Tour Operators Meet Demand for Authentic Travel Experiences

by Kerry Tice
Tour Operators Meet Demand for Authentic Travel Experiences

Escorted tour operators are introducting more diversified products than ever before,


This article is from TMR's Escorted Tour Operator Report Card for Travel Agents. The report is the fourth in a series of supplier policy report cards designed as a useful resource for travel professionals.

As an increasing number of travelers seek out authentic experiences, suppliers are heeding the call. Extensive research of the experiential travel trend is driving the introduction of more diversified products from escorted tour operators, who are determined to show visitors their destinations in an entirely new light.

Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, two escorted brands under The Travel Corporation (TTC) umbrella, have both pushed beyond the envelope when it comes to implementing experiential travel by giving guests behind-the-scenes access to local attractions, farms, and local people for hands-on learning experiences.

Particularly with their epicurean itineraries, guests who travel with either brand are given unprecedented admittance to vineyards, bakeries, restaurants and farms, bringing the history and culture of each destination to life through food.

For example, Insight Vacations offers guests in the village of Saumur, France, the chance to discuss grape varieties and local terroir with a resident wine expert while sampling the wines of the Loire Valley. And while on the “Highlights of Spain” journey, guests can meet the chef at a local family-run restaurant in the heart of Valencia and learn the traditional recipe for paella during a cooking demonstration. 

Experiences like these are also available through Luxury Gold, whereby a guest touring in Japan can see a performance by a samurai warrior and then have an exclusive meeting with him to learn how this specialized martial art has been passed down through many generations. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, guests can have lunch with a retired champion horse jockey and hear his racing tales.

Regardless of the type of experience, the focus for operators is on keeping the itineraries distinctive and unforgettable.

“Whether it’s an expert chef showing you how regional Tuscan specialties are made, or a private viewing of the Ceremony of the Keys in London, travelers get unique experiences that they wouldn’t get if they were traveling on their own,” said Jon Grutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold.

Exploring new corners of the world
For Intrepid Travel, introducing product around this trend was the result of a OnePoll research study the company commissioned this year that found North Americans care more about experiences over things, and that they have a strong desire to try new adventures and see new corners of the world.

As a result, Intrepid developed three distinct themed itineraries that their research showed clients were looking for, namely “Real Cycling Adventures,” “Real Food Adventures” and “Family Adventures.”

In addition, for seasoned travelers looking for more off-the-beaten-path experiences, the company has some limited-edition Expedition trips that venture to the world’s most remote places. Set to depart in 2018 and 2019, these itineraries will explore destinations like the Congo Basin’s tropical rainforests and the remote Siberian Peninsula.

“Intrepid Travel has seen a 66 percent increase in bookings from North Americans on our authentic, experience-rich trips in the past two years alone,” said Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel’s regional director for North America. “There is a trend in people looking to have more of a sense of purpose, and they are now using experiential travel as a way to achieve this.”

And while the trend towards experience-based vacations is not new, it has certainly picked up speed recently. In fact, Collette first introduced its exploration line back in 2008 and, like Intrepid, the operator’s own recent research solidified its decision to relaunch the immersive experience line later this year.

“Our explorations growth has been up year-over-year,” said Diana Ditto, director of product design for Collette. The operator also recently rolled out new culinary-focused tours, featuring meals hosted by a local family, and cooking classes and demonstrations with local chefs with cuisine sampling. For example, in Vietnam, guests can visit a local market and shop for ingredients to create their own meal.

Dispelling the escorted tour myths
Ditto said experiential products give travel agents the opportunity to “debunk” many of the myths associated with guided travel, specifically for those who may be hesitant to take a group tour because they consider it too rigid.

“We know that the added bonus of having a tour manager far outweighs the benefits of traveling alone, but what many don’t know is how much goes into finding the perfect experiences for our guests. Our tour designers spend over 100 days on the road, creating unique experiences that just can’t be booked through research,” Ditto said.

With an abundance of experiential products on hand, suppliers are doing their part in meeting the demands of today’s traveler. Their advice to agents: take advantage of these vast experiential offerings and focus on each client’s personal travel preferences. Whether it’s adventure, wellness or culinary, there’s bound to be an experience they are seeking.

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