For travelers, there are plenty of reasons to go with a guided group: The group leader does all the groundwork, makes all the plans, books all the arrangements. In a group, travelers meet new people and make new friends, sometimes for life.
Sometimes, however, people need a break. With groups seeing more active boomers, millennials and multigenerational travel, there’s a rising demand for group leaders to build free time into their itineraries. And that means CVBs are working to help group leaders help their customers make the most of their free time.
Here are six examples of cities around the country that are helping tour groups make the most of free time.
Thomasville is a small town in southwest Georgia that’s known for its historic architecture: large Victorian houses and plantation-style antebellum homes. The city is a popular getaway destination for groups that want to experience history — and maybe, buy some while antique shopping.
“When I’ve worked with large groups, at some point everybody needs a break, and they want to explore and discover by themselves,” said Bonnie Hayes, tourism manager for Thomasville Visitor Center.
Thomasville has offered Downtown Dollars for at least 15 years. Group leaders can buy Downtown Dollars from the visitor center and give them to their travelers to use — like dollar-for-dollar cash — at 125 downtown restaurants and stores.
The program addresses several needs for groups. First, a town of 19,000 people doesn’t have many places that can feed a group of 50. Second, it ensures people are fed without having to move them around.
“They can give them these Downtown Dollars, and people can go and find a restaurant, whichever restaurant they want, whenever they want, and their meal is covered,” Hayes said.
Downtown Dollars also work at Thomasville’s boutiques and antique shops, so someone can skip lunch and shop instead.
Thomasville also offers a self-guided historic walking or driving tour that features about 85 historic properties, and people can pick up a tour booklet or download the Thomasville mobile app to follow it.
On the app or website, the “Plan Your Visit” tool allows visitors to select their interests to build and map out an itinerary for a free morning or afternoon.
“It provides the opportunity for a group to break away and experience something different, and then the best part is when they get back together later that day or night and talk about what they discovered,” Hayes said.
“It used to be that no one had free time — everything was so scheduled,” said Renee Eichelberger, director of leisure travel sales for Explore St. Louis. “Nowadays, people have so many varying tastes, the operators have adjusted.”
To help group travel leaders with free-time ideas, Explore St. Louis provides sample itineraries and a group tour planner, “but a lot of it is that conversation we have with them at trade shows,” she said.
St. Louis is home to several neighborhoods and entertainment hubs that naturally lend themselves to visitor exploration. Forest Park is a 1,300-acre park where travelers find many of the city’s cultural attractions, including the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Science Center, all with free admission. There’s also a boathouse where people can rent pedal boats, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Motorcoaches can also drop off at multiple locations in the park, so even if it’s not 100% free time, “it gives them an opportunity to have more flexibility,” Eichelberger said.
In downtown, the MX district is chock-full of restaurants and home to the National Blues Museum, and the compact area works well for people with mobility issues. Delmar Loop is a funky neighborhood where visitors can shop at record stores and local boutiques and eat at local restaurants like Blueberry Hill and Fitz’s Root Beer. In the Central West End, visitors will find sidewalk cafes, antique stores, the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
In December, the new St. Louis Aquarium will open at Union Station, which is also adding three restaurants and a 200-foot observation wheel. There, groups can stay at the renovated 576-room St. Louis Union Station Hotel and watch a laser light show beamed onto the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the depot’s Grand Hall.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
The Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau is seeing increased demand for free time in group travel, “especially with the active boomers and the millenials,” said tourism sales manager Jim Coggin. “The traditional seniors, they still want to have their hand held, but we’re finding there is a trend for free time, and we often put that in our itineraries, as there’s no better destination than Virginia Beach to have free time.”
That’s because nothing lends itself to whiling away the hours quite like sitting by the beach, watching the waves and smelling the salt air.
Virginia Beach’s 3.5-mile-long boardwalk features a separate bike path for strolling, rollerblading and biking. There, visitors will find nightly entertainment during the summer months on four oceanfront stages, as well as outdoor restaurants and vendors offering bike and surrey rentals, and an array of nautical sculptures, including the 24-foot-tall King Neptune bronze statue.
Before groups arrive, the CVB gives group leaders a list of free-time ideas to pass along to their customers. That allows visitors to start planning how they want to spend their free time ahead of time.
“We definitely encourage our tour operators to make sure they allow for free time, and we normally will give the tour operators some suggestions,” Coggin said.
The CVB will sometimes break suggestions down by category. Adventure-seekers may want to try Top Golf, iFLY or axe-throwing; those who want rest and relaxation may be interested in spas and shopping. The CVB also takes into consideration where the group is staying and recommends activities that are easy to get to from their hotel by taking an Uber or taxi or even walking. The city’s hop-on/hop-off trolley system also runs May through September.
Though most group itineraries are still booked up, Saundra Robertson, tourism sales manager for Louisville Tourism, is seeing an increase in group travel leaders building in free time.
If a group is staying downtown, Robertson points them to Fourth Street Live, a blocklong entertainment complex with restaurants, nightlife and attractions, including the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, where visitors can do tastings or take mixology courses. Just south of Fourth Street Live, travelers can spend their free time shopping at local boutiques in the SoFo district.
On Main Street in downtown, Museum Row and Whiskey Row include the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Kentucky Science Center, the Muhammed Ali Center, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the KMAC Museum and the Frazier History Center, as well as the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. Travelers can buy the Main Ticket, which includes admission to any six of those attractions.
LouLift is the city’s free hop-on/hop-off shuttle bus that runs through downtown and can take people out to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby; the NuLu district, short for New Louisville; or Butchertown to check out restaurants on East Market Street, the Copper and Kings brandy distillery and Butchertown Grocery. People can also explore on a bike from the LouVelo bike-share program.
Robertson gives group travel leaders maps of downtown and tells them about the visitor center’s free guided downtown walking tours that showcase area history and architecture, arts and culture, Whiskey Row and the Civic District.
Louisville Tourism can also provide the brochure for the Muhammad Ali Footsteps of Greatness self-guided tour, which takes people through Ali’s life and legacy, including his childhood home, his high school, the Ali Center and his gravesite.
Anyone who collects six passport stamps from 44 locations on the Urban Bourbon Trail can claim a free T-shirt at the visitor center.
Free time is “a must-have with certain demographics,” said Brian Hutchings, group tour and convention sales manager for Visit Milwaukee. However, most of the time, “you’re still seeing a fairly tight itinerary.” When he’s talking with group leaders at trade shows, Hutchings always proposes incorporating free time, but many are still hesitant, mostly because they’re afraid of losing their people.
Milwaukee’s free downtown light-rail streetcar, The Hop, started running last year, connecting riders to most of the downtown area and adjacent neighborhoods, like the Historic Third Ward and East Side.
Within a two-block area in Walker’s Point, visitors can experience the Clock Shadow Creamery, an urban cheese factory; visit Purple Door Ice Cream, which uses the creamery’s milk; and take a class and a bite at Indulgence Chocolatiers before checking out the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum.
The group sales team often recommends visiting Bradford Beach, driving by beer-baron mansions along Lake Drive, walking along Old World Third Street and checking out the RiverWalk, which connects three distinct riverfront neighborhoods: downtown, the Historic Third Ward and Beerline B.
Sculpture Milwaukee brings world-class art to residents and visitors alike with sculptures along Wisconsin Avenue. There, people can take guided tours of 22 artworks by 20 artists or follow self-guided tours using a mobile app or a printed map.
On visitmilwaukee.com, the MyTrip feature allows travelers to build their own itinerary, shopping-cart style, and map it out to maximize their free time.
Visit Milwaukee has long offered meeting planners a discount booklet to give attendees to use at restaurants and attractions during their free time. This year, for the first time, Visit Milwaukee is also giving that booklet to tour operators for their groups.
Philadelphia’s group travel market gets a lot of students and seniors, and “that kind of crowd tends to keep most of their itineraries pretty tight,” said Jim DePhilippo, tourism sales manager for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
However, the city does attract quite a few day-trip groups, and based on the need to keep costs down, “there is definitely a feeling to give them free time to do whatever they want and providing them information about what they can do,” he said.
When the CVB gets a specific request, DePhilippo tries to zero in on the group’s needs and interests to provide relevant options for their free time. He steers them to the CVB’s online itineraries or the official visitors guide for ideas, including walking tours.
“We have so many [attractions] here [that] it’s not so much having something to do, it’s deciding what direction to go and what to do,” he said.
History buffs may want to explore the Old City/Society Hill area. Foodies can’t go wrong with a visit to the Historic South Ninth Street Italian Market for Italian-influenced fare. People love to explore Rittenhouse Square, both the historic public park and the surrounding neighborhood. And Benjamin Franklin Parkway, dubbed “Museum Mile,” is home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation.
Historic Philadelphia runs Independence After Hours, which takes guests to the historic City Tavern for an 18th-century-inspired dinner and a visit by Thomas Jefferson, after which the group “sneaks” into Independence Hall.
Philadelphia offers tax-free shopping on clothing and shoes. Dating to 1893 and housed in a National Historic Landmark building, the Reading Terminal Market delivers both shopping and an experience. After undergoing a $400 million redevelopment, the Fashion District opens in September with 840,000 square feet of retail space housing national and local stores and restaurants.