Once synonymous with passive 'herded' groups, there’s now a touring product to fit a wider range of clients, and a growing demand to tap into as the touring market continues to break down into tighter segments with size, transport and demographics still fragmenting.

Flexible and experiential

“The concept of touring has evolved over recent years, from the traditional escorted coach tour carrying 50-plus passengers to a more flexible and dynamic product range,” explains Travel 2’s Senior Product and Commercial Manager for Touring, Europe and Cruise, Mark Henderson.

Anything from rail to trekking and many special interests are now covered, he points out, adding, “a key change is the degree of flexibility now available within tours. This includes more time for customers to add on experiences tailored to their interests.”

This is part of a wider shift towards small-group touring, believes Explore Worldwide’s Global Head of Sales, Ben Ittensohn, with even traditional coach operators having to fragment and personalise their product to meet demand. “People are now seeing how much closer you can get to destinations, culture and local life in a small group,” he says.

The shift appears to be influenced by the wider trend for authenticity. “Experiential tours, whether food-, walking-, cultural- or multi-sport-based are consistently growing as travellers are interested in experiencing the real day-to-day atmosphere and ambience of a destination,” says Henderson.

In response to demand for more varied tours Ramblers Walking Holidays has added mindfulness and wellbeing, bird watching, and skills like navigation.

“Clients are also looking for memorable, low-impact, environmentally aware experiences," says Sales and Reservations Manager, Paco Gonzalez. “They expect to come back from the break with the feeling they’ve gained a sense of accomplishment.”

Increasingly, socially conscious travellers seek out community projects, says Travel 2. And Explore notes that responsible travel is now ‘more relevant’ to consumers than it was even five years ago. Though social awareness is a factor, the experiential travel boom is also fuelled by bragging rights, admits Ittensohn.

“This year we launched a trip to Lebanon and sales have just gone through the roof. It’s social currency to say you’ve just done eight days in Lebanon or five in Chernobyl,” he explains.

Touring operators’ high repeat booking rates also drive innovation. “Some 21% of our travellers last year had done 10 or more trips with us so you can see we have a real need to keep developing programmes,” says Ittensohn.

Widening horizons

Northern Peru is among the off-the-beaten track destinations tipped for growth by Journey Latin America.

South Africa, Japan, Jordan and Lebanon are, meanwhile, selling strongly for Explore. It anticipates further Middle East growth and hopes for a return to form for Sri Lanka too. Good-value Turkey is also doing well and operators predict other short-haul demand will bounce back as ‘Brexit wariness’ eases.

As ever, film and TV coverage has an effect. Demand for Explore’s Chernobyl tour quadrupled after the HBO/Sky mini-series about the nuclear disaster. Judi Dench's recent programme about Borneo and its lovable orangutans has driven significant sales to the Malaysian island, according to Mercury Holidays and Shearings Holidays.

Self-drives are increasingly popular with those who enjoy travelling independently while tapping into an operators’ expert know-how, and infrastructure improvements help boost this market.

“Over the decades, improvements to Latin America’s growing network of paved roads have really opened up the region to this style of holiday,” says Journey Latin America Business Development Manager, Laura Rendell-Dunn. “In Ecuador, for example, recent improvements to Route 45 mean that places once almost inaccessible to visitors are now brought within easy reach of popular Quito and the country’s principal highland cities.”

Time poor but tech savvy

Today’s travellers want to maximise their experiences of a destination by being on tighter schedules.

“Nowadays, clients usually travel for two or three weeks at a time where 40 years ago we offered a six-week escorted group tour that covered Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru and was hugely popular,” points out Rendell-Dunn.

Clients are also better informed. Ramblers says even its predominantly 50+ customers do thorough internet research before booking. A recent survey of 2,000 millennial travellers by TrekAmerica meanwhile found Instagram was a travel driver for 25% of this age group – something agents could use to their own advantage when targeting sales.

Flying solo… or as a family

Solo travel is a key recent touring trend. Explore’s Ittensohn says that although the reasons are unclear, female client numbers have also risen, perhaps because women like the security of travelling with others. He adds that with more short tours available, those with partners with different travel interests feel comfortable taking a few days away on their own.

Agents can court this market by understanding single supplement options. Some small group operators waive this for travellers who will share rooms. Some have no single supplements on certain departure dates.

Family touring is also on the rise. Travel 2 is expanding product to meet what it sees as the key 2019/2020 trend.

“Families are now looking to travel on more experiential-based holidays and we have some great partners that we work with to deliver this,” says Henderson. Explore also notes the boom, with Thailand and Turkey proving popular.

“We’ve seen double-digit growth this year. People want to get their children away from their screen and out doing fun activities like kayaking,” says Ittensohn.

Agents can entice families by stressing how group touring takes the strain off parents, he advises.

The age demographic is also shifting. “The average age of a tour customer is mid-fifties but this is something that’s certainly changing. I was recently on a Vietnam tour and I happened to be the oldest person at 40,” says Henderson. “The youngest customer was 19 but the group was harmonious as we all had similar interests.” He predicts average ages will continue to drop thanks to today’s more immersive tour opportunities.

Agent tips

Agents often need to be proactive to sell tours. Explore encourages retailers to use the demand for new experiences to their advantage, tempting clients with unusual destinations and activities they can access most easily with organised tours. Agents should also join touring associations to network with specialists, Explore’s Ittensohn advises.

And Travel 2’s Henderson suggests agents ask clients their interests and hobbies and then match them to tours designed with the same niche in mind. Titan’s Head of Trade Sales Edwina Coppock points out that touring is a quick and easy way for agents to sell a multi-centre holiday without days of research.

She adds: “Don’t just wait for a customer to ask for an escorted tour. They may initially only know that they want to visit a certain country.”