Management & Operations

Beyond Sightseeing: Today's Tours Offer Unique Experiences

Posted on March 1, 2005 by Janna Starcic, Senior Editor

Tour operators are heading off the beaten path to attract clients hungering for a different type of experience.

“There is a heightened demand by travelers for experiential travel that involves authenticity,” says Hank Phillips, president of CrossSphere, the global packaged-travel association (formerly the National Tour Association). “More and more people want to do things as opposed to simply see things on tours.”

While tours have been mostly sought after by seniors, and to a lesser extent by students, tour operators are trying to appeal to those more or less in between, particularly the baby boomers, Phillips says. “That effort has led to some of the new and different types of tour products that are out there.”

While the fall foliage-type tour remains a steadfast favorite, more unique tours offering hands-on experiences are gaining ground. A surge in demand for an experience within a tour has led operators to develop unique, niche-type tours, Phillips says. Some of the catalysts for these unique tours are special interest groups, or popular trends (see sidebar on page 42).
Tour of the senses
Focusing on culinary and agricultural tours in Hawaii is a specialty of Fly Away Holidays. “What I like to do on our tours is fill the five senses,” says President Jim Reddekopp. Fly Away’s offerings include a one-day specialty tour on the island of Hawaii, which it operates four days a week in a joint venture with Norwegian Cruise Lines. During the tour, guests visit the Holua Loa Kona Coffee Farm. “When [guests] arrive in the morning, they can smell the coffee roasting,” Reddekopp says. Next is a guided tour of the fields and the coffee cultivation process. “Afterwards, we sit out on the field and drink the coffee.” Smelling the coffee, hearing the story of how it’s grown, walking in the fields and feeling the coffee beans make for an incredible experience, which guests consistently enjoy, he says.

Another stop on the tour is a visit to The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, where guests can sample milk and dark chocolate made on the premises. “The owners of the company take [guests] out into the fields to show them the cacao plant, how it is harvested and processed,” Reddekopp says. After a scenic drive up the coast to Waimea, the trip concludes with a tour and gourmet five-course meal at Reddekopp’s vanilla plantation, Hawaiian Vanilla Co. Vanilla is featured in almost everything that is served, which also includes freshly picked produce.

“When you are doing things that nobody else does — I’ve always felt that is what sells,” Reddekopp says of the tour, which is gaining popularity. Keeping the tour to 20- to 30-person groups is important to maintain its “specialness,” he says. Fly Away is also trying to maintain the originality of tours as they grow in popularity. Beginning in July, the tour will add an additional day.

Behind the scenes
Some unique tours are developed from client ideas. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at opera houses in Houston and New York are some of the custom-designed tours developed by Denver-based tour company Art of Travel. “We take one idea, like the Houston Grand Opera, and explore lots of different aspects around that whole theme,” says Susie Mammel, company president and owner. “Everything we do on the tour contributes to the theme of the group.”

For an opera group’s tour of the Houston Grand Opera, Mammel’s clients were privy to backstage details such as costume rooms, where they learned about costume upkeep and wigs. During a tour of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, the tour group took in a performance of La Boheme and an exclusive discussion given by two of the opera company’s up-and-coming stars. Throughout the tour, a singing guide gave a historical background of Broadway and sang selections from various shows.

Textile-based tours
Mammel’s tour of New York’s fashion district also grew out of a client request. The guided tour, given by a former fashion district worker, included a visit to the showroom of fashion designer Kay Unger. Unger met with the group and talked about her beginnings in the business and how garments are made. “Part of our whole thrust is to get people to interact, not to just go and sit and look out the window,” Mammel says. Sometimes Art of Travel tour groups are given reading materials beforehand so they can study up on tour subjects.

The fashion-based tour also included attending an auction, where fashion designers purchased old garments to study and develop ideas for their own collections. This attention to detail and presenting various aspects of a particular theme is what makes these specialty tours so unique.

After getting an idea for a tour, Mammel develops contacts and puts together the tour, which may take a couple of years. “I think people like traveling in smaller groups; they don’t feel herded. They feel like it’s a custom trip,” she says. Although each tour is one-of-a-kind, Mammel says she would like to resell some of the trips she designed.

While textile-based tours are already a niche unto themselves, some tour operators take the concept even further. One example is Country Heritage Tours in Amherst, N.H., which specializes in tours for quilting enthusiasts. Chere Brodsky, company president and owner, got into the business 19 years ago after having studied textiles and written books on the subject. “I really do what I know best,” Brodsky says.

The tours are primarily based around quilting shows held across the country. One particular tour involves a trip to Houston, where the largest quilt show in the world holds its annual event. This show, which has an estimated annual attendance of 40,000, features a juried quilt presentation, where more than 700 quilts from around the world are shown. Brodsky’s tours also blend historical and artistic aspects with the quilting and textile focus by visiting local museums and artisans.

Volunteering in Yellowstone
Offering guests a gratifying hands-on experience during a tour is the basis of a special volunteer program offered in various national park tours developed by Norwalk, Conn.-based Tauk World Discovery. Founded in 1925, Tauk began the concept of inviting tour guests to volunteer in various Yellowstone Park preservation activities in 2003.

The “voluntourism” concept, as it is called, grew out of the tour industry’s desire to “give back” by donating time to help clean up sites such as Ellis Island and Valley Forge National Historic Park.

In 2000, Tauk began sending its employees to volunteer at various national parks. “It was from these roots that we decided to open the experience up to guests to join us,” says Tom Armstrong, Tauk’s marketing and communications manager. “They found it rewarding, and we thought, ‘Why not incorporate this into some of the trips we do to the national parks?’”

From there, Tauk’s Yellowstone National Park Volunteer Program was born. Travelers on the tour spend a half-day doing preservation work within the park. “The program allows us to lighten the load of the park staff,” he says. The experience can include removing non-native plant species and doing basic maintenance work such as painting picnic tables.

Tauk conducted an online survey of 600 volunteers and 86% said the program enhanced their tour experience, while 94% said they would choose to volunteer again if given the opportunity. Tauk, which earned a public and community service award from the Travel Industry Association of America in 2004, is looking into ways to expand on the program.

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