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Group Travel Is Changing Like Never Before

“I’ve been with the company for 25 years now, but I’ve never seen it change so much as it has in the past two years.”

When Tony Etienne, vice president of affinity market sales for Collette, made this statement to the delegates at the Select Traveler Conference in February, it got my attention. The 97-year-old company is a stalwart in the group tour business, taking many thousands of travelers to destinations on all seven continents annually. It is an industry leader in almost every respect. So the news that Collette is making big changes should be significant to anyone involved in tourism.

A couple of weeks after the conference, I called Tony to find out more about the changes that have taken place at Collette. In a wide-ranging, half-hour conversation, he let me in on a number of strategic changes the company has made and shared his perspective on the challenges and opportunities awaiting tour operators and group leaders alike.

Some of Collette’s changes have taken place under the hood, so to speak — implementing new database technology, new marketing techniques, etc. — and others, like an online system that allows for electronic registration, accounting and rooming lists, help to streamline the planning process for group leaders.

But the more exciting evolutions are coming in ways that have big impact on customer experiences. Collette has focused on food as a major component of tours and is rolling out programs that will give its travelers a much wider range of culinary options on trips to popular destination.

“We’re getting away from the old model of having a set menu for 44 people,” Tony told me. “Customers are looking for a unique dining experience, so we’re going to give them a choice of restaurants. In a place like New York City, locking people into one choice undermines what the destination is all about. So we’re going to give them choices of eight or nine restaurants, all within walking distance of the hotel. They have an opportunity to see the menu before they choose the restaurant.”

These expanded mealtime options are part of a raft of changes, such as shorter itineraries, more free time and a focus on exploring individual cities, aimed at attracting younger travelers. None of these new changes come easily; they’ve required years of work by the company’s team of product specialists. But Tony believes they’re the key to success in the new age of tourism.

“Some of our older customers might be accustomed to things being a certain way, but those aren’t the customers that are going to bring us into our 100th year,” he told me. “The companies that don’t change and think they can keep operating as they did five to 10 years ago are really going to struggle.

“We all have to bring in new customers, and there’s a cost to doing that. The itineraries, the marketing — that’s all the cost of bringing in the new customers. Some groups are willing to do that, and some aren’t.”

Tony and I agreed: Tour operators and group leaders that don’t embrace change aren’t likely to thrive much longer. But for those who are willing to go beyond their comfort zones, try new things and ride the wave of progress, the future looks bright indeed.

The new age of tourism is coming, maybe faster than you realize. What are you going to do about it?

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.