Brendan branching out with small-group offerings for 2013

By Michelle Baran

Brendan Vacations, which built its brand around traditional tours and packages to Ireland, is taking a dramatic new direction for 2013, introducing small-group tours to exotic destinations such as Vietnam, South Africa, India, Guatemala and Colombia.

The shift in direction began two years ago when Brendan introduced its Boutique Journeys product in its core market, Ireland.

"We wanted to showcase Ireland in a more intimate fashion and include more immersive and unique activities," said Brendan President Nico Zenner.

The Boutique Journeys are guaranteed departures — with no minimum number of passengers and a maximum of 24 — that incorporate higher-end hotels, castles or manor homes in Ireland, such as the 38-room Ballynahinch Castle in Galway.

Zenner said this smaller-group product with more boutique-style properties and unique activities is where he sees growth in the tour industry. And with positive response from agents, Brendan has significantly expanded the Boutique Journeys product for 2013 to include destinations in Asia, Africa and South America that are entirely new to Brendan.

The new Boutique Journeys destinations for next year are Iceland, Italy, France, Greece, Germany, Vietnam, South Africa, India, Thailand, Laos, China, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and Mexico's Baja California.

There will be a limited number of departures per itinerary: between four and eight. As with a traditional escorted tour, a guide will accompany the guests throughout the entire vacation.

To reduce the need for packing and unpacking, the itineraries will include a stay at either one hotel for the duration of the trip, or, if that is not possible, no more than three properties. Daily activities or sightseeing tours will depart from the hotel.

"For the well-established markets, our themes will add activities and creativity not found on a larger tour," Zenner said. "For the up-and-coming destinations, the small-scale approach fits well with the needs and expectations of our clientele."

Premium for creativity

To differentiate the new itineraries from existing tour product, Zenner is hoping to inject them with boutique properties, unique themes and activities. So, for example, in a mature destination like France, Brendan's Boutique Journeys will offer two itineraries, in Loire and Provence, and the company is working with the sustainable food movement Slow Food to offer cooking classes, vineyard visits and local market jaunts.

In Colombia the tour includes a visit to the country's coffee region, and in Baja California there is a focus on whale-watching.

While Brendan has not finalized pricing for 2013, it will release the Boutique Journeys brochure in September. Zenner said that for this more intimate and distinctive product, Brendan will charge more than it charges for its traditional escorted tour product.

Pricing will vary widely from country to country, he said. But as an indicator of the price difference between the new and traditional products, the 11-day Castles and Manors itinerary, one of the Boutique Journeys tours in Ireland, was priced at $3,285 per person for 2012, while Brendan's standard 12-day All of Ireland tour was priced at $2,235 per person for 2012.

'Travel on your own but not alone'

Another trend Zenner has identified is a growing interest in independent travel. Consequently, the company is beefing up its Independent Vacations portfolio in Europe, offering nearly 40 itineraries in 2013, compared with 24 in 2012.

The Independent Vacations include a choice of three-, four- or five-star properties, private airport transfers, daily breakfast, rail transfers between cities, a sightseeing tour in each city and the services of a host who is available around-the-clock.

"We call it 'travel on your own but not alone,'" Zenner said.

Travelers can choose to depart any day of the year, and departures are guaranteed.

For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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