Preview 2013: Tours

By Michelle Baran
In 2012, tour operators saw business to Europe hurt by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and rioting in Greece, while destinations in the Middle East continued to falter amid ongoing unrest there.

But that didn't stop tour operators and packagers from diversifying and expanding product in the U.S., Europe and beyond to meet the demands of an ever-changing marketplace heading into 2013.

For 2013, tour operators took advantage of a favorable dollar-to-euro exchange rate and stronger negotiations with suppliers to cut their 2013 Europe prices by between 2% and 18%, compared with 2012 prices.

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel IrelandThe euro hovered at around $1.40 during much of 2011 and has been steadily below $1.35 through all of 2012, due in large part to the European Union's sovereign debt crisis. Those savings are being passed on to customers, resulting in prices that operators are hoping will help reignite transatlantic travel after a challenging year.

Operators were also in excellent bargaining positions in distressed destinations such as Greece, where political unrest and rioting against austerity measures have resulted in fewer bookings.

Strong promotions in the U.K. are intended to fuel a post-Olympics rebound in lieu of customary post-Olympics slumps.

Additionally, operators that sell Ireland are hoping to get a marketing and sales boost from the Gathering, a yearlong event aimed at inviting the Irish diaspora from around the world back home for festivities celebrating Irish heritage.

Tourism Ireland is predicting that the country will welcome an additional 350,000 visitors in 2013, of which 100,000 are expected to be Americans. Consequently, it anticipates that the Gathering will generate an additional $500 million in revenue for the country, a much-needed boost to Ireland's tourism industry, which experienced a slowdown between 2008 and 2010.

And tour operators are jumping on the opportunity with products marketing the Gathering and built around Gathering events.

All told, tour operators are hoping for stronger bookings to Europe in 2013.

Southeast Asia and South America

Elsewhere in the world, it is less about fueling demand than meeting it. Two global hot spots heading into 2013 are Southeast Asia and South America, where tour operators are seeing robust bookings and bolstering product accordingly.

According to a survey of members of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), the top emerging destination for 2013 is Myanmar (aka Burma), the Southeast Asian nation that is emerging from seclusion after years of military rule.

Indeed, tour operators are seeing inquiries for Myanmar explode. Abercrombie & Kent, for example, saw bookings increase more than 80% in 2012 compared with 2011. And the interest is only expected to increase with growing global attention paid to Myanmar. For the immediate future, the challenge will be capacity: Few new hotels are expected to come online in 2013, making room availability a challenge.

Other off-the-beaten-path destinations USTOA members see gaining in popularity in 2013 are Vietnam, India, Peru, Cambodia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Smaller and more local

Tour group sizes will continue to shrink into 2013, with more operators introducing small-group product.

Brendan Vacations is the latest to join the small-group club, having significantly expanded Boutique Journeys, its small-group tours product, to include destinations such as Vietnam, South Africa, India, Guatemala and Colombia for 2013.

The Boutique Journeys are guaranteed departures with no more than 24 guests per departure and no minimum number of passengers. They include unique higher-end hotels, castles or manor homes in Ireland, such as the 38-room Ballynahinch Castle in Galway.

Additionally, tour companies are putting a greater emphasis on local immersion.

Canadian tour operator G Adventures introduced a brand for 2013 called Local Living, a portfolio of 23 tours during which travelers will stay in a farmhouse or with a family so they can live, cook and explore locally. The new Local Living tours for 2013 will take place in Europe; Marrakech, Morocco; Cape Town, South Africa; Mongolia; and Ecuador, among other destinations.

Preview 2013Globus is embracing the trend, too, having added local experiences to all its Europe tours for 2013.

Some examples of this feature, called Local Favorites, include staying in a French chateau on the Normandy, Brittany & Chateau Country itinerary; a farewell dinner at a Sicilian farmhouse on the Highlights of Sicily and Southern Italy tour; and hitting golf balls at the St. Andrews Golf Centre during the Bonnie Scotland tour.

Similarly, Trafalgar has already infused many of its itineraries with Insider Highlights, more up-close-and-personal experiences for travelers, such as the opportunity to dine with families or to be accompanied by an expert in a relevant field of study.

Luxury within reach

For the first time in its 50-year history, luxury operator Abercrombie & Kent introduced a lower-priced product line for 2013 called Connections by A&K, signaling an emerging space in the tour market for the aspirational luxury traveler.

The Connections tours, a collection of 17 programs in 22 countries, are priced 30% less than a typical A&K small-group journey. They are being targeted at travelers who don't necessarily need to stay in the world's most exclusive hotels but still clamor for a high-quality and engaging travel experience.

A&K has already reported a robust response to the Connections launch, which came on the heels of another upscale operator introducing a similar lower-priced product earlier in 2012.

Butterfield & Robinson, which specialized in high-end biking and walking tours, now offers a small collection of Bistro trips, a lower-priced version of the company's standard offering.

Butterfield & Robinson has noted that the Bistro product is not just about the price point but about the ability to experiment with interesting and unique properties, as opposed to being restricted to five-star property locations.

"These are those who are looking for authenticity over elegance," Keith Baron, senior vice president for strategic growth and development for A&K, said of the Connections line.

Kristi Jones, who recently retired as president and COO of Virtuoso, said in August that the launch of Connections speaks to two major trends in luxury travel heading into 2013.

"The first is the expanding definition of luxury, which is now about authentic experiences as much as elegance and thread-count," she said. "The second trend realized in this launch is a generation of younger, global travelers. A&K is looking to attract this new client, one who may not have been their previous target audience."

U.S. still going strong

Operators have continued to beef up their domestic programs for 2013, as demand for the U.S. seems to be a perpetual bright spot. The country's renewed thirst for domestic travel over the last few years gave Amtrak Vacations the confidence to significantly increase its capacity and product offerings for 2013.

For 2013, Amtrak Vacations has more than doubled the number of departure dates for its escorted rail journeys and is offering triple the amount of product for its independent packages. The company has added about 20% more product to its rail getaways, which are individual city trips, and has introduced a new partnership with Celebrity Cruises for two rail-and-sail itineraries.

Meanwhile, Trafalgar's 2013 U.S. and Canada program has 10 more itineraries than 2012, with just over 20% more departures in 2013.

According to global CEO of Trafalgar, Gavin Tollman, the popularity of traveling in the U.S. is in part due to the value proposition as well as to growing interest in America's historical cities and its wealth of national parks.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 
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