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Flexible group tours: You’re on your own

Courtesy Gray Line of Alaska

It’s the million-dollar question in the group tourism industry right now: How do we get baby boomers and other young travelers to join our tours? There may not be a single magic-bullet answer, but tour companies are increasingly finding that a key component to attracting new, younger customers is flexibility.

The traditional group tour is largely a mid-20th century concept: Dozens of travelers load up together on a motorcoach, then head out on an itinerary that includes prescheduled meals, sightseeing and hotel stays. These highly structured tours have long been praised for their organization, convenience and value; many boomers, though, perceive them as restrictive and off-putting.

The solution may be a new brand of tours that combines the convenience and value of packaged travel with the flexibility of independent vacations. Although they are not yet the norm in the group travel industry, these flexible itineraries are growing in popularity and could offer some real opportunities for tour operators and group leaders alike.

Case study: A day of choices

Cathy Greteman, owner of Star Destinations and current NTA chair, began experimenting with flexibility in her itineraries a couple of years ago as a way to address economic challenges.

“Star Destinations always presented programs that were very inclusive,” she said. “It frustrates me when I travel and come across unexpected expenses. Our solution was to have a more inclusive price, but it made the trip look more expensive. The economy has changed a lot of things, and it led to us starting to look at things a little bit differently.”

Although the company still sells many fully inclusive tours, it began offering another tier of products that cuts out some inclusions and offers participants more free time in return. Sometimes, this means an evening with no group dinner, giving individuals or couples an opportunity to discover a city’s restaurant scene on their own.

In other instances, guides will give a group an afternoon at their leisure, recommending shopping spots or museums in the area in addition to a number of free activities.

The free time proved popular enough that Greteman decided to add some flexibility in included activities on the tour as well.

“There are some people who can’t stand going through one more older home or some groups that aren’t museum people,” she said. “So we’ll give them a choice of what they might want to do for a day. In the cost of the tour in Italy, for example, they can choose from one of three things: a day at the spa, a cooking school or a shopping trip.

“When they get home from the cooking school, those people get together and tell everyone at dinner about it, and the shopping people have to do a show-and-tell. They’re all doing something that they really want to do that day.”

Greteman said that usually, given three choices, the group will break down evenly into three different sections. A little bit of logistical prowess keeps the process running smoothly: The company presets spa appointments and arranges transportation schedules so that the motorcoach is available to take each group of participants to their chosen activities.

The choose-your-own-adventure idea has caught on enough that this year Star Destinations is publicizing its flexible itineraries under a new product category, called New Travel Solutions. These tours are attracting travelers in their 50s and 60s, which Greteman describes as “young.”

“The new tours have been really well received by group leaders that we’ve worked with for a very long time, and it’s given us an opportunity to meet with new group leaders,” she said. “The younger the group, the more flexibility they’re looking for. Those folks have usually traveled quite a bit on their own. They love the camaraderie of the group, but the flexibility lets them end their day at a little bar having drinks while others are at a museum.”

Thirty percent free time

Like many other tour operators, International Expeditions has numerous traditional tours and cruises in Peru and the Galapagos that include such must-see destinations as Cuzco and Machu Picchu. When customers began to ask for opportunities to see more of the area, the company created the Peruvian Amazon Adventure, a six-day tour that includes 30 percent free time.

“We have our published itineraries, and we’ve seen a trend over the years where the custom independent trips were in more and more demand,” said Kim Guth, the company’s Peru custom travel planner. “We started hearing about people having additional interests and additional time, so we’ve been doing a lot of pre- and post-tour components that are independent, and that’s where this came from.”

The diverse range of activities available in the Amazon made it easy for the company to put together a travel plan full of options for its customers. Travelers fly from Lima to Iquitos and then take a boat ride down the Amazon to a jungle lodge. Some activities, such as a walk through the rain forest canopy, are prescheduled, due to their high popularity and required logistical arrangements. But on at least two afternoons, guests choose their own itinerary items from a wealth of offerings.

“There are some opportunities to do the rain forest trails in the villages,” Guth said. “There’s a private reserve called Monkey Island, where they rehabilitate many species. We have a botanical garden visit, a talk by a shaman about medicinal plants and a boating excursion going out at night to see the birds and wildlife. You basically make it what you want.”

To make operations as easy as possible, International Expeditions has arranged for all of the activities to be available from any of the accommodations that they use in the area. And perhaps the best news for travelers is that all of the optional activities are already included in the price of the tour.

The Amazon package has proven popular enough that the company has expanded its flexible offerings into other itineraries as well.

“We’re trying to implement this across the broadest range of tours possible,” said media relations director Emily Harley. “Our Costa Rica itinerary has two free afternoons built in when we offer a canopy zipline, horseback riding and rafting, or people can feel free to go to the pool or the hot springs.

“We do the same things in Laos and Vietnam. There are things in the larger cities that people want to do beyond what the group is doing, so we build in flexibility and free time.”

Built for modification
Every year, many thousands of people flock to Alaska during the summer months on a variety of travel packages, including cruises, bus tours and train expeditions. Although many of these itineraries are necessarily rigid, Gray Line of Alaska offers group travel experiences that are built for modification.

“I’ve been involved in the Alaska market for 30 years, and it used to be that you had an exact package, and you didn’t modify it,” said Mark Mumm, the company’s director of sales and marketing. “But over the years, that’s certainly changed with the Internet. It’s opened up the information flow, and people are more willing to do the research and figure out what they want to do”

Gray Line of Alaska, which is owned by Holland America Line, still offers a number of fully escorted trips with tour directors and preset meals and activities. But Mumm said that today, about 70 percent of its customers make modifications to the standard tour offerings, ranging from adding pre- or post-tour packages to building a custom vacation from scratch.

“Any of our tours can be customized,” he said. “If you want to add extra nights somewhere or stay two nights in the Arctic, that’s doable. When you get to Denali, if you want to add an extra night at a backcountry lodge, you can do that. Our reservation system allows us to break a tour that’s preset and add nights, delete nights, add services and everything in between.”

In the area around Mount McKinley and Denali National Park, visitors have a host of activity choices, which they can arrange in advance or with a Gray Line representative on site. The range of options includes dog sled tours, dinner shows, all-terrain vehicle excursions, flight-seeing tours, rafting adventures and a number of guided experiences offered by the National Park Service free of charge.

Most of the preset packages include some of these activities at a fixed cost. If a group chooses to customize its own itinerary instead, the individual components are offered at the same prices used to set tour costs, so customization doesn’t add to the expense of a flexible tour.

“We work with a lot of groups, and some groups will buy a set package from us,” Mumm said. “Others want to buy a set package and customize it for their group, so they can offer something unique. If you want to have two days in Denali when nothing is booked and give your group a choice of options, that’s very doable.”

“Naturally independent”

One of the biggest companies in packaged travel, Globus has been operating traditional escorted tours around the world for more than 85 years. Five years ago, company executives launched Monograms, an independent travel service to meet the needs of a new generation of travelers.

“We know that the landscape of the traveling public is changing,” said Jen Halboth, director of marketing for Globus Family of Brands. “People are traveling earlier in their lives and more often. They’re traveling more internationally. You’ve got 20- and 30-year-olds going on international trips for work, so they’re naturally independent.”

Monograms packages typically take individuals or groups to two or three cities in a single itinerary. Once travelers arrive in a city, they are met at their hotel by a local host, who guides them on a half-day sightseeing tour and then is available for the duration of their stay to give advice on restaurants, attractions and other travel questions. Several days later, a Monograms representative transfers them from the hotel to a train station or airport, where they proceed to the next destination and start the process over again.

“They have all this leisure time,” Halboth said. “They can spend their time in museums, in cafes or getting out of the city and into the countryside. It’s for people that like the logistical elements being taken care of but who aren’t looking for a tour.”

The trips are most popular in Europe, packaging cities like Paris and London or Rome, Florence and Venice. The company also offers several Monograms itineraries in North America. Because the package includes only breakfast every day, along with fewer scheduled activities, the trips are substantially less expensive, giving travelers the flexibility to choose restaurants and attractions that fit their budgets.

Halboth said that Monograms is one of the fastest-growing brands in the Globus family, attracting a younger clientele. Although many younger people are accustomed to shopping for travel online, building their own itineraries piece by piece on sites like Travelocity and Expedia, Monograms offers a similar flexibility without the work of managing all of the travel details.

“I think it’s tapping into people who aren’t currently in the market for packaged travel,” she said. “The average age of the Monograms traveler is in the upper 40s, and that’s coming down every year. Group leaders and agents alike can really use this brand to prospect for a new type of traveler.

“What is totally true about people in their 30s and 40s is the time. They don’t have a lot of time, and Monograms is an ideal solution for that.”

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 Flexible group tours: You’re on your own
Gender-based tours: It’s understood
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Group exclusives: Preferred customers
Researching travel: Do your homework

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.