They like the fact that a small group is not as intrusive on the local culture and doesn’t overwhelm the destination.
“They also like the intimacy of a small group, where you can meet like-minded people, form friendships and even do more tours together.”
Globus’ Small Group Discoveries
Rising interest in exotic destinations is what led the Globus Family of Brands to branch out into small group offerings.
These include its Small Group Discoveries and Monograms brands, said Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing.
“We’ve long been dominate in Europe, but we’ve been seeing double-digit growth in demand for places like Africa, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam,” she said.
“In places where there are language barriers, a small ratio between the guide and the group makes sense.”
Another benefit of the small group offerings is the ability to offer more personal and culturally immersive experiences, Halboth added.
“We can include an alms-giving ceremony in Thailand or visits to a local family’s home – things you can’t do with 40 people,” Halboth said.
“Clients really love this, plus the chance to get to know their fellow travelers and the tour director.”