As Trafalgar, the flagship tour operator of The Travel Corporation, celebrates the 100th anniversary of its parent company, Trafalgar is working hard to ensure that the company’s first 100 years won’t be its last.
“We’ve been doing a lot of focus groups to make sure what we’re doing resonates with the market,” said Melissa da Silva, president of Trafalgar. “We’re making some simplifications to the messaging, trying to build that awareness so when a consumer is thinking of travel, they’ll understand that Trafalgar is a great option for them. And when they go in to their travel agent, they’ll say, ‘I want a Trafalgar.’”
For years, Trafalgar has been implementing marketing campaigns that promote the advantages of traveling with guided groups. “We’re driving that awareness of guided vacations, and what an amazing way it is to travel,” said da Silva, “so that people will go in and ask their travel agent specifically for that, instead of, ‘What trip would be great for me?’”
Guided travel renaissance
Back in the 1990s, the traveling public became increasingly confident about traveling independently, and escorted tour operators feared their products were heading to obsolescence. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Escorted tours were beginning to be seen as too standardized, regimented and superficial. “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” became the tagline for the things people didn’t like about group travel. Then two things happened. Tour operators changed, and the market changed.
Trafalgar was among the tour operators leading the charge to change their products and marketing messages to overturn the misconceptions about the escorted travel experience. They added flexibility and free time to their itineraries. Clients wanted time to explore on their own, freedom to make some of their own decisions and sometimes travel independent of the group.
Tour operators slowed it down, introduced more independence, spent more time at each destination. And perhaps most importantly, they used their leverage as masters of destination management to provide immersive experiences that clients could not get on their own. A tour would no longer be a series of drive-by experiences of iconic sites. Clients wanted to get inside.
But it’s hard to penetrate the surface if you just go on your own. To get on the inside, you need connections with insiders. “You wouldn’t walk up to a local in the middle of the street and say, ‘Hey can I have a meal in your home?’” said da Silva. “But that’s something we can do on our trips.”
Tour operators even changed their terminology. Most tour operators dropped the word “tour” from their brands. The term “escorted tour” fell by the wayside and was replaced by a new name: Guided vacations.
It was more than just a new name. The guided vacation had evolved to a different kind of experience than the historical escorted tour. It became the best way to gain an authentic, immersive, insider experience of the destination.
The authenticity movement
At the same time that tour operators were changing their product model, the market changed. Although independent travel continued to grow, the need for professional guidance also grew, and these two trends continued independently. One did not cancel out the other. Many travelers embrace both independent and guided travel.
“Authenticity” became the buzzword. Travelers wanted deeper immersion in the destinations. They wanted to meet locals and learn about their ways of life. And the best way to gain access to those behind-the-scenes experiences was through experienced travel professionals who work the destination day after day, year after year, and have the connections to set up the meetings.
As the age of authenticity has taken hold, tour operators are experiencing a renaissance as being the best equipped to provide authentic, immersive travel experiences.
‘Be My Guest’
It’s now 10 years since Trafalgar introduced its “Be My Guest” feature, which provides in-home dinners with local hosts.
“It was a unique idea that Gavin [Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar] had, where we took guests into the homes of two sisters in Sorrento,” said da Silva. “It was only on a couple of our trips. They had a lovely Tuscan Italian meal and they drank limoncello made from lemons grown in the grove that the guests had walked through to get into the home.”
Trafalgar wasn’t sure how it would pan out at first. But it turned out to be a big hit.
“At end of season, in surveys, the clients could only say great things about the experiences they had with the Esposito sisters,” said da Silva. Most of the clients said it was the most memorable part of the trip.
“We knew we were onto something,” said da Silva. “That’s when we started to include them on more trips. Now we have a Be My Guest experience on all trips in Europe and most of our trips in the rest of the world. It gives you the opportunity to not just be in the destination, but to connect to the destination. What better way to understand the culture than to break bread with the locals?”
Overtourism and undertourism
As the issue of overtourism has risen, Trafalgar has joined the quest to try to find better ways to deal with the problems of too many people at some tourist sites while others are crying out for more.
“We’re really trying to address that,” said da Silva. “It came out in a lot of our research that people are concerned that the place where they were going was not going to be a pleasant experience because it would be overcrowded, or that it was not going to be authentic because it would be too touristy. So, we’re trying to address that in different ways.”
Trafalgar is designing and scheduling itineraries to spread people out both geographically and on the calendar.
“When we’re building itineraries in the places where people are always going to want to go, we want to make sure we’re going year-round so we’re not only bringing visitors into those places in the peak seasons,” said da Silva. “We need to make sure the places that we visit are positively impacted by what we do.”
It’s a balancing act because tourism is generally a positive influence economically, but it can be too concentrated.
“We know the tourism dollar is a powerful and important driver of economies, but it needs to be used in the right way,” said da Silva. “So, we need to make sure that we’re giving back to the locals in those communities, using local restaurants, guides and hotels, so the dollars stay in those places.
“We’re also stretching those dollars out throughout the course of the year rather than dumping them all during a short period, which makes it more of a sustainable model. We need to make sure that we’re dispersing our guests, going beyond the icons and into the secondary and tertiary cities, making sure those places are also benefitting from those tourism dollars.”
The issue of overtourism is part of the overarching issue of sustainability. Once a fringe issue, sustainability has moved into the mainstream of travel.
“Sustainability is about making sure that the places we visit are going to be there for generations to come, to be explored and enjoyed by future generations,” said da Silva. “What that means is that we’re making sure that the money we spend at the destination goes back into the local economy.
“And it’s also about respecting heritage and culture and way of life, not going in and saying, ‘The way I am in my home is the way want to be when I travel.’ But rather, to try to understand what it’s really like to be in that destination, enjoying local foods that are cooked by local people, doing activities that are enjoyed by the locals, being taken around by someone who grew up in that city, so they understand what it’s like.”
The deep connections that people are seeking when they travel today require insider access.
“That connectivity and those shared experiences are what make guided vacations so special,” said da Silva. “We are able to connect with our guests, which is more difficult if you’re traveling on your own.”
New tours and destinations
Trafalgar continues to upgrade its product line, both adding new tours and new destinations and continually reinventing its perennial favorites. Among several new tours for 2020 is Trafalgar’s first trip to the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Armenia, an area still untouched by most mainstream tour operators.
“Anyone who has been to that part of the world can attest to how gorgeous it is,” said da Silva. “Georgia has the oldest known winery in the world. They are known for their wine. We’ve got some really beautiful experiences throughout that region.”
One of Trafalgar’s most unusual new offerings this year is in the domestic U.S. “It’s called ‘Southwest Native Trails,’” said da Silva. “It goes through Native American reservations in New Mexico with a local specialist. We are highlighting what life is like on the reservation.”
The itinerary includes visits to some of the longest-inhabited cliff dwellings in America. “We get to go up into the dwellings,” said da Silva, “up ladders and down stairs and to really understand what it’s like to live there on daily basis. It’s really fascinating. They are ancient cultures that are highly sophisticated, and you get to see a lot of what they were doing before we came in and settled in America.
Trafalgar is also introducing new tours this year to Colombia, Namibia and Tasmania.
The company also launched a new travel style this year: Active Travel. The new style has been introduced on two trips: The new tour of Tasmania, and one called “Utah’s Mighty Five” that explores national parks of the American West.
“It was one of those trips that we saw a need for,” said da Silva. “As we continue to evolve our product, we are attracting new and different guests who want to have different activities and experiences. They don’t necessarily want to enjoy it from a distance, they want to be in the park, and the only way to do that is by doing some amazing hikes. So, we launched that and it’s doing fantastically well.”
The renaissance of authentic travel has put a challenge in the hands of product designers, and it has also set their imaginations free.
“A lot of the evolution of these products and trips is driven by the people who are developing these trips,” said da Silva. “It’s their enthusiasm, excitement and love of their own countries where they live. It’s been really exciting to see them let loose to go off and create these trips that they themselves would want to do. And it’s really translating into things that our guests are going to be so excited to experience.”